Skip to main content

Daryl Morey Talks Inspiration & Growth of Analytics Conference

With the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference around the corner, Daryl Morey reflects on where his interest in sports analytics stems from and the growth of the conference.

Long before Daryl Morey was the President of Basketball Operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, he was just a kid who loved math and playing Strat-O-Matic, a baseball simulation game described as the “original fantasy sports.” 

Growing up in Ohio, Morey was fond of the MLB’s Cleveland Guardians. Ahead of the 1987 season, he was excited to see his favorite team on the cover of Sports Illustrated picked as the preseason favorites to win the World Series. 

Then, he turned the results of that prediction into inspiration.

Cleveland finished that season with a 61-101 record, the worst in baseball that year. It led to Cleveland fans believing their team had an SI cover jinx even decades later. Whether Morey buys into that theory or not is unclear — but one thing is for sure — he was convinced that he needed to figure out how to mix his competitive spirit and love for data into one to discover why the Guardians couldn’t win the title that season.

“It really made me realize that no one knows what they're talking about,” Morey told All76ers. “So those early interest in winning baseball, early interest in why my beloved team could be one of the worst teams in baseball after being picked for the best, really got me into the data.”

Although Morey’s preferred sport to play was basketball, the data aspect was still untapped. Meanwhile, a divide was created in baseball as one of Morey’s early inspirations dealt with backlash while presenting an analytical approach to the game.

“The early pioneers in baseball like Bill James, they were very… the immune system of baseball spit them out fast,” Morey explained. “They were saying that we looked at baseball, and the managers of the team who are choosing to do things, have no idea what they’re doing. That’s a pretty tough message to say, ‘Hey, there are 32 baseball teams, and all 32 people running all 32 teams have no idea what they’re doing.’ That’s generally a pretty harsh message that doesn’t go over well.”

Morey is generally viewed as one of the analytical pioneers in basketball. After getting hired by the Houston Rockets in 2006 with the title of General Manager, Morey took what he studied from Bill James and applied it to his new job in Houston’s front office.

“Basketball was different,” he continued. “It turned out that the data in basketball showed that, for sure, there are things that needed to be done different like shoot more threes and things. And if you did them, you’d win at a higher rate. But a lot of the early analysis said that coaches were actually doing a lot of things right that the box score data was not picking up. So, things like Shane Battier were very valuable players even though they averaged ten points and five rebounds. The data picked up that Shane was valuable, whereas if you read a boxscore, the data they had at the time would say he’s not. I would say when your message is, ‘Hey, you’re doing a lot of things right, but here’s some data to make you be more confident in those things, and here are a few things we should do differently.’ That’s quite a different message than the baseball people saying you all have no idea what you’re doing.”

Since Morey took over Houston’s front office years ago, other teams have followed the lead of utilizing more data to make decisions. While the roster construction process might be tweaked, many steps haven’t changed, and the goal is ultimately the same. 

“We're not doing anything different,” Morey explained. “When basketball was first a professional sport in the 40s or at least professional sport in a way that we recognize it today in the 40s, the game was different. But, like the fundamental things that a general manager would do, that a coach would do, and often those roles were combined back then, they were the same.”

“You won with having the top players in the league, and when there were only eight teams, Boston won a lot of those titles because they had a huge collection of the top players, and it's really just how you acquire those players in the context of a collective bargaining agreement. And how you then deploy them, that has changed a little bit, but the job hasn't really changed. It's just you have to make good decisions across free agency, trade, and the draft, and you have to have a higher batting average of your decisions than other teams in the league.”

Right around the time when Morey was introducing the basketball world to his analytical approach to roster-building, he transformed an MIT Sloan class he co-taught with business executive Jessica Gelman into a full-fledged conference. In 2007, there were 175 attendees. These days, it’s one of the world’s largest conferences dedicated to sports analytics, with over 2,500 attendees, and is currently sold out this year. 

The focus remains on the numbers, but there’s been a lot of growth beyond how many people attend.

For starters, the two-day event isn’t reserved for those solely trying to make it in a baseball or basketball front office. With analytics growing in popularity across all sports, Morey notes the conference is now a “breadth of sports.”

“We'll have cricket, we'll have pickleball this year, we have curling,” he explained. “It's like we've broadened. We have our core NFL, MLB, NBA, and Hockey. Golf this year again. So it's probably the breadth of the sports.”

And with sports betting now legal in 35 states, that’s become an area of focus as well.

“That’s grown quite a bit,” Morey continued. “I think a lot like there’s sort of an intermingling where the top sports bettors go to teams, and it’s almost become like Washington DC, where the politicians or lobbyists is similar. So, the top sports bettors often go to teams, then they often leave teams and go back to sports gambling.” 

Beyond the growth of sports represented at the conference, there’s also been an effort to include specific societal topics over the years. In 2021, key points included mental health and activism in sports. This year, the conference will focus on Transgender athletes, the 50th Anniversary of Title IX, and cannabis. 

Also, there’s been a strong effort to expand the demographic with Sloane’s Mentorship Program, Women’s luncheon, and WISE Multiplier Summit.

“We’ve tried to make our biggest priority over the last maybe ten years to give more opportunities to underrepresented minorities,” Morey said. “Actually, the biggest underrepresented minority in sports is actually women more than anything else. So, you know, this year again, we've set the record for both women and underrepresented minorities, and we're looking for ways to provide more and more opportunities for them.”

The conference will take place from March 3 to March 4 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, MA. For those attending, Morey encourages the research papers and competitive advantage talks as the “place to be” for those who are trying to learn the most and network.

“We’re on Year 17,” he finished. “The folks who have worked on the conference and the people who have attended have gone on to be various Senior leaders in the NFL, NBA, NBA league office, NHL, all over the place. It’s been really cool.”

Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for All76ers, a Sports Illustrated channel. You can follow him for live updates on Twitter: @JGrasso_.