When it launched in 2007, MIT's sports analytics conference was little more than a curiosity.
Hastily arranged and held in a series of available classrooms in the dead of winter, the 175 attendees were primarily students anxious to hear from Daryl Morey, the MIT grad who had been teaching a popular sports analytics course when he was hired as general manager of the Houston Rockets.
What came next was unexpected.
Year by year, the gathering became bigger and bigger, evolving into nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, one that trends on Twitter and draws in some of the biggest personalities in sports.
On Friday, the ninth annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference opens in Boston with three commissioners set to speak, more than 100 teams in attendance – including half of the NHL – and 3,100 people paying $500 each to watch it all unfold.
Roughly 2,000 more remain on the waiting list.
The event famously dubbed "Dorkapalooza" by ESPN's Bill Simmons years ago has gone mainstream, becoming a mecca for those both sporty and statistically inclined.
Morey, who remains one of Sloan's leading voices, has a simple explanation why.
"The reason for [our] growth is simple," he said on Thursday. "Analytics helps you make better decisions, which helps you win."
Morey's involvement has meant Sloan has traditionally been basketball-heavy, and once again, every NBA team is expected to have a representative.
But the conference has also branched out, and an increased focus this year will be on soccer and hockey, with the latter featuring a panel that includes Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas and former Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins.
More than just a collection of eggheads, Sloan also now attracts athletes themselves, part of a new generation raised in the information age that views analytics as simply another way to gain an edge.
Carolina Hurricanes analyst Eric Tulsky's paper at Sloan last year on zone entries, for example, was read online by several NHL players, including Minnesota Wild star Zach Parise.
"The athletes are different," explained Jessica Gelman, vice-president of marketing and strategy for the Kraft Sports Group – owner of the New England Patriots – who co-founded the conference with Morey and serves as its chair.
"They're using data very differently. [Former NBA player] Shane Battier, this will be his first year coming to the conference, but he got it. He was using data to improve and think about what to do on the court. This younger generation of athletes, these millennials, they understand and see what's happening in society and think: 'How can I take advantage of this?' "
Battier will be one of the stars this year, especially after releasing a YouTube video earlier in the week explaining how he used increasingly advanced statistics during his career to shut down Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
Battier learned his weaknesses – according to the numbers – and responded appropriately on the court.
"I was lucky to grow up in the golden age of analytics in basketball," he said, crediting his knowledge of data with keeping him in the league so long. "The emergence of Big Data in sports."
He will be part of Sloan's "Innovators and Adopters" panel on Friday morning, a powerhouse group that features both Morey and Moneyball author Michael Lewis.
The conference will then close out on Saturday with another pairing of heavy hitters: Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke – a noted skeptic – will be paired with numbers guru Nate Silver on a panel ambiguously titled "The Future of the Game."
The panels are often where Sloan's headlines come from, but it also features hard-core number crunching, with in-depth research papers – i.e. "Applying Catapult Data in Hockey to Reduce Injuries and Improve Performance" – and competitions driving innovation every year.
Many leagues and teams now view Sloan as the perfect job fair, where they have access to the brightest sports-oriented minds in the world.
Students from more than 200 academic institutions – from as far away as Australia – will attend this year, including competing presentations from the business schools of Harvard, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania.
The data revolution that has long since transformed banking, finance and other complex industries is well on its way to doing the same in sports. Big Data has led to big money, and professional sports court some of the biggest money there is in the ownership ranks.
Sloan has been a part of that – and is now helping lead the way.
"Like MIT, sports now live in a very hypothesis-driven environment," MIT grad and Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said in a recent blog on the conference. "You need to ask the right questions, accumulate the right data and implement a strategy based on that data."
"The whole rise of data isn't just specific to sports," Gelman added. "It's happening across so many different industries, looking at what Google has done and what Amazon is doing. But [sports] are something people can relate to and understand.
"You now have a different type of person who is involved in running the teams and running the leagues, and they are more analytically oriented. That's been an explosion in the last 10 to 15 years, if you look at the owners of the teams – and even who the commissioners are – and their interests."
Editor's note: A Friday Sports story on sports data incorrectly said Farhan Zaidi is with the Oakland Athletics. He was recently named general manager of the LA Dodgers.