Miami Heat Shows How the Digital Game Is Played

NEWS ANALYSIS: In a year without mega-stars, Miami’s basketball team increases sales through fan engagement and digital interaction using a well-integrated digital platform.

Miami Heat

Matthew Jafarian was clearly excited as he described the success of the Miami Heat basketball team over the last year. But this wasn’t really about success on the court. It was about its huge success increasing ticket sales and revenue, despite the departure of the team’s big-name player, LeBron James, and the imminent departure of another, Dwayne Wade.

Normally, with another team, the departure of two star players would signal a decline in revenue as fans turned their attention to other teams, but that didn’t happen in Miami. Instead, under the guidance of Jafarian, the Heat used its web presence, a newly redesigned smartphone app, data from a variety of sources including the NBA and a thoughtful integration platform from Software AG to produce a compelling presence that engaged the fans into an overall team experience.

“The initial problem we were brought on to solve was understanding our fans,” said Jafarian, the vice president of digital strategy and innovation for the Heat and the American Airlines Arena. “What are our fans like?”

He said that initially the team only knew a fraction of its fans, those with season tickets. And even then, those tickets were frequently passed along to friends or relatives, or in the case of business ticket holders, to clients and customers. To get a better handle on understanding its customers, the Heat switched to mobile ticketing.

Now, 85 percent of game attendees use mobile ticketing. Over 35 percent of the total enter the arena for games using the Heat’s smartphone app. The others either use the Ticketmaster website or the Ticketmaster app. The Heat organization keeps track of the activity of fans using their app, and because the app can be used for purchasing merchandise, food and beverages, as well as ticket purchases, the team learns what its fans like, and what they do during the game.

This allows the Heat to alert fans to deals and special offers, and it played a major role in a dramatic expansion of season ticket sales, which are up 30 percent year over year. In addition, it allows the team to offer deals on seemingly unrelated items such as team merchandise or food and beverage options for items the team knows individual fans like.

But there’s more to it than just electronic ticketing. The Heat app also allows the team to push game highlights to fans while they’re in the arena watching the game, and to fans watching the game elsewhere. Jafarian said the team produces articles and videos for fan consumption. In addition, the app can integrate with the data available from the NBA, and can push that to fans to enhance the game experience.

Social Media Ads Paying Off

The data collected from the fans has enabled the Heat to launch a Facebook and Instagram marketing campaign, in which the team spent $20,000 in social media ads to bring in $440,000 in ticket sales. In addition, the growth in acceptance of the mobile app has resulted in an additional $50,000 per month in transactions for other sales.

“We get a lot of data from a lot of different sources,” Jafarian said. “We have to orchestrate this data, and the integration cloud is a near-real-time example of being able to take action based on other actions by the fans.

Software AG provides the integration platform that ties all of these things together,” he said. He noted that the team has two point of sale (POS) systems, one for food and beverage and another for everything else. He said those POS systems don’t talk to the other directly, but because of the integration cloud, the data is still available to users. “It’s invisible to the fans,” he said.

As you might expect, the Heat needed to make a few infrastructure changes to the American Airlines Arena for all of this to work. “We had an advanced DAS [distributed antenna system] with all of the carriers participating,” Jafarian explained. However, he said that it was clear that not all of the fans were able to use their cellular devices to get the data the Heat was providing. He said he suspected that in many cases, attendees from outside the U.S. didn’t have compatible data plans.

To make the data more accessible to the fans, the Heat installed an Aruba Networks WiFi system throughout the arena and integrated it with the data systems. Jafarian said that it took about six months in 2017 to implement the WiFi network, while at the same time the development of the Miami Heat app was progressing. Because the arena is nearly 20 years old, the WiFi antennas had to be installed in the ceiling of the facility, which added to the complexity.

The net result of all of this work is a significantly improved fan experience compared with most other facilities. This fan experience has been enabled by access to fan data, and through the integration of that data and other data provided to the fans while they’re in the arena.

This in turn has provided new power to push notifications. “Push notification is huge,” Jafarian said. “Fans are so engaged on mobile. One notification generated $25K in ticket sales.”

Clearly, the digital transformation of the Miami Heat has turned up the heat on revenue and on fan engagement, and that results in a happy team—and in happy fans.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...