In the movie Moneyball, Brad Pitt plays the role of Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s baseball club who used non-traditional analysis (and a brainy Ivy League sidekick) to outwit his rivals. By systematically finding undervalued players—diamonds in the rough such as the “fat catcher” Jeremy Brown—Billy was able build a team that could compete with big money teams such as the Yankees at a fraction of the cost.
Nowadays, many pro sports teams are using principles of sports analytics, and the field continues to grow. There is no greater proof of the field’s growth than at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, held last weekend in Boston. For a weekend in March, over 2,000 people—including GMs from pro sports teams, ESPN SportsCenter anchors and hundreds of sports geeks from places like MIT and Harvard—come together to discuss all the latest ways to use data in sports, from player performance to ticket pricing.
Due to a well-timed project with a client in the sports industry I was luckily able to attend the conference in the name of “research.” The fact that my favorite sports writer Bill Simmons (who refers to the conference as “Dork-a-palooza”) was in attendance, along with the GM, former coach and former shooting guard of my favorite basketball team was just a fortunate coincidence. In fact, Rockets GM Daryl Morey (an MIT Sloan alum) co-chairs the event and has written about his thoughts on analytics in the HBR blog.
Here are some of the innovation needs I noticed at the conference and indeed problems that we here at Motiv would love to help solve:
Teams really struggle with ticket pricing
In the words of one front-office exec, “We suck.” How can this be? Well for one, not all games are made equal. Take the NBA. If you’re the Washington Wizards, you’ll have no problem selling out the arena when the Lakers are in town but if you’re playing the Kings, you can’t pay people to come. The answer? Teams have been experimenting with both variable (different prices for different games) and dynamic (market-based) models to better match supply with demand, but they haven’t found the answer yet.
The in-stadium fan experience is in need of constant refinement
In today’s age of flatscreens, HD, ESPN, iPads, live streaming, 3D, etc., it is becoming increasingly attractive to stay at home to watch the game instead of paying exorbitant amounts of money for tickets, hot dogs, parking, and merchandise to be at the game. Some team owners such as Mark Cuban from the Mavericks understand that getting people to come to the arena is the lifeblood of his team and has dedicated himself to creating the most exciting, engaging atmosphere possible—from the choreography of team introductions, to food selections, music choices and cheer sections. They sell out most nights. Other teams have a lot to learn.
Modern media channels need to be embraced
I did sense a bit of fear, anxiety and resentment on the part of team and league executives who seemed to be uncomfortable with the influence of the Internet. Take the example of Major League Baseball, which decided not to allow any footage from any of their games to be broadcast on YouTube. Can you believe that? I really can’t. To implement a policy that prevents your fans from enjoying highlights online seems ludicrous to me and shows a failure to embrace the age that we live in. Balancing the benefits of fan engagement with the potential loss of revenue is a tough problem that leagues are still figuring out.
What do you think are the biggest needs for innovation in the sports world?
About Carl Fudge
Carl is an engagement director with overall management responsibility for the various work streams involved in our consulting work.