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Five Key Trends That Are Driving the Business of Sports

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Five Key Trends That Are Driving the Business of Sports

Some of the sports world’s top business leaders shared their insights at Stanford GSB’s inaugural Sports Innovation Conference.
A young sports fan
A young baseball fan before a playoff game between the Oakland Athletics and Detroit Tigers | Reuters/Robert Galbraith

“What’s the difference between a customer and a fan?” asked Vivek Ranadivé, leader of the ownership group of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, during the keynote kickoff to Stanford GSB’s inaugural Sports Innovation Conference, held in early April. “Fans will paint their face purple, fans will evangelize. … Every other CEO in every business is dying to be in our position — they’re dying to have fans.”

While fan passion is as old as sport itself, leagues and franchises are now using cutting-edge technology not just to build winning teams but also to capitalize on the ardor of their customer base to grow another revenue source — corporate sponsorships. Here are a few of the business trends that emerged from the April conference.

Big data is changing basketball management — and the game itself

More than a decade ago, the Oakland A’s Major League Baseball team (and the book and movie Moneyball) popularized the notion of using statistics with predictive modeling to build a winning team. Teams in the NBA, such as the San Antonio Spurs, have similarly used big data sets to help owners and coaches recruit players and execute game plans. But the 2013-2014 NBA season is the first for all teams to have SportVU tracking, a system of six cameras in each arena that measures the movements of the ball and every player on the court, generating an entire database of performance information. “This is the first year we have more data than we can analyze,” said Ranadivé, noting that more data had been generated this season than in the league’s previous 67-year history.

The data are changing the way the game is played, shifting emphasis from how many total points a player scores to measures of player efficiency, productivity per touch, and defensive effectiveness. “It has been hard, historically, to quantify defense,” said Brian Kopp, senior vice president of STATS, the company that developed SportVU player tracking. “Now we have four camera views helping you do that.” In addition, the data have influenced the types of shots players take on the court.

Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala said he uses the data to assess opponents via scouting reports, but most players don’t pay much attention to it. “Some players aren’t as productive if they’re thinking too much,” he said. Instead, the data's greatest impact is in helping management build a team of effective and compatible players.

Analytics alone won’t win you a title, said Philadelphia 76ers general manager and president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie, an early advocate of basketball big data when he was with the Houston Rockets. “Fundamentally, success is still about the judgment of the people you put in place,” he said, and analytics is a tool to help those decision makers. With every team having the same deep information, he said, the way to gain competitive advantage in the future will be finding an analytics technique or technology from another industry that can be applied to basketball in an innovative way. “The interesting things are happening here, on Sand Hill Road [the location of Silicon Valley venture capitalists] or with DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] funding, or health care analytics. What’s key is to beg, borrow, and steal from other contexts.”

Data analysis is also likely to contribute to better biomechanics in sports as wearable devices determine how much physical stress players have endured and may even eventually predict the likelihood of injury so a player can be rested before he’s hurt, said Kopp. “Right now, coaches and trainers are guessing a lot.”

The rise of “smart arenas”

Franchises are looking for ways to capitalize on mobile technology to enhance the fan experience in their homes and as spectators in stadiums and arenas. Mobile devices are popular as “second screens” in home viewing of televised sports, but 70% of fans bring a mobile device to the stadium or arena and expect to use it during a game there as well, said Mark Craig of Cisco Systems Sports & Entertainment Group, who has been involved with creating arena Wi-Fi systems that will function with a dense population of users. The new Sacramento Kings arena, set to open in 2016, will have mobile applications for check-in, ushering you to your seat, indicating shortest bathroom and concession lines, seat upgrade options (much like what has been done in the airline industry), cashless commerce, and in-seat wireless charging. The Kings are exploring the use of drone technology to survey available parking spaces and even provide unique in-arena camera angles, said team senior vice president of marketing and strategy Ben Gumpert.

