MLBs Budding Star: Business Intelligence

Opinion: Baseball picks a keeper in 'real-time' sales system.

Its Opening Day at Fenway Park, and Im in Philadelphia. But at least Im speaking with Justin Shaffer, vice president and chief architect of If I dont get to see the Red Sox play their home opener, at least I can talk about the future of baseball and technology.

Shaffer is having a very good start to the Major League Baseball season. Unlike in years past, Shaffer aims this season to develop new technology capabilities to support new business initiatives, rather than simply trying to keep the old systems from crashing. "I have a great job, dont I? Baseball and technology," he said.

Shaffer and I were in Philly at a conference held in conjunction with SAS Institutes annual users group meeting. Shaffer was invited to speak at the conference about how business intelligence is being used at MLB to make new real-time offers to fans and also help MLB sell the 40 million unsold tickets available during the 2,300-game major-league season. Of course, Fenway Park doesnt have an unsold-seats problem, but there are plenty of opportunities to sell fans additional goods and services. In fact, Shaffer said Fenway fans were big purchasers of New England Patriots gear when MLB offered it via an e-mail campaign.

In an interview, Shaffer said now that he has a stable technology platform (he is a big fan of Sun systems and software) and a way to extricate selling and trends data via SAS tools, he is hearing from his managers about new technology-based selling strategies. He wraps up all these new opportunities under the title of "real-time sales systems." Those systems would seek to sell seats via cell phone right up to game time, enable real-time video downloads of game-winning plays and even offer discount food deals via wireless devices when hot dog sales are slow.

As Babson College professor Tom Davenport said at the conference, these types of data-driven capabilities "dont happen overnight." I think the distinguishing difference between technology leaders and technology laggards over the next year will be that the leading companies will do their homework, make technology investments and reap the rewards by offering goods and services capabilities that their competitors cant match.

Before you can become a real-time sales organization, you have to establish real-time links among your inventory, CRM (customer relationship management), financial and marketing systems. All that database integration is difficult work, but the companies that have been willing to make that investment in time and manpower are going to have a strategic advantage that their competitors will find very difficult to match. It is very difficult to hurry the process of database integration. The mapping of data, the building of interfaces and the security aspects to be considered all work against trying to do a quick job to catch up with the competition. Companies that have outsourced or offshored their data and data-analysis operations are in a more difficult position.

In one of his typical data-driven presentations (he does, after all, run SAS), CEO James Goodnight used a Web browser to describe how he starts his business day by checking real-time measures of sales, customer satisfaction, hiring, product development and associated financials. In 30 minutes, Goodnight has an up-to-date, accurate view of his companys health. I know of few CEOs who have that type of information available in an easy-to-understand format—one that represents the actual state of the company, rather than a snapshot that may be days, weeks or months old.

The enduring lesson about the development of the real-time corporation is that real time takes time. You need to invest when technology investment is out of fashion. You need to think about your companys strategy for years, not months, out. As the technology market shifts from cutting costs to technology-driven sales opportunities, the companies that built out their infrastructure far outdistance their flat-footed competitors. Companies that made that investment will, just as the Red Sox finally got their World Series rings on opening day, be well-rewarded for their achievements.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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