Key Takeaways from Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Written by: on March 8, 2017

Last week we attended the 11th annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) held in Boston. Sports is a huge part of our DNA at POSSIBLE Mobile — we entered the iPhone era together with the sports industry so this conference has become a great source of learning and information for us.  The conference builds on a growing acceptance of analytics in sports, it celebrates advanced technologies in sports, and it’s a great place to learn about what lies ahead in sports.  Overall, we were impressed with the content.  The panel format in particular included very well cast experts with thoughtful moderators.  What’s unique about SSAC is the involvement of MIT’s graduate students in the planning, organizing, and delivery of the event.  The students and event organizers did a tremendous job once again.

What struck us most this year is how similar challenges exist for both sports fan engagement and overall challenges in digital marketing.  Sports lead many trends by virtue of a continued need to engage fans and customers alike along consistent seasonal cycles, so it’s helpful for digital marketers to keep a close eye on the sports industry.

Here’s a quick list of the some of the more recognizable industry leaders and experts who participated in last week’s event:

  • Adam Silver (Commissioner of the NBA)
  • Mark Cuban (Owner, Dallas Mavericks & Investor on Shark Tank)
  • Billy Beane (General Manager, Oakland A’s)
  • Daryl Morey (General Manager, Houston Rockets)
  • Jonathan Kraft (President, Kraft Group — Kraft Group owns New England Patriots)
  • Bob Bowman (President, Business & Media, MLB)
  • Bobby Kotick (CEO, Activision Blizzard)
  • Brian Kenny (Host, MLB Network)
  • Cris Collinsworth (Sportscaster, NBC)
  • Casey Wasserman (Chairman & CEO, Wasserman)
  • Michael Rubin (Executive Chairman, Fanatics)
  • Tedy Bruschi (Former Linebacker, New England Patriots)

Our favorite quote from this year’s conference came from Casey Wasserman during the Titans of Industry panel.  “The problem with data is that you need to listen to it.  It’s not the highest paid person in the room making the decision.”  Data is a great equalizer; it levels the playing field, but it can only improve organizational decision making if you use it and listen to it.

Two big themes that cut across many panels were 1) the vast amount of untapped data (collection is just half the battle), and 2) personalization.  Creating useful breakdowns of data with models is a strategic differentiator for teams, clubs, leagues, and companies looking to improve customer experience and bottom lines.  In parallel, personalizing ways to invest in your team and personalizing ticket options also improves customer experience and bottom lines.  Not surprisingly, these two themes are core competencies for digital marketers to improve overall competitive advantage.

Here are our biggest takeaways from SSAC17:

  1. Adam Silver is a great commissioner and the future is bright for the NBA.  From Silver asks Silver, it became clear why the NBA has such a bright future globally.  There is a new generation of owners in the NBA who grew up on data and technology and have tremendous analytical skills.  25% of NBA rosters include international players.  Players embrace all forms of social media (Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, & Facebook) and have attracted many followers.  When you combine the above demographics with the league’s continued investment in digital platforms (iOS, Android, AppleWatch, Alexa, AppleTV, CarPlay, and FireTV), the future shines bright.
  2. eSports has ginormous potential and a clear digital advantage. From eSports Emergence, we learned that anyone with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone is a potential eSports athlete and can compete in the digital world.  In just the past 12 months, the number of collegiate level eSports teams has doubled to over 900.  eSports provides a level playing field — any boy, girl, or team can compete against another in games like Madden, League of Legends, and CounterStrike.  Turner Sports now broadcasts eLeague on Friday nights and there are over 100 million viewers of eSports on Twitch. Additionally, publishers like ActivisionBlizzard are working to establish professional eSport leagues with franchise owners. And lastly, major championships are selling out in popular venues like Madison Square Garden. eSports’ considerable potential is a derivative of its digital lineage.
  3. Your same-day championship gear has arrived.  From Titans of Industry, Michael Ruban shared that Fanatics provided same day delivery of championship gear to Cub and Patriot fans immediately after their respective world championships.  Through a maniacal focus on data and analytics of what fans want shortly after their team wins a championship, Fanatics was able to use digital marketing, eCommerce, and local drivers to deliver gear to customers that was purchased on the same day.
  4. Analytics mean nothing if players don’t get it.  From Please Stop Punting, Tedy Bruschi provided great perspective as to what types of analytics are helpful to players.  He said, “What are their gotta-have-it plays”?  Third down conversion percentage doesn’t help.  Knowing what an offense will call and run in “must-have situations” is what a player needs.  Teams continue to invest in data collection, integrating data sources, analytics, game plans, and strategy.  However, if players are clueless — they just don’t have the IQ to get it and recall what coaches emphasize — it’s all a complete waste.
  5. CRM is really hard for sport teams.  From Fan Data Deluge, we learned how challenging it is for teams to know who their customers are beyond season ticket holders.  One person might buy four tickets: who are the other three people attending?   Is the buyer of four tickets a fan, spouse, executive assistant, VIP, influencer, or ticket broker?  Tickets change hands so many times after being sold before being used that it’s hard to know who’s sitting in the seat.  Teams need to integrate their CRM applications with many data sources to get better views of their customers.  Ticket barcodes are on the way.  Highly digital solutions leveraging mobile and biometrics are taking over.
  6. Ticket arbitrage is a huge industry.  From Beyond the Seat, the panel shared that ticket arbitrage is an enormous market, $7 billion to be exact.  Ticketmaster is now working with platforms like Facebook to allow customers to buy tickets.  Teams continue to fine tune the balance of inventory (season tickets vs. individual game tickets) and combine it with dynamic pricing to better meet demand, increase revenue, and battle arbitrage.  John Abbamondi of the Madison Square Garden Company believes more flexible “investment options” are the future.  Instead of buying two seats for 40+ games, customers want flexible packages — 4 tickets courtside for one game, a box for another, a block of seats for a game, and other combinations.  All of this is the result of collecting customer data, analyzing it, listening to it, and offering better options to improve customer experience, improve bottom lines, and cut into ticket arbitrage.
  7. Golfers need more numbers.  From Golf: Taking a New Approach, the panel discussed how golf is a great sport for more meaningful data collection, analytics, and presenting more impactful numbers beyond Handicap.  Golf is a lifelong sport.  With the proliferation of smartphones, golf course data, and new digital technologies, data collection will accelerate for golf to allow analytics to revolutionize an understanding of a player’s strengths, weaknesses, and how to improve.  Golf will become a numbers game like baseball powered by digital.
  8. Team analytics are now proprietary.  From Moneymind: Overcoming Cognitive Bias, Billy Beane said “it’s now hard to know if you’re cutting edge or Fred Flintstone.”  Every team has hired smart groups of analytical people and is collecting their own proprietary data while analyzing it in different ways.  When Billy started leveraging data and analytics, all the data was public information that everyone had access to from the same sources.
  9. Broadcasters start with analytics.  From Data Driven Storytelling, Cris Collinsworth described his typical work week leading up to Sunday Night Football.  Mondays are spent entirely reviewing data and analytics with the analytics team.  Tuesdays are spent reviewing film.  Cris focuses on the 20% of analytics he doesn’t quite understand.  He picks a few interesting ones and then starts his journalism process.  His goal for a broadcast is to “take the helmet off players,” make them more human, and tell their story backed by an interesting number.
  10. Digital will improve game-day experience in the future.  From Fan Data Deluge, Jessica Gelman (CEO, Kraft Analytics Group) described the fan experience in the future.  Imagine teams tapping into Waze data to understand where fans start their journey from and how traffic patterns develop around a venue.  Venues could then open up specific parking lots and gates to reduce time in traffic.  Teams will have a better understanding of how many fans are in the parking lot attending tailgates, when they want to enter a stadium, and then open and staff gates accordingly to help reduce time in lines getting in.  Teams will be able to provide the right concessions based on weather.  Concession lines will be shorter because fans will be paying electronically.

In summary, the panels are great — the topics, content, thought leaders, and moderators. Digital technologies and platforms are enabling more data to be collected than ever before: setting the table for analytics and better decision making.  Just remember “to listen to your data”.

David Salyers

David Salyers

As Business Development Director, David is responsible for leading new business development at POSSIBLE Mobile. With over 20 years industry experience, David has worked with clients including Accenture, Hasbro, Rodale, Chewy.com, and US Figure Skating. David's approach is embedded in the strategic and creative process, ensuring work we do serves our clients and builds brands over time.
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