Pro sports teams walk a fine line using analytics to sell more stuff

There’s a mother lode of data in professional sports — individual and team stats, attendance figures, gate receipts, team standings, playbooks and tons of content. The question is what to do with it.

The National Football League and three major Boston sports teams are revamping their data aggregation and analytics infrastructure and installing iBeacons(s aapl) in hopes of capturing more data from their ticket holders, tightening the feedback loop between fans and teams. But some IT pros with those teams acknowledge there’s a fine line between enhancing the game-going experience and distracting from it.

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should

“Apple’s been talking to me about [iBeacon] for three years, but up till now I’ve looked at it as a solution looking for a problem,” said Fred Kirsch, publisher and VP of content for the New England Patriots. “Most of our fans are season ticket holders, they know where they’re going, where the bathrooms and concessions are and we’re not going to coupon them.”

But he’s starting to see the light. The new “iOS 8 will let you notify people outside of an app of something even if their screen is locked, as long as you jump through hoops when you develop your application,” Kirsch told attendees of Extreme Networks’ CIO Summit Tuesday night at Gillette Stadium. That means I can message someone who doesn’t have our app, welcome them to Gillette and say here’s what you can do with our app.”

Brian Shield, VP of IT for the Boston Red Sox, agreed that the promise of iBeacon is starting to gel now that Android(s goog) support is offered and some glitches have been ironed out. “The problem before was iBeacon was inconsistent — you’d go to one game, it would work, and then the next few games it wouldn’t,” Shield said.

Inside Fenway Park; photo courtesy of SapphoWeTrust.

Inside Fenway Park; photo courtesy of SapphoWeTrust.


“iBeacon is interesting, but we need to know how to harness it to improve the customer experience — we don’t want to inundate the customer with ads. It’s no different from the issues we have with spam marketing today — how to make the information timely, relevant and not obnoxious,” said Jessica Gelman, VP of customer marketing and strategy for the Kraft Sports Group, the company behind the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, the New England Revolution and Patriot Place.

Because the Patriots have such a high season ticket renewal rate — well north of 90 percent — people who come to Gillette tend to know where the bathrooms, concessions and their seats are. In other words, they’re, um, older people. The team is still sorting out how to reach out to and attract millennials — who are less likely to have high disposable income and thus buy season tickets, she said.

For example, the Patriots’ year-old, free Game Day Live app will direct you to the restrooms with the shortest lines — a pretty handy perk, maybe even more useful than NFL Red Zone video it also provides ticket holders.

Filling the lull during commercial breaks

The NFL hopes to use iBeacon to make the playoff and Super Bowl game experience better and more interactive for attendees. The league is looking for new uses so that if you register and sit in a given section, you can get messages to participate in the half-time show, for example, according to Michelle McKenna-Doyle, SVP and CIO of the NFL. If you can keep fans engaged and involved during commercial breaks and half time, the overall experience will be better, she said.

TD Garden; photo courtesy of Eric Kilby.

TD Garden; photo courtesy of Eric Kilby.

As good as a team may be (and as good as its analytics are) no one can guarantee performance the next day, let alone next year — just ask the Red Sox. So it’s key to make the overall experience, from parking to food to non-game entertainment, as good as possible, said Laura Zexter, director of BI and Solutions for TD Garden and the Boston Bruins. “We want to know how much fans are spending in the arena, get them to stay longer and hopefully spend more.”

Jay Wessland, VP of technology for the Celtics — which shares TD Garden facilities and ticketing systems with the Bruins — agreed with the truism that it’s more efficient to retain existing customers than recruit new ones. “Optimizing revenue is what we try to do, and the best way to do that is to keep fans happy. We want to resell tickets to the same fans every year versus acquiring new fans all the time.”

Many of these Boston area venues are limited as to what they can do physically. It would be very difficult to expand Fenway Park, a designated historic landmark sandwiched in an urban area, but there are some things you can do with data. The Garden, for example, was able to open another exit ramp from its garage and work with the city to change traffic flows to alleviate gridlock on game nights, said Wessland.

Of course the best way to boost customer satisfaction is by putting the best possible team on the field. Toward that end teams and leagues are closely monitoring player performance.

This year, the NFL will put RFID devices in player pads to track movement on the field in real time; The NBA has been doing something similar for a while.

“We want every game to go into overtime and be won by a margin of less than 3 points. The way we can help do that is make data available to clubs to make them the best they can be,” saidMcKenna-Doyle. “The use of analytics and game planning makes a huge difference in how close games are and how you can go from worst to first.”

With all this data flying around, managing the wireless communications packed into these big-but-limited spaces is a challenge on its own, said McKenna-Doyle in an interview after the event. In addition to customer-facing Wi-Fi, there’s back-of-the-house Wi-Fi (for running concessions, etc.) and team and media communications. Some of these use regulated frequency and some unregulated, increasing the chance for mishaps.

“Frequency coordination is one of our biggest issues. All the sidelines wireless stuff is competing,” McKenna-Doyle said. The NFL uses a game-day coordination company to manage much of that as well as Extreme Networks analytics to pinpoint Wi-Fi issues.

Giving fans more of what they want

One advantage of tracking customer data — including social media messages — is that teams and leagues can be more responsive to fan sentiment.

For example, the NFL found that most game-day tweets on Sundays are about officiating, so the league this year may use social media to tweet a video clip of the play at issue and provide some commentary about why the call was made, what the relevant rule was, etc. “We can’t necessarily change a call,” McKenna-Doyle said, “but we can improve communications.”

Note: This story was updated at 7:03 a.m. PST to add information about the NFL’s plan to use RFID devices to track player movement and the NBA’s use of movement tracking technology.

Feature photo of Gillette Stadium courtesy of Flickr user VickieVictoria