by David Needle

How sports execs use tech to improve fan engagement

Nov 01, 2016
IT StrategySports SoftwareTechnology Industry

Winning is great, but sports teams are making major investments in technology off the field to attract fans and keep them engaged.

sports fan tech ts
Credit: Thinkstock

HALF MOON BAY, CALIF. – If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed much in sports it’s that winning cures a lot of ills. Fans generally don’t want to follow or pay to see a team that’s always losing, but competitive teams with a shot at a championship typically attract more fans and can generate more revenue via merchandise, media and other ancillary deals.

But one thing that has changed, sports are not the only game in town. From live performances to outdoor activities and the many choices in big and small screen entertainment, consumers have more options as to how to spend their free time and money than ever before.

As a result, professional sports teams are investing in new ways to attract and engage fans both inside and outside the ballpark or stadium and technology is a big part of those investments.

Tech can improve the fan experience

A panel of pro sports executives at the Connected Enterprise conference last week shared some of the ways they’re leveraging technology, including what is and isn’t working.

“We are in the experience creation business, we’re about entertainment,” says Kenny Lauer, who heads marketing and digital initiatives for the Golden State Warriors NBA team. “We try to focus on fan behavior and design based on that behavior, rather than the other way around, though sometimes we probably are guilty of going for the shiny new thing.”

connected enterprise sports panel with sign

Constellation Research Connected Enterprise conference

[ Related: How technology gives the sports industry a winning edge ]

Lauer says the Warriors have a very “tech forward” ownership group headed by venture capitalist Joe Lacob and minority owner Peter Guber, a high-profile movie producer and entertainment mogul. Lauer said social media efforts to promote the team have been positive, but with some surprising results. For example, he says the Warriors don’t have the most followers on Facebook compared to some other NBA teams, but claims it has the most interactions on the social media site. “We also have more Facebook followers in the Philippines than in the U.S.” Go figure.

Jason Lumsden, director of technology for the Boston Red Sox, says his job entails more than what happens at the ballpark. “We define the fan experience from the time you’re leaving home to when you get back from the ballpark. We want all of that to be enjoyable including the voices you hear from the broadcasts on mobile devices. Tech helps with all of that.”

Lumsden says getting the fan experience right is especially important because many Red Sox fans only get to the park one-to-three times a year. But some things remain a challenge. “We’ve had five entrances for years, but no matter what we do there are only one or two entrances they almost all use.”

As for social media, he says it can sometimes be a forum for a lot of negative comments. “But it shows passion for the team.”

Jerry Drobny, vice president of strategic revenue for the San Francisco Giants, joked that he’s the guy in charge of “evil things” like dynamic pricing of tickets.

Non-revenue generating programs are important too

But even the guy in charge of generating revenue thinks non-revenue generating programs are important to the success of the franchise. For example, the Giants offer a free certificate at the Guest Services window where you can get a paper certificate as a confirmation and memento of seeing your first Giants game.

“You often can miss the simple things that are impactful to kids and visitors to the ballpark,” says Drobny. “Their name goes on the certificate and there’s engagement that doesn’t cost us much at all, but makes a huge impression on the fan. Now the challenge is to keep it from being something we try to monetize.”

[ Related: Big sports teams look to small startups for tech edge ]

Naveen Rajdev, CMO at IT and consulting services giant Wipro, says his company works with many sports teams around the world to improve the in-stadium experience.

“How we look at it is that almost everyone we come across loves sports and their sports team is like a religion so we are looking at the 24 hours a day life of a fan,” says Rajdev. Current projects include personalizing the fan experience on mobile devices using artificial intelligence to get them the videos, stats and other information they want in real-time.

Christine Stoffel, Founder and CEO SEAT (Sports & Entertainment Alliance in Technolgy) says the same technology that’s critical to any business applies to sports teams and the companies that support them. “It’s everything from smart buildings and mobile apps to AI and analytics. You can really use analytics to gather as much information as possible and create engaging experiences,” says Stoffel, formerly a vice president of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

However, she says it’s also challenging to decide how much investment to make in the latest technology. “We have small teams and departments and sometimes there simply aren’t enough resources to take it all in,” says Stoffel. “Also there’s the question of privacy. We have to consider how much is too much when we’re looking to collect information from fans and customers and whether we’re collecting too much data.”

David Needle is a technology journalist based in Silicon Valley.