The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Sloan sports conference, criticism mounts over diversity, access

Sloan conference co-founders Daryl Morey and Jessica Gelman. (Boston Globe/Getty Images)
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Keegan Abdoo, a statistical analyst at NFL Network, landed his first two jobs the same way: by walking around the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

The first time, in 2015, Abdoo was perusing vendor booths when he struck up a conversation with employees from Zebra Technologies, which operates data-collecting chips implanted in shoulder pads. That led to a job at the Tennessee Titans’ stadium before he had even graduated from Vanderbilt.

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

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

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

Every March, more than 3,000 people converge on the Sloan conference to discuss the cutting edge of sports science and other topics confronting the industry. Dubbed “Dorkapalooza,” it has long been known to attract a predominantly White and male crowd, offering an annual reminder of inequities plaguing the sports business.

But a growing chorus of critics say the conference doesn’t just reflect barriers to entering the sports industry but helps entrench them. Tickets, which this year cost $425 for students and $850 for everyone else, can be prohibitively expensive, some attendees say, while others say the panels too often lack diversity and can even reinforce stereotypes.

In an interview, the conference’s co-founders, Jessica Gelman and Daryl Morey, said they planned to lower ticket prices after learning about attendees’ concerns this year.

“Honestly, from my perspective, this year was the first year that I really learned about the price stuff,” said Gelman, CEO of Kraft Analytics Group.

Morey, president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, said, “You can always find someone who’s mad about how much they have to pay.” But he added: “Are we closing people out who should be getting in? I think that’s where we can do better.”

Morey, who pioneered a “Moneyball”-like analytics revolution in basketball, and Gelman spun the conference out of a course they taught at MIT, inviting speakers ranging from team owners to betting operators to authors, including Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis.

Although data science remains a focus, organizers have expanded the conference to include more panels on the business and celebrity of sports. Recent speakers have included former president Barack Obama and rapper Lil Dicky.

The conference is run each year by roughly 60 Sloan graduate students. But Gelman and Morey have the final say on most big decisions, according to five students who worked on this year’s conference, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.

“It’s a student-executed conference,” one of the students said. Some students work 20 hours or more a week to prepare for the conference, student organizers said, pulling all-nighters and missing class. None of them are paid.

Students aren’t paid for work on other conferences at Sloan, either. “But the difference,” one student said, “is there aren’t founders micromanaging everything. Students actually run things.”

A university spokesperson defended the arrangement in a statement: “Student volunteers who work on conferences gain hands-on leadership and management experience and make valuable industry contacts that benefit their careers.”

Morey and Gelman each took a $100,000 salary this year, they said. Public disclosures from their nonprofit, 42 Analytics Educational, which puts on the conference, show they have made about that much in recent years, although Gelman took a one-time $20,000 raise 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 was paid $40,000 at least one year, “provides her services partially pro bono and also bills at a discount,” the co-founders said.

A company run by Morey’s brother Lance has handled the conference’s video, light and sound production for the past decade. He was paid $170,666 at least one year, according to disclosures — 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 generated $2.7 million in revenue in 2020, the most recent year for which records are available, and reported $2 million in expenses. As the conference has grown, so have ticket prices: The cost of a student ticket has nearly doubled since 2018.

One Sloan attendee, who now works for an NFL team’s analytics department, said he went to the conference three times in college. “Networking was reasons one through 10 why I wanted to go,” he said.

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

“I took an extra job to make sure I could go,” he said, “which was brutal but a worthy gamble on my future.” Fortunately, he lived close enough to Boston to drive.

Lately, the NFL employee said, he and league colleagues meet in Boston during the conference weekend but don’t bother buying tickets.

“Sloan used to be the most direct path for someone with no connections in the industry to get their foot in the door,” he said. “It’s been tough to see it become more constricted.”

In mid-February, when the conference tweeted about its goal of “increasing diversity in sports,” Aaron Blackshear, director of analytics for the Minnesota Timberwolves, fired back, “If this were true you wouldn’t charge students [$425] to attend.” The next day, Blackshear, one of few Black men in the field, woke up to see hundreds of people had liked his tweet — and the conference account had blocked him.

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

“When the preeminent conference is quite challenging to pay for, you end up with people coming from privileged backgrounds,” Lopez said in an interview.

After someone on Twitter commented on the conference blocking the NFL’s head of analytics, Gelman emailed Lopez to ask him to expand on his critique. 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 — fails to promote inclusivity. Gelman took six weeks to reply and did not address his points.

Ticket prices are only one source of frustration, Lopez said. He pointed to four recent graduates whose team was a finalist in the NFL’s 2021 Big Data Bowl, in which competitors propose statistics-based innovations for football strategy.

According to two team members, Asmae Toumi and Tony ElHabr, the Sloan conference invited Toumi to present their project, with several caveats: She wouldn’t be paid, her teammates couldn’t present with her, and if they wanted to attend the conference, they would have to pay full price.

The conference was entirely virtual last year, meaning Toumi’s teammates would have been forced to shell out hundreds of dollars to watch a video of her talk.

“I’m a woman of color, so it’s good for them because sports suffer from not having enough diversity,” Toumi said when asked why she suspects she was picked to represent her group. “I would have been happy to be the presenter, and I think my teammates were, too, but to make them pay the ridiculous ticket price was something I wasn’t willing to accept.” She declined Sloan’s invitation.

“It really is an influential conference,” added Toumi, who has appeared at Sloan before. “It’s done a lot for my own visibility and professional credibility in both sports and data science. The networking opportunities are unparalleled. To restrict that to people who can front the cost is a huge missed opportunity.”

Told of Toumi’s experience, Morey said, “If all we had to do was open up streaming, then we should have done that.”

John Tobias, a professor of sports analytics at UNC Charlotte, works at ESPN, feeding statistics to commentators. Over nearly a decade in that role, Tobias, who is Black, said he has seen just one other person of color and one woman performing that job for a sports network.

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

Tobias created a nonprofit, Strength in Numbers, that hosts summer camps where students from underrepresented backgrounds learn about sports analytics. Attendance is free.

Most sports conferences — at universities such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon — charge students less than $150, if anything, to attend. MIT students who have staffed the Sloan conference say they would be happier being unpaid, as is typical for student-run conferences, if they had more autonomy.

The conference has implemented changes. This year, about 50 students from underrepresented backgrounds received free tickets and participated in a mentorship program. Six sessions covered diversity, equity and inclusion issues, including one about transgender athletes, moderated by Gladwell and featuring ESPN writer Katie Barnes, who is nonbinary, and researcher Joanna Harper, who is transgender. A women’s luncheon has become a staple, drawing about 200 attendees this year. The conference introduced a one-day Multiplier Summit, billed as “an accelerator for women in the industry” and which cost an extra $300 to attend.

But there’s a sentiment among some people that the conference is missing a chance to enact changes that would achieve greater diversity throughout the conference rather than bringing in underrepresented people year after year to talk about the need for diversity.

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

“They asked me to moderate a panel on social activism in sports,” said Jones, who is Black. Considering his breadth of expertise, he told organizers he was miffed to be offered a race-focused gig. They offered him a different panel assignment, but he was unable to attend after a death in the family.

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

“They try to achieve some measure of diversity, but it’s often by inviting athletes,” Jones said. “Just saying you have Black people there is not the point. If this conference is a pathway for people to get jobs, it becomes important to demonstrate diversity among those actually engaging in the quantitative research that this is about. And if you can’t find any Black people in those fields, then do something about it.”

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