At Sloane’s sports conference, criticism about diversity and access is growing

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Keegan Abdou, a statistical analyst at the NFL Network, got his first two jobs in the same way: by attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

For the first time, in 2015, Abdoo was looking at vendors’ booths when he began talking to employees at Zebra Technologies, which manages data collection chips implanted in shoulder pads. This led to work at Tennessee Titans Stadium before he even graduated from Vanderbilt.

The following year, at a post-conference cocktail party, Abdou met a graduate of Vanderbilt who worked for the Cleveland Browns. This led to an email from Browns’ director of scouting, who offered Abdou his first job after college.

“I owe it to the conference,” Abdou said recently. But he also knows how lucky he was: his first ticket to Sloan was covered by a family friend, the second by his father.

“I had access,” he said, “and there were no other people.”

Every March, more than 3,000 people gather at the Sloan Conference to discuss the latest sports sciences and other topics facing the industry. Called “Dorkapalooza”, it has long been known to attract mostly white and male crowds, offering an annual reminder of the inequalities that plague the sports business.

But a growing chorus of critics say the conference not only reflects barriers to entry into the sports industry, but also helps strengthen them. Tickets, which cost $ 425 this year for students and $ 850 for everyone else, can be prohibitively expensive, some say, while others say panels too often lack variety and can even reinforce stereotypes.

In an interview, conference co-founders Jessica Gelman and Daryl Mori said they plan to cut ticket prices after learning of the concerns of attendees this year.

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

Morrie, president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball operations, said: “You can always find someone who is angry about how much they have to pay. But he added: “Are we closing the people who have to come in? I think this is the place where we can do better. “

Morrie, who launched a moneyball-like revolution in basketball analysis, and Gelman removed the conference from a course taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by inviting speakers ranging from team owners to betting operators to authors including Malcolm Gladwell. and Michael Lewis.

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

The conference is held annually by about 60 students from Sloan. But Gelman and Mori have the final say on most major decisions, according to five students who worked at this year’s conference, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.

“This is a studentfulfilled conference, “said one student. Some students work 20 hours or more a week to prepare for the conference, student organizers said, pulling all night and skipping class. None of them are paid.

Students are also not paid for work at other conferences in Sloan. “But the difference,” said one student, “is that there are no founders who micro-manage everything.” The students actually run things. “

A university spokesman defended the agreement in a statement: “Student volunteers working at conferences gain practical experience in leadership and management and make valuable contacts in the industry that are beneficial to their careers.

Morrie and Gelman received $ 100,000 each this year, they said. Public revelations from their non-profit organization, 42 Analytics Educational, which organizes the conference, show that they have done about the same in recent years, although Gelman took a one-time increase of $ 20,000 in 2019.

Gelman’s wife, Corbin Petro, served as the conference’s chief financial officer, along with “providing significant logistical and operational support,” Gelman and Mori said in a statement. Petro, who has been paid $ 40,000 for at least a year, “provides his services in part free of charge, as well as discounted bills,” the co-founders said.

A company run by Mori Lance’s brother has been producing video, light and sound at the conference for the past decade. According to his findings, 170,666 dollars were paid for at least one year – a 20% discount, Mori and Gelman said.

“I would like to talk about the positives,” Mori said when asked about their compensation. “We follow all the rules of a non-profit organization.”

The conference generated revenue of $ 2.7 million in 2020, the last year for which records are available, and reported costs of $ 2 million. As the conference expands, ticket prices also increase: the price of a student ticket has doubled since 2018.

One of Sloan’s attendees, who now works in the NFL team’s analysis department, said he attended the conference three times in college. “The network was 1 to 10 reasons why I wanted to go,” he said.

His university covered the ticket twice. One year, however, the school’s grant ran out.

“I took on extra work to make sure I could go,” he said, “which was brutal but worthy of gambling for my future.” Fortunately, he lived close enough to Boston to drive.

Recently, the NFL official said that he and his colleagues from the league meet in Boston during the conference weekend, but do not bother to buy tickets.

“Sloan was the quickest way for someone with no connections in the industry to walk in the door,” he said. It was hard to see him getting narrower.

