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Sports teams immersed in 'Big Data'

| Sunday, June 22, 2014, 8:49 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Fans wave their gold towels after the Penguins scored during the first period of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff game against Columbus on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Fans wait for the gates to open at the home plate entrance before the Pirates game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, June 30, 2013, at PNC Park.

During the last Penguins' season, Abby L., a 34-year-old fan from Evans City, attended 14 weekday games at Consol Energy Center. She sat in the upper bowl and spent an average of $83.50 on tickets. She bought nachos, sushi and beer during her 11 concession visits and purchased nine merchandise items, including a Sidney Crosby jersey (small).

The club has access to this information, and more, because Abby L. participates in Pens Points, a loyalty program that offers a wide range of perks and privileges in return for her dogged support. Members also enjoy a personalized game experience, further increasing their likelihood of remaining dedicated fans. Abby L. is known as a “power user,” and the Penguins want to keep her.

“We want to better understand our customers' trends and habits so we can provide a better experience,” Penguins senior vice president David Peart said. “We can provide the products they want. We can tailor the way we're delivering value to our fans.”

To do this, information is required. But it is there, readily available to the Penguins and other franchises to collect, analyze and use. The business of sports, especially customer relations management (CRM), is jumping headlong into what has come to be known as Big Data, and the technological advances that facilitate its collection and analysis.

Beyond fireworks, bobbleheads and other mass promotions, treating the fan as individual has paramount importance, from the most efficient way to buy tickets to discounts on food, drink and apparel to fulfilling a plethora of other wants and needs. All of it is geared toward providing a reason beyond wins and losses for new fans to attend, and old fans to remain happy.

“In the end, the goal is to customize and deliver experiences based on preferences,” said Pirates executive vice president Drew Cloud, the club's chief sales and marketing officer. “The main thing is adding value to the concept of being a season-ticket holder or frequent user.”

Kenny Farrell, the Arizona Diamondbacks' senior director of business strategy, said, “The point is to really understand our fans and what they want and make sure what we're doing matches that. The more we can understand how many games they come to, to what seats they like, what opponents they like, what giveaways we can do, we can draw more fans to the ballpark.

“Ultimately, if we can learn your habits and if teams are gathering specific information and know where you go for beer (and get a discount), we can make that more enjoyable and make you want to come back.”

College ticketing and marketing departments also have hopped on the data train. Chris Ferris, executive associate athletic director for external operations at Pitt, said 90 percent of single-game football tickets will be digital, and digital tickets are available for the first time to season-ticket holders.

“When we know you transfer a ticket to a neighbor who we don't know, we can collect basic, nonintrusive information on who you transferred it to,” he said. “Then we can reach out to that person and ask them about their experience and whether they'd be interested in coming back.”

Gone are the days of sales people pitching tickets to random names from a phone book. “This is a long way from ‘Enter to win' ” to collect data, Farrell said, but the science is relatively new. Analytics and advanced metrics evolved into a primary tool in player development, scouting and performance evaluation. The same thing is now happening on the marketing and ticketing side.

“We're looking at data the same way,” Cloud said. “We're able to make better decisions and better serve the customer.”

The information “has always been there,” said Rick Amos, vice president of business development for Toronto-based Channel 1 Media, a digital marketing firm that works with about 150 teams and venues. “We just haven't had the tools to utilize the collection we have and delve into these points where we can talk to our fans.

“It used to be we'd put a message out there and hope somebody sees it and responds,” Amos said. “Now when we reach out we're talking to somebody one on one. ... We're talking about new ways of communicating, with fans giving feedback and responding with relevant information and relevant ticket products.”

Surveys remain primary sources of data, querying fans about attendance frequency, their favorite opposing team or player and other preferences. The surveys have become more sophisticated, extensive and user-friendly. Amos said his company produces interactive surveys that are “entertaining” and “more like a game.”

Data also are gathered from sources like team websites, digital ticketing and such mobile applications as MLB.com 's “At the Ballpark,” which is customized for each team. The Tampa Bay Lightning give season-ticket holders a jersey implanted with a chip in the sleeve that triggers food and concession discounts, and provides data to the team.

This season, several MLB clubs (although not the Pirates) are using Apple's iBeacon customer-tracking technology that identifies where fans are seated and sends personalized messages on seat upgrades, concession deals and other information. Loyalty programs like Pens Points provide a rich vein of data. The Pirates do not have such a program, but their “Virtual Prize Wheel” promotion approximates the concept. Amos said his company set up the technology.

“To participate, the fans have to fill out information about themselves,” he said. “But there's a lot of incentive to do that. It's a two-way relationship. You're giving the fan an incentive, but at the same time, they're gaining information on that fan.”

Ultimately, nothing sells tickets like winning or, said Cloud, “the direction of the team.” But even if a team slips, Farrell said, “we can still find ways for people to come out and enjoy the product,