It's Not Just Big Tech: Sports Teams Are Tracking You Too
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Teams and venues are turning to big data analytics to retain fans by giving them personalized experiences.
By Matt Foley and Sean Culligan
Portland, 2028. It’s time to catch 16-year NBA veteran and future Hall of Famer Damian Lillard of the Trail Blazers in action before it’s too late. As you stroll through the electronic gates at Moda Center — pausing only for a second as the overhead camera scans your face — the crowd’s roars pour into the foyer. It’s game time. A mobile notification confirms you’re inside the venue and directs you to your seat.
The pings keep coming. Hungry? Here’s a map of food trucks inside Moda Center. Pok Pok’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings are located at Section 113. Thirsty? Here’s a map of beer vendors. Grab a Cloud Ripper IPA from StormBreaker Brewing at Section 115. If you want, a server will bring both to your seat. Because, like an overbearing aunt, your latest iPhone — and so, Moda Center — knows all: which local breweries you follow on Instagram; the wing restaurant you’ve been Googling for days. This isn’t some fantasy — it’s a reality that’s already beginning to play out.
Teams and sports venues across the country are increasingly turning to big data firms to track, decipher and use data drawn from fans to understand how they can keep them coming to games, while also making stadiums more secure and processes more streamlined. Take security. “Near-field communication,” a secure digital ticket validator that confirms location without requiring guests to show a ticket, lets venues optimize security lines much in the same way as an airport TSA Precheck queue. The Oakland Athletics ran a NFC trial last season, while Tickets.com struck a deal with Clear — the biometrics identification company that expedites check-ins at airports — to develop test runs for 23 MLB teams this season.
[Fans] want messaging that is unique.
Vince Ircandia, founder, StellarAlgo
Former Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard last year launched his new startup Rival, a ticketing platform linked to facial recognition scans. The technology is already used as a supplementary security measure at venues like Madison Square Garden, but it also lets Rival access identity data of fans. On the ticketing side, mobile ticketing marketplaces such as Gametime and AXS make buying scan-friendly tickets faster and entry quicker.
And once you’re in, advanced analytics firms like StellarAlgo and SSB help teams and venues personalize your experience, by building a unique profile of each fan based on their behavior on apps, social media and the internet more broadly. The multiple mobile notifications may be annoying, but it’s not all bad. Desperate to keep fans loyal, venues and teams are also trying to make the experience smoother for them. Want booze delivered to your seat (even in the nosebleeds)? You’ll soon be in luck.
“Whether that means faster lines, in-seat food and beverage options or individual customer promotions, there’s pressure to make the fan experience special,” says Vince Ircandia, founder of StellarAlgo and a former Trail Blazers executive. “[Fans] want messaging that is unique; otherwise it all just becomes noise. We help organizations understand how to maximize the value of those fans.”
This move toward big data drawn from fans to use on them is showing early signs of working for teams and venues. StellarAlgo has helped the Trail Blazers and Moda Center increase the renewal rate among season ticket holders by 10 percent, after digging into data from fans. For the Vancouver Canucks, the firm developed a heat map of their stadium, Rogers Arena, showing how fans valued and viewed different seating sections in the venue. Based on a new pricing model the team has since developed, the Canucks are expected to witness a $1.2 million increase in revenue. StellarAlgo uses partnerships with major ticketing systems, email service providers and customer management systems like Survey Monkey to draw fan data. For teams and venues, such turnarounds can prove monumental. “[Team and venue owners’] two biggest concerns right now are how do I better monetize my fans and how do I keep them safer?” Hubbard told Recode last May after launching Rival.
As with all data analytics firms, these companies — and the venues and teams they service — will face increasing questions from fans on data privacy and security. Every online transaction today sparks an unspoken exchange of personal information. The negative stench of any data breach can take years for companies to overcome. That’s something Ircandia understands. “We’re building a deep understanding of individual customers, so security is paramount for us,” he says, noting that StellarAlgo’s services include not only marketing strategy but a robust security infrastructure that many teams and venues are missing. “It’s incumbent on companies to protect that data. … The industry still has a long way to go, and that’s something that can cause a loss of trust.”
But just as the know-it-all aunt understands what you really want, teams and venues mining data to inform their offerings will also be able to serve you better. If you attend more than a few of your favorite NBA team’s games this season, expect the upgraded ticket offers to come raining down. “It’s all about knowing your customer,” says Ircandia.
For the moment, between industry leaders like Ticketmaster, hopeful disrupters like Rival and data consultants like StellarAlgo, the ball has only just started rolling. “Most teams and venues are still gathering data in really manual, static ways,” says Alex Piperis, a former Brooklyn Nets ticketing account manager who now works in staffing. “They don’t yet understand fan data in an actionable way.”
Ircandia concurs, but he believes those days are numbered. “Venues know that they need to build things like faster lines and more efficient infrastructure for stadium flow,” he says. “The live event experience is a potentially life-changing experience. That’s what we’re trying to better offer fans.”
So just stare into the camera and smile. Everything else will come to you.