Sport lives or dies by its customers’ experiences - a lesson for other industries

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks January 21, 2018
A simple story of how a sport industry conference shows most other industries how to create, and keep creating, good customer experiences.

The now annual gathering of the sports industry tech community that is the Leaders Meet Innovation conference in London may seem like an obscure curio and side issue for the majority of CIOs and senior line of business managers out in the world of finance, manufacturing and the rest. But there is a huge lesson for such companies to pick up on.

The sports community knows full well that it ceases to exist as any form of business if there are no fans, so connecting with them and keeping their interest is a crucial capability. As a direct consequence, they have much to teach other businesses about the key art of creating and managing customer experience.

This is particularly true of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the USA, though European football clubs are picking up on the possibilities very quickly. As might be expected the event, held at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) headquarters, featured presentations from some of the big `names’ in team sports, alongside a couple of corporate sponsors, SAP and Cisco, which have increasing vested interests in both the sports themselves and the possibilities of re-purposing what is learned.

One of those key learnings to emerge was that need to understand customer experiences and how to exploit them. It also encompassed how developments in AI and machine learning can expand and enrich those efforts.

When in Rome

For example, the owner of Italian soccer team AS Roma, James Pallotta, was present to talk through his plans for the team’s future home, The Stadio de Roma, which has just received final approval to start construction. Much of the planning for this, however, has not revolved around the pitch or the seating plan but on the technology to be exploited to give the fans the fullest possible experience.

We don’t want to build tech for tech’s sake. And many older clubs have made such mistakes, like use the wrong WiFi or finished the build before even deciding what comms systems are required. We want to build an open system so that it can be changed/extended in the future.

He also indicated they will be using facial recognition on the fans as a security and safety issue for the fans. Fighting, he suggested, is endemic in Italian football so it is essential to keep known villains out.
But it is using technology to build the widest possible fan base that is the underlying goal.

Every soccer fan has their favourite team, but football is now a global game, so I want to make Roma everyone’s second favourite team.

This, of course, is a good example of having `customer experience’ as a core and long-lasting objective, especially as fans can be engaged and exploited at global distances. In fact, for many fans now, watching sport on a data-rich video feed can be far better option than attending the event for real.

I myself have seen F1 fans standing trackside at a Grand Prix with their backs to the circuit, watching the race on a nearby big screen, while American Football’s NFL can now `construct’ a representation of what a player could see as they passed the ball by extrapolating from the live TV images actually available.

We are aiming at being a 365 day a year operation. We realised we had no handle on the fans as people – no email addresses or anything. We are now generating that stuff, such as what they buy in the club shops, including their sizes. We are also building content and delivery, including Roma Radio and player transfer video packages.

Something specific all other businesses should note is that building and exploiting customer experience is a full time job for all senior members of the `staff’. For example, the realisation that putting fans and players much closer together by using tools like Instagram and Facebook is not optional: it is vitally important. Senior managers and specialists in typical businesses may not seem as important as Ronaldo or Magic Johnson, but to their customers they may well be.

Another speaker was Steve Pagliuca, who co-owns the Boston Celtics basketball team together with Pallotta. He showed the pragmatic value of a good customer experience.

When we bought the Celtics we knew they could not win every game or every championship. But with a better fan experience we knew there was a very good chance they will stay with us anyway.

As well as bringing the players and fans close together, it also means thinking laterally to develop ways of engaging with them. For example, the owners have invested in the creation of the Celtics Shamrock Association, which looks to provide specific services and entertainments for local children, as well as being the start point for young player development.

The team has also partnered with GE to use the GE healthcare tools and services to support the players’ healthcare services. The aim is to keep the players playing longer and more healthily. It is also using it to monitor their play and performances, to help develop their specific training programmes and healthcare regimes.

GE is applying its Predix data analytics tools to build simple, Celtics-related profiles of all the individual Celtics fans, capturing information about them as close to 365 days a year as possible.

Exploiting the `new oil’

The connection between the customer experience developments in sport and the rest of the business world was expanded on in his presentation by Greg McStravick SAP’s President of Database and Data Management.

I see data as the `new oil’. There is a tsunami of data and managing it, using it, is the real issue now. It is now a real asset and there is even talk that data should go on the books of publicly traded companies. There are companies that know how to exploit it and those that don’t. Digital dinosaurs will inevitably die out. There is no escape for them.

For most business users he sees the biggest problem being how to deal with the 90% of the data is not held in formal business systems like SAP offers. Here, SAP adopts the bimodal definitions where the data the company works with is Mode 1 – the formal stuff. Mode 2 is in and around mobiles, especially the geo-spatial data, weather data, and generally accessible personal data.

For example, James Pallotti says he does not care who uses his Roma season ticket, but he wants to know who they are, how big their family is, where they work, how far they drive to get to the match and as much other information about them as possible.

Later in conversation with diginomica, McStravick expanded on his views on how the sports industry’s use of customer experience data can be applied in the wider world. In particular he addressed the key difference between sport and other sectors, where sports organisations know what the fans want, for the fans are telling them what they like. But while the broad spread of business users may well know about AI and virtual reality they're not entirely sure how it fits them because they can't visualise what they might like to do with it. And with the best will in the world we seem to be at a point where even companies like SAP struggle to provide an answer.

First of all people have a tendency to interchange the words artificial intelligence and machine learning. Machine learning is an example of artificial intelligence. Virtual reality is an example of artificial intelligence. I actually do not believe, based on what I've seen so far and what I know about sports, that I've seen any machine learning. What I do see is a hell of a lot of very good direct to consumer engagement efforts underway and apps to personalise the experience and create intimacy for the fan.

But he does see huge scope in future. For example, by tracking individual patterns new versions of season tickets can be developed and sold. Instead of season tickets only being sold for all matches, fans with limited availability – for example mid-week matches only – can be identified and the system itself can configure a ticket package that meets such criteria.

That's machine learning. Eventually, the human interaction to say `that's the profile, send them an offer’ won’t be needed. The machine software then redirects to the marketing engine - here, create this offer and send it to them. That is machine learning.

And by the way we have non-sports examples for us - accounts receivable, accounts payable.

SAP has already built intelligence into its AR and AP software that allows it to predict the likelihood of defaults on an account. The software intelligently educates itself through more and more transactions and data sets. So when an account receivable come in, businesses can be told it is recognised as a risky debt and there are certain action that can and can’t be done with that account payable.

The one thing I was thinking about in being here (at the conference), is that the uniqueness of their product creates a customer retention and loyalty, different in most other industries. So their dynamic is definitely different.

But by the same token, it is not so different that many of those same rules, and same learnings, are no longer valid.

My Take

Sport gets many people going, some to the point of rabid intensity, so it is easy to dismiss the advances that are being made in exploiting IT in all its forms to give fans (aka customers) a damned fine experience. And it is, perhaps, understandable that the management of a nuts and bolts distribution business might think `that does not apply to us’. But the short answer is that it does. That then raises a second problem – namely that many of the IT vendors may be little more advanced in their thinking on such a subject than those businesses.