From Winning Games to Winning Customers: How Data Is Changing the Business Side of Sports

Sports analytics leaders are now using data to understand fans as well as they know their players.

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Thanks to the long marriage between statistics and professional athletics, some of the most advanced users of analytics tools are found in sports. But as the use of analytics spreads from the playing field into business operations, the industry is addressing many of the same adoption challenges that confront business leaders in every sector.

The recent 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) delved into how teams and leagues are using analytics to boost revenue, and how they’re managing transitions in culture and strategy.

Know Your Customer

The rapid uptake of digital ticketing in sports is helping teams better identify their true customers for live events: the fan attending the game, rather than the individual who purchased the ticket. That’s important information for loyalty programs like “Magic Money” — credits awarded to fans of the NBA’s Orlando Magic that can be spent on seat upgrades and other purchases made via the team’s mobile app. The team is also running predictive analytics to forecast attendance and identify season-ticket holders who may be no-shows for a particular game. It can then proactively email those fans to offer the opportunity to transfer their tickets to someone else. When the effort is successful, it captures parking or concession-stand revenue that might otherwise be lost.

Outside the arena, Ticketmaster Entertainment Inc.’s data group is pioneering a “verified fan” program with an eye to putting high-demand tickets directly into the hands of people who want to attend an event, not resellers whose jacked-up prices pinch consumers and don’t benefit venues or performers. Fans register online, and Ticketmaster uses a scoring algorithm to weed out brokers and bots, according to Ticketmaster senior vice president and head of data and marketing services John Forese, who spoke at the conference. Verified fans then receive a code to use when tickets go on sale.

At ESPN Inc., the quest for deeper insight into customers includes bringing fans into its media lab to observe them as they watch a game. It uses eye-tracking and heart-rate sensing, and maps their emotional state based on what is happening during the game, Vikram Somaya, ESPN’s senior VP, global data officer said at SSAC.

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