This past weekend the Sloan Sports Analytics conference was held at the Boston Convention Center. The yearly conference, dubbed “dorkapalooza” by sports columnist Bill Simmons, focuses on how analytics and data-based strategies can play a larger role in sports – from the court or field to the front office.
Sloan started on the MIT campus in 2007 with fewer than 200 attendees. This weekend well over 2,000 swarmed the convention center to attend panels and hear presentations from both top-level industry executives and influential academics and intellectuals. There were panels on the use of analytics in basketball, football, baseball, soccer, MMA, even Formula 1 and NASCAR racing. There were panels on analytics in ticket prices, fantasy sports, the use of social media in sports marketing, and even sports labor negotiations. Major media covered the event and speakers included famous New York Times number-cruncher Nate Silver and Moneyball author Michael Lewis. Many big league coaches and executives were in attendance, as well as league commissioners.
Missing from the conference was any mention of the sport of horse racing.
While the use of analytics in baseball has been popularized by the Academy Award nominated film and best-selling book Moneyball, the science of sabermetrics has only been around since the early 1960s. By comparison, the Daily Racing Form has been publishing horse racing data for use in handicapping race results since 1894. Analytics have driven decisions in horse racing for over a century, and not just for the punters; owners, breeders and trainers have all consulted catalogs, condition books, and past performance sheets in making decisions on horses to buy, races to enter, and strategies to employ on the track.
PAST PERFORMANCES ARE USED EVERY DAY BY BETTORS AT THE TRACK
There could be any number of reasons why the horse racing industry wasn’t represented at the Sloan conference. Gambling surely isn’t one of them. Despite major league sports’ stance against sports betting, this year’s Sloan conference featured a lively panel on predictive sports betting analytics. The popularity of horse racing may be on the wane, but surely hasn’t yet been eclipsed in the U.S. by Formula 1.
If anything, a sport that has such a long history of respect for analytics should be willing to turn to data-driven strategies to help chart a plan for growing its audience and rebuilding its brand. And the stat-geeks who flock to “dorkapalooza” could benefit from learning more about the sport from an analytic perspective. For the sports fan who loves pouring over charts, numbers, and data to search for patterns that everyone else is missing and can give you an edge on the competition, there is no finer game. Horse racing is often called the Sport of Kings, a homage to its appeal among the aristocracy. Perhaps there’s good reason that in 2013 it should rebrand itself the “Sport of Nerds.”