In mid-February, when the conference tweets about its goal of “increasing diversity in sport”, Aaron Blackshire, director of analysis for the Minnesota Timberwolves, said: “If that were true, you wouldn’t charge students [$425] The next day, Blackshear, one of the few black men in the field, woke up and saw that hundreds of people liked his tweet – and the conference account blocked him.

When Michael Lopez, NFL’s senior director of data and analysis, criticized ticket prices ahead of this year’s event, Sloan’s official conference account also blocked him.

“When a remarkable conference is quite a challenge to pay for, in the end it turns out to be people from a privileged background,” Lopez said in an interview.

After someone on Twitter commented on the conference blocking the head of NFL analysis, Gelman sent an email to Lopez asking him to expand his criticism. In an exchange reviewed by The Washington Post, Lopez sent Gelman a point-by-point response, explaining how the Sloan conference – unlike peer events such as the Joint Statistical Meetings, which charges students $ 100 for five days of programming – failed to promote inclusion. It took Gelman six weeks to answer and not answer his questions.

Ticket prices are just one source of disappointment, Lopez said. He named four recent alumni whose team was a finalist in the NFL 2021 Big Data Bowl, in which competitors offer statistically based innovations in football strategy.

According to two members of the team, Asmae Tumi and Tony ElHabr, Sloan’s conference invited Toumi to present her project, with a few caveats: she will not be paid, her teammates cannot present with her, and if they want to attend the conference, they will have to pay the full price.

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

“I’m a colorful woman, so that’s good for them because the sport suffers from a lack of diversity,” Tumi said when asked why she suspected she had been chosen to represent her group. “I would love to be the host and I think my teammates were too, but getting them to pay the ridiculous ticket price was something I didn’t want to accept.” She declined Sloan’s invitation.

“This is a really influential conference,” added Tumi, who has appeared in Sloan before. “I did a lot for my own visibility and professional authority in both sports and data science. The possibilities for networking are incomparable. Limiting this to people who can bear the costs is a huge missed opportunity. “

Telling about Toumi’s experience, Morrie said, “If all we had to do was open streaming, then we had to do that.”

John Tobias, a professor of sports analysis at UNC Charlotte, works at ESPN, providing statistics to commentators. For almost a decade in this role, Tobias, who is Black, said he had seen only one other colored person and one woman doing this work for a sports network.

“Access creates opportunities,” he said. “There are so many people in underrepresented communities who want to work in sports and love data as much as anyone else, but they can’t pay $ 1,000. With airline tickets and accommodation, the cost of attending a Sloan conference can easily exceed that.

Tobias created a non-profit organization, Strength in Numbers, which hosts summer camps where students from underrepresented backgrounds learn about sports analysis. Attendance is free.

Most sports conferences – at universities such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon – charge students less than $ 150 if there is anything to attend. Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who attended the Sloan conference said they would be happier not to receive pay, as is typical of student conferences, if they had more autonomy.

The conference has introduced changes. This year, about 50 students from underrepresented backgrounds received free tickets and participated in a mentoring program. Six sessions covered issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, including one for transgender athletes, moderated by Gladwell and involving ESPN writer Katie Barnes, who is not binary, and researcher Joanna Harper, who is transgender. Women’s lunch has become a staple, attracting about 200 visitors this year. The conference introduced a one-day summit of the multiplier, announced as an “accelerator for women in the industry” and costing an additional $ 300 to attend.

But there is an opinion among some that the conference misses a chance to make changes that would achieve greater diversity. everywhere the conference, instead of attracting underrepresented people year after year to talk about the need for diversity.

ESPN spokesman and HBO presenter Bomani Jones said in the early days of Sloan’s conference he expected it was only a matter of time before he was invited to speak. In 2017, Mori asked Jones if he would be interested in coming, and Jones said he was.

“They asked me to lead a panel on social activism in sports,” said Jones, who is Black. Given the breadth of his experience, he told organizers he was upset to be offered a concert focused on the competition. He was offered another job, but he was unable to attend the family after his death.

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

“They’re trying to achieve some measure of diversity, but it’s often like inviting athletes,” Jones said. “Simply saying that there are black people there doesn’t make sense. If this conference is a way for people to find work, it is important to demonstrate the diversity between those who actually participate in the quantitative research in question. And if you can’t find black people in these areas, then do something about it.

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