The NFL knows it has a challenge on its hands.
Professional football’s popularity has never been higher, television viewership is increasing, 180 million people identify themselves as fans of the NFL and millions participate in fantasy football leagues every year. The NFL is now a $9 billion-a-year business.
However, at the same time, attendance at games has remained flat over the past six years, and for those fans who do attend, their expectations for the experience are rapidly changing. They want an easier, more personalized experience and connectivity that lets them send as many tweets and photos as they want.
Even in a region like New England, which has seen an unprecedented run of success with its top professional sports teams over the past dozen years—the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins have won a combined eight championships since 2002—there is constant pressure to get a deeper understanding of those people who are pushing through the turnstiles in every game, from where in the stadium they go and what they buy to what they want in their experience and what will keep them coming back.
Sports teams are working hard to convince fans who increasingly own large-screen, high-definition televisions and have access to a wide range of options of what to watch that it’s still better to come to the ball parks and arenas to watch the games in person. Teams and leagues are turning to big data to help them not only collect much-needed information and insights about their fans, but also the tools to parse and analyze that information to help them keep season ticket holders from walking away and convince people to continue coming to the games.
At the Experience Economy CIO Summit Aug. 12 hosted by Extreme Networks at the Patriots’ home field, Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., executives from all four of the major professional teams and the CIO for the National Football League talked about how they’re using big data analytics to improve the fan experience at the stadium.
The eventual goals are to create an experience inside the stadium and a relationship with the fans all year around to convince them that buying tickets and coming to the stadium is a better way to watch a game than sitting in their homes, the team officials said.
“We know [fans have] all the comforts of your couch watching a big TV,” said Lisa Gelman, vice president of customer marketing and strategy for The Kraft Sports Group, which includes the Patriots, the New England Revolution professional soccer team, Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place, a shopping mall at the stadium. “TVs keep getting bigger and cheaper.”
Gelman outlined many of the steps the Patriots have taken with big data since 2011, when the team—a perennial Super Bowl contender—suffered through its lowest season ticket renewal rate in a decade (though it was still above 90 percent, a high rate for an NFL team). The Patriots now hold an orientation day for new season ticket holders—whom Gelman called “rookies”—to get them ready what the experience is. For example, a day at the stadium begins in the morning, with tailgating, and can extend for hours after the game ends.
“It’s a whole day affair,” she said. “It’s not a three- to four-hour thing.”
Sports Teams Use Big Data Analytics to Improve Fan Experience
Team officials used a range of contact methods—from email to direct mail to phone calls—to contact these rookies, an effort that resulted in a 200 percent gain in attendance at the orientation. The Patriots also send out emails to people who attend games to get their feedback, and make a push to keep in touch with season ticket holders when they miss games.
“Not surprisingly, if you don’t come to games, you might now renew,” Gelman said. “If you miss four games the likelihood that you will renew is just more than 33 percent.”
The Patriots offer other incentives, such as encouraging season ticket holders to wear a pin and earn a chance to win prizes at the game and sending gift cards to the pro shop. The team wants to keep engaged with the fans.
The result has been a jump in renewal rates each year, even as the competition from TVs gets tougher, she said.
Officials with the other teams and the NFL had similar stories. All talked about the need to better know the fans and their expectations, and then make moves to meet those expectations.
“We’re doing a lot to focus on what the fan experience is,” said Michelle McKenna-Doyle, senior vice president and CIO of the NFL.
Teams are growing in their use of mobile ticketing to get more insight into who is using the tickets and watching the games—such technology gives the Boston Bruins insight into the two-thirds of fans they don’t know who are watching the games, according to Laura Zexter, director of business intelligence solutions at the TD Garden and the Bruins—and there was talk about using iBeacon in their stadiums and arenas. iBeacon is a Bluetooth technology in iOS 7 from Apple that would let teams track fans who have the apps on the iPhones throughout the stadium and enable the teams to offer information about everything from what’s available at the concession stand to how long the lines are at the bathrooms.
Brian Shield, vice president of IT for the Red Sox, said iBeacon is still in its early stages, but there is promise.
“It’s a really interesting science project, but it is a science project that has some merit,” Shield said.
Sports Teams Use Big Data Analytics to Improve Fan Experience
The wireless network in the stadiums is a key part of the fan experience, the team officials said. Fans want to text and use social media throughout the games, and they don’t want to be hindered by a slow wireless connection. Most teams are building high-performing WiFi networks and other technologies into their stadiums, and McKenna-Doyle said the NFL was successful in its WiFi efforts during the Super Bowl in February in New York City. Such vendors as Cisco Systems and Intel see an opportunity there.
Extreme Networks is embracing the challenge of bringing wireless networks and analytics capabilities to sports venues, which Norman Rice, senior vice president of corporate development at Extreme, said is a market that could be as large as $1 billion. Extreme in January was named the NFL’s official WiFi analytics provider for both the league and Super Bowl XLVIII in February. The company has deployed its WiFi analytics technologies in a range of NFL stadiums, most recently the home fields of the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The work in these stadiums also showcases what Extreme’s technology can do, Rice said.
“We view our approach with sports venues and our partnership with the NFL as spheres of influence that lead to broader impact in other areas of our business including education and health care—thus making the opportunity substantially larger than the sports venue market alone,” Rice said in an email to eWEEK.
Big data analytics is a fast-growing market, according to analysts at Frost & Sullivan. In a report released Aug. 14, the analyst said the market saw revenues of $3.2 billion in 2013, and will grow to $15.1 billion in 2020 as the amount and speed of data generation is outpacing the ability to manage it.
“High spending on data architectures to identify opportunities for future growth is driving the development of big data analytics solutions,” Hiral Jasani, digital media industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, said in a statement. “Further, the affordability of tried and tested open-source big data computing frameworks such as Hadoop is fueling demand.”
Big data analytics is what will help the Patriots keep getting people to the games. The Patriots’ Gelman was asked why the team—which unlike most businesses, has a long waiting list of customers who want season tickets—is putting so much effort behind the big data initiatives. She said it was important to take the long-term view.
“People are on the waiting list for the team where Tom Brady is the quarterback and Bill Belichick is the coach,” Gelman said. “They’re not on the list for the team [that will be in place] six to seven years from now.”