“Sports is a people business, so we’re looking for ways to use technology to further engage with people,” said John Abbamondi, vice president of the NBA’s Team Marketing & Business Operations division. This could mean one day scanning a ticket on your phone to enter the arena, which sends an alert to a service representative to let them know it’s your birthday, so your favorite cocktail can be delivered to your seat. “Each arena is like a lab,” he said, trying out new programs to find what's successful in deepening engagement and building new revenue.

One surprisingly underexplored avenue for engagement is enhanced fan access to athletes during events, said Ward Bullard, formerly head of sports for Google+ and now with SAP Technology. These may include special fan invitations to pre-game warm-ups or post-game press conferences, or standing next to a player during the national anthem.

Such enhancements are possible because the collection of personal data about fans would help teams “match the experience that matters most with the right fans,” Gumpert said.

Cracking the code of even deeper fan engagement

Fans want to be connected to sports teams and content anytime, anywhere in a continued migration to mobile, said ESPN executive vice president John Kosner, noting that 43% of ESPN.com’s audience came to them exclusively through mobile devices the previous month.

One critical point of access is video, added Bullard, noting that savvy leagues such as MLB and the NBA created early partnerships with YouTube to host highlight compilations and recaps of recent games to let fans watch on demand.

Ranadivé of the Kings said he approaches the organization as, “much bigger than a sports team; it’s a social network.” This includes the team’s development of ways to connect with fans watching at home and engaging on their second screens, such as Google+ Hangouts during games, and a “virtual T-shirt toss,” in which registered fans are selected randomly to win a T-shirt through the team’s app.

Clearly the social media connection is vital across all leagues: NASCAR is developing a “digital cockpit” that includes onboard telemetry and in-race social media interaction between fans and drivers.

Social media has enabled direct connections between fans and the athletes. Some players do weekly Google+ Hangouts, giving their own first person perspective, said Bullard, while others use video and social media to document their experience from the NFL pre-draft scouting tryouts through the draft, for example. On the lighter side, NBA players have done music parody videos that are a hit with younger fans on YouTube.

It’s too soon to tell, though, whether so much engagement will distract athletes, and hurt their performance or increase their value. “If you have two athletes really close in talent, would you choose the one who has a bigger social following?” Bullard asked, suggesting that some in management are starting to indicate the answer will be “yes.”

Using tech for sponsorship and integration

Sport sponsorship no longer means simply attaching a corporate name to a stadium. Rather, it has become a triangle of association between the team, the sponsor, and the passionate fan.

It involves “taking two equivalent products and creating some affinity between them through social currency, not hard currency,” said Steve Pamon, head of sports and entertainment marketing for JP Morgan Chase. Fans tend to be quite active in liking or following a brand on social media because of its association with a team, and 30% of fans who use social media to connect with a sponsor later make a purchase because of the brand’s association with the team. However, if the association doesn’t feel authentic or comes on too strong, it can just as easily be a turnoff to fans.

Teams now have professionals on staff to assemble marketing data, but intuition still plays a part in selling sponsorships, said Mike Golub, president of business operations for the MLS Portland Timbers. His team recently signed a deal with a local chocolate company not because data showed chocolate lovers to be the most passionate soccer fans, but because they felt helping the local brand would also help theirs.

Globalization of the hometown team

With so much fan access occurring via mobile technology and social media, leagues and teams are accelerating global programs, including expanding to new markets. As just one example, Kings owner Ranadivé, who is Indian American, discussed raising the Kings’ profile in India by creating a team website in Hindi, hosting international Google+ Hangouts during games, and sending some team personnel on outreach trips to India. “It’s not an overnight process, but progress is steady,” he said, noting that basketball has become the fastest-growing sport in India, and fan interest in the Kings is seven times higher than that of any other NBA team. “I wouldn't be surprised if, in the next five years, we have a player of Indian origin in the NBA,” he said. A home-country player would of course increase Indian fan interest even more, just as it has done for the NBA with players from France, China, and other countries over the past two decades.

Stanford graduates cited in this story are: John Abbamondi, MBA ‘04; Ward Bullard, BA ‘00; Mike Golub, MBA ‘88; Ben Gumpert, MBA ‘07; Sam Hinkie, MBA ‘05; and Steve Pamon, MBA ‘96.

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