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Jessica Gelman: The Woman Behind the Most Influential Conference in Sports

Last Updated: March 2, 2024
The Kraft Analytics Group CEO and Sloan Sports Conference Co-chair chops it up with Boardroom about the ongoing conference, helping the NCAA, and the future of live sports.

Early Thursday morning, Jessica Gelman‘s vibrant energy was palpable over the phone as she prepared for what could be her biggest professional weekend of the year.

The CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, the analytics and consulting firm under the auspices of the Kraft family that owns the New England Patriots and Revolution, was preparing last-minute notes for a major work meeting. The next day, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference— which Gelman and now-Philadelphia 76ers team president Daryl Morey conceived of and co-founded at the 2006 Women’s Final Four— was set to kick off its 18th two-day edition at the Boston Convention Center.

Jessica Gelman
(Photo courtesy of Sloan Sports)

“The overarching focus of the conference is how analytics continues to evolve and help change sports both on the business and the on-field or on-court,” Gelman told Boardroom, adding that more than 45% of this year’s speakers are women. “That’s really the cornerstone of it. It’s more like a festival where we have these very entertaining concurrent channels.”

Themes for this year’s Sloan Conference, the annual event Bill Simmons lovingly coined “dork-a-palooza,” include sports’ increasing globalization, streaming content, AI, the growth of women’s sports, and the changing college sports landscape. Gelman described the conference as more of a festival with interesting and entertaining panels taking place at multiple venues at once under the same roof.

In addition to the talks, there’s a hackathon, a startup competition, a research paper competition, and a pitch contest for graduate students, along with an element of fun. Last year, the conference featured live pickleball; this year, chessboxing takes center stage.

A major conference element Gelman takes great pride in is that it’s a student-run nonprofit.

“I love seeing how the students who we’ve been working with over the past 10 months getting to experience what they’ve built and created,” she said, “bringing the ideas they’ve had to life that make the conference unique each year.”

Another unique element is a mentorship program, now in its fourth year, geared toward people who normally wouldn’t have access to the sports industry. They receive crucial access early on in their academic or professional careers, and Gelman said it’s at the point now where former mentees are now in the position to pay it forward.


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Is it a coincidence that Gelman joined Kraft Sports Group just as the Patriots’ dynasty began? After working her way up the organization, including a six-year tenure as Vice President of Customer Marketing and Strategy, the analytics group idea came together as a technology, analytics, and strategic services company in 2016 following a two-year incubation period.

Now, KAGR helps clients ranging from the NFL, NCAA, NASCAR, and the UFC to the Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Carolina Panthers optimize their operations and fan engagement and interactions through a data-driven, customer-focused approach. Like almost every industry, AI will have a huge impact on analytics, Gelman said. Her job and focus with KAGR is to ensure the data that AI may eventually use is accurate and from the right place, guiding clients on proper AI use and application.

“Our goal is that everyone from the LA Rams to NASCAR to the NCAA can better understand their fans through data and apply it in the right way to drive fan engagement and a love of sports,” Gelman said.

The NCAA partnership announced in January aims to build the largest college sports fan database to optimize future college sports champions and events to draw the most fans and cultivate new followers. It’s the main element of a new digital strategy initiative embraced by new president Charlie Baker, who celebrates his one-year anniversary in charge on March 1.

“Kudos to the leadership of Charlie Baker and understanding the opportunity that they have,” Gelman said, “which is to ensure that fans are the ones who are actually getting to the championships that they run and host. We’re really excited to be supporting the NCAA and helping them create these more personalized experiences through better data.”

Jessica Gelman
(Photo courtesy of Dilip Vishwanat)

KAGR aids the NFL in a similar way, helping the league understand who the fans coming to its games are, especially what Gelman called “non-home fans.” That’s a mix of casual fans and those traveling for games who aren’t those die-hard supporters. How to reach beyond those avid fans beyond football and basketball is what she believes is critical for college sports. Beyond tournaments like softball and baseball that are held in the same location, Gelman and company are helping the NCAA find the right venues to attract and build fans in fast-rising collegiate sports like volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics.

Gelman’s expertise in live sports makes her uniquely equipped to discuss where she thinks it’s headed over the next 12-24 months. It’s something she’ll get to apply IRL as a minority partner and alternate governor for the Utah Royals, a new NWSL expansion team beginning play this month.

“If you’ve been tracking what Steve Ballmer is doing with Intuit Dome,” Gelman said, “he’s basically not going to have TVs in suites, and they’re streamlining very few food options because they don’t want people to be in line. They want to make it flow as quickly as possible.”

That’s been the opposite of the trend over the last few years, where teams have focused arenas and venues on the communal aspects, creating more common meeting places where fans can connect in person and through social media.

“I’m very intrigued by the approach Ballmer is taking, and obviously he’s had a lot of success,” Gelman continued. “It just seems so counter to what the rest of the sports industry has done since the pre-COVID time period, where it’s been about creating more places for people to meet and convene within the venue.”

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Many teams are taking a two-pronged approach to bringing in different types of fans. There are more premium and luxury areas and offerings than ever before, but there’s also an increasingly popular plan to cheaply bring in younger fans by buying a ticket without a seat and having them hang out in communal, standing-only areas or being assigned a seat when they get to the ballpark.

Gelman recently toured the Sphere in Las Vegas, the prime example of a larger overarching effort to bring more visual, immersive experiences to live sports. That will include virtual elements to help fans feel as close to the action as possible. The question the industry will face is how it can continue to create those memories and experiences while keeping the fans present, enjoying themselves, and in the moment rather than being distracted on social media and feeling like they’re in two places at once.

“The worry for all of us is our ability to disconnect from always being on and enjoying the experience itself, which is really what I think Ballmer is going for,” Gelman said. “I look at my kids who are often watching something, and then they’re also on devices doing something else, and they probably learned that from me and my wife, who do the same thing. So that divided attention and being in two places will increasingly be what we’re trying to figure out as an industry.”

Regardless of where the future of sports is headed, Gelman has positioned herself at KAGR to be uniquely equipped with data, analytics, and industry know-how to be ready for whatever will come next.

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Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.