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Where Do You Want To Go?

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is an origami construction, a carefully folded amalgamation of academia, business, sports and stats. Within this carefully controlled environment it’s easy to get lost in the folds, confusing the two key values that lay beneath the entire weekend — creativity and curiosity.

Business and economics are an inescapable part of this conference, a fact for which it has collected considerable criticism this year. The conference itself generates money for MIT and its programs. Representatives from teams in many sports are here looking for ways to improve their own performance and the bottom lines. Countless business have set up booths pitching products and services to improve athletic performance in a thousand ways. Each research presentation can also be seen as an audition for a consulting contract and hungry, young men and women stalk the hallways, armed with resumes and business cards.

Sports are business. Businesses have money and want more. Any attempt to excise that piece of this enterprise threatens its very viability.

While a financial bent brings with it certain aesthetic elements that can distasteful, it also provides the impetus for tremendous amounts of creativity. The incentive for developing increasingly unique, efficient and flexible solutions to all sorts of problems is literally walking up and down the corridors of the Hynes Convention Center. If you can deliver, you can get paid and that relationship hammers the gas pedal of creativity.

The focus on sports inevitably brings money to the table because sports are a business. But there is still academia here, even if it looks different than the purely distilled variety these conferences are supposed to promote. There is research, conducted by students and professors, summarized in dry and archetypal abstracts with weighty bibliographies attached. While business is the patron saint of creativity, it is curiosity that feeds academia.

Like business, academia is complicated construct which can be pulled in a million different directions. There are shades of grey, different varietals and iterations. But at the bottom of the well there is more often than not, a pool of curiosity; a question to be explored, an idea to be unpacked.

Creativity and curiosity are closely linked, wrapped over and around each other, but at some point in every process they deviate. Curiosity initiates exploration, research and examination. Creativity provides the structure for that exploration and, theoretically, greatly enhances its success. But creativity can be an endpoint. It implies a solution and, if taken to its natural extreme, the result is a finished product.

Curiosity on the other hand initiates the cycle anew. The implication of curiosity is not questions answered, but a forked tree of additional questions branching off in new directions.While creativity is manipulated into a final form curiosity creates infinite possibilities to be explored.

Here at the Sloan conference you can feel curiosity and creativity being gently tugged apart.

The teams and business who financially scaffold this conference do so in the search of creative solutions. They need curious processes to initiate, but ultimately the goal is actionable knowledge, finished systems, refined products. The research doesn’t ever quite deliver. It is actionable to a degree but there is always something left unfinished. But the additional curiosity needed to finish the task gets left, spinning like a top, as teams rush to implement solutions. Ultimately, it’s about process and product. Creativity is about assembling the best product. Curiosity revels in the process, dying to begin it anew.

Every research presentation ends with a slide on lingering questions and next steps from the research. But it often feels like a tithe, a required element so that the researchers can walk away, intellectually unencumbered.

I know that the continuation of most of this research is done behind closed doors, within the carefully walled confines of business. But how many of those lingering questions are ultimately answered? Or are the required resources for continued exploration pushed off to begin being applied to a new problem.

I love attending this conference, but there is always a part of me that leaves feeling dirty and used. Analytics don’t have to be limited in scope to improving performance and maximizing value. Analytics can be whimsical, irreverent and irrelevant. They don’t always have to be predictive, there is great joy to be found in their narrative and descriptive sides as well. There can be intrinsic joy in finding more questions than answers.

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.