At the Sloan sports conference, criticism of diversity and access is rising

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Keegan Abdook, an NFL Network statistical analyst, got his first two jobs in the same way: attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

For the first time in 2015, Abdoo began a conversation with Zebra Technologies employees while browsing vendor booths, which uses data collection chips set on shoulder pads. This earned him a job at the Tennessee Titans Stadium before he graduated from Vanderbilt.

The following year, at a post-conference cocktail party, Abdook met a Vanderbilt student who worked for the Cleveland Browns. This sent an email to the Browns scouting director, offering Abdoori his first job outside of college.

“I’m indebted to the conference,” Abdook said recently. But he also knows how lucky he was: the first ticket to Sloane was covered by a family friend, the second by his father.

“I had access,” he said, “and the others didn’t.”

In March, more than 3,000 people come to the Sloan conference to discuss cutting-edge sports science and other issues facing the industry. The so-called “Dorkapalooza” has long been known to attract mainly white and male crowds, and provides a memento of the inequalities that afflict the sports business each year.

But more and more, a chorus of critics say the conference not only reflects barriers to entry into the sports industry, but also helps to consolidate them. Tickets, which cost $ 425 for students this year and $ 850 for the rest, can be incredibly expensive, according to some attendees, and others say the panels often lack diversity and can reinforce stereotypes even more.

In an interview, conference creators Jessica Gelman and Daryl Morey said they intended to lower ticket prices after learning of participants ’concerns this year.

“Actually, from my point of view, this was the first year I really learned about pricing stuff,” said Gelman, CEO of Kraft Analytics Group.

Morey, president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, said: “You can always find someone who is crazy about how much they have to pay.” But he added: “Are we closing in on the people who should be coming in? I think we can improve there.”

Morey, who pioneered the “moneyball” analytics revolution in basketball, and Gelman, who lectured on a course at MIT, from team owners to betting operators to authors, including Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis.

While data science remains the focus, organizers have expanded the conference to include more panels on the sports business and celebrities. Recent speakers included former President Barack Obama and rapper Lil Dicky.

The conference is chaired by about 60 graduate students each year. But Gelman and Morey have the final say in the biggest decisions, according to five students who worked at this year’s convention, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of pay.

“He is a student-run lecture, ”said one of the students. Some students work 20 hours or more a week to prepare for the lecture, according to student organizers, who come out all night and miss classes. None of them are paid.

Students also do not pay for work at other Sloan conventions. “But the difference,” said one student, “is that there are no creators to micromanage everything. The students run things. ”

A university spokesman defended the agreement in a statement: “Student volunteers who work in lectures gain practical leadership and management experience and make valuable industrial relationships that benefit their careers.”

Morey and Gelman received a salary of $ 100,000 this year, they said. Public notices from 42 nonprofit Analytics Educational show that they have done so much in recent years, even though Gelman took a $ 20,000 increase in 2019.

Gelman’s wife, Corbin Petro, serves as the conference’s chief financial officer “along with providing significant logistical and operational support,” Gelman and Morey said in a statement. Petro, who paid at least $ 40,000 a year, “partially offers his services pro bono and also bills them at a discount,” the founders said.

A company run by Morey’s brother Lance has been in charge of video, light and sound production for the conference for the past decade. He was paid $ 170,666 for at least a year, according to reports – a 20 percent discount, Morey and Gelman said.

“I’d like to talk about the positives,” Morey said when asked about their compensation. “We follow all the rules of a nonprofit.”

The conference earned $ 2.7 million in 2020, the last year records are available, and provided $ 2 million in expenses. As the conference has grown, so have ticket prices: the cost of a student ticket has almost doubled since 2018.

A Sloan attendee, who currently works in the analysis department of an NFL team, said he attended the conference three times in college. “The reasons I wanted the network to go from 1 to 10 were,” he said.

His university covered the card twice. For a year, however, school grants were exhausted.

“I took extra work to make sure I could go,” he said, “this is wild, but a decent bet for my future.” Luckily, he lived close enough to Boston to drive.

Recently, an NFL employee said he and his league colleagues are meeting in Boston for the weekend of the conference, but they are not bothering to buy tickets.

“It was the most direct way for someone who had no connection to the Sloan industry to get in the door,” he said. “It’s been hard to see how tight it is.”

In mid-February, when the congress tweeted about the goal of “increasing diversity in sports”. Aaron Blackshear, director of analytics at the Minnesota Timberwolves, responded, “If this were true you wouldn’t charge students. [$425] to participate. ” The next day, Blackshear, one of the few black men on the field, saw that hundreds of people woke up and liked his tweet, and blocked the conference account.

Michael Lopez, the NFL’s chief data officer and analyst, criticized the price of tickets before this year’s event, and the official Sloan conference account also blocked him.

“When it’s hard to pay for the main conference, you end up with people from privileged backgrounds,” Lopez said in an interview.

After someone on Twitter commented on a conference that is blocking the head of the NFL analysis, Gelman sent an email to Lopez asking him to spread his criticism. In an exchange reviewed by The Washington Post, Lopez sent a point-by-point response to Gelman at the Sloan conference – unlike peer-to-peer events such as Joint Statistical Meetings, which charge students $ 100 for a five-day schedule – to promote inclusion. It took Gelman six weeks to respond and he didn’t address his points.

Ticket prices are the only source of frustration, Lopez said. The 2021 Big Data Bowl NFL team has announced four new graduates who have been finalists in the 2021 Big Data Bowl team, where competitors are proposing innovations based on statistics for football strategy.

According to two members of the group, Asmae Toumi and Tony ElHabr, The Sloan conference invited Toumi to present their project, with several remarks: They would not pay him, his teammates could not present with him, and if they wanted to attend the conference, they would have to pay the full price.

The conference was completely virtual last year, which means Toumi’s teammates would be forced to spend hundreds of dollars to watch a video of his talk.

“I’m a woman of color, so it’s good for them because the sport suffers from not having enough diversity,” Toumi said when asked why she chose to replace her team. “I would be happy to be a presenter, and I think they were my teammates as well, but I wasn’t willing to accept paying a ridiculous price for admission.” He refused Sloan’s invitation.

“It’s a really influential talk,” added Toumi, who has previously appeared in Sloan. “He has done a lot for my professional visibility and credibility in both sports and data science. The networking options are unique. That’s a huge opportunity to limit the cost to people who can afford it. “

Morey recounted Toumi’s experience: “If all we had to do was open streaming, we would have to do it.”

John Tobias, a professor of sports analytics at UNC Charlotte, works at ESPN, providing statistics to commentators. For more than a decade in this role, Tobias, all black, said he had seen another person of color and a woman doing this work for a sports network.

“Access creates opportunities,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the represented communities who want to work in sports and who love data as much as anyone, but can’t afford $ 1,000.” With a plane ticket and accommodation, the cost of attending the Sloan conference can easily be exceeded.

Tobias created a nonprofit, Strength in Numbers, which organizes summer camps where students from under-represented backgrounds learn sports analytics. Attendance is free.

Most sports conferences — at universities like Harvard and Carnegie Mellon — charge students less than $ 150, if anything, to attend. MIT students who attended the Sloan conference say they would be happier not to be paid if, as is customary at student-led conferences, they had more autonomy.

The conference has introduced changes. This year, about 50 students from under-represented backgrounds received free admission and participated in a mentoring program. The six sessions focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, including transgender athletes, moderated by Gladwell and non-binary ESPN writer Katie Barnes, and transgender researcher Joanna Harper. The women’s lunch has become a staple, and this year has gathered about 200 people. The conference presented a one-day Summit of Multipliers, billed as “women’s accelerators in the industry” and valued at an additional $ 300.

But some people believe that the conference has lost the opportunity to make changes that would lead to greater diversity. throughout rather than bringing in people who have been underestimated over the years to talk about the need for diversity.

ESPN personality and HBO host Bomani Jones said that in the early days of the Sloan conference, he hoped it would be a matter of time before he was invited to speak. In 2017, Morey asked Jones if he would be interested in coming, and he said so.

“I was asked to moderate a panel on social activism in sports,” said Jones, all of Black. Given his extensive experience, he said he was disgusted with the organizers offering a race-based concert. He was offered another panel job, but was unable to attend after a family member died.

This year, Jones said, he was invited to interview former NFL star Calvin Johnson about the cannabis business. As Jones was promoting a new show on HBO, he said, he was excited.

“They try to get some measure of diversity, but it’s often by inviting athletes,” Jones said. “It simply came to our notice then. If this conference is a way for people to get the job done, it’s important to show diversity among those who are actually involved in quantitative research. And if you can’t find black in those areas, do something about it. ‘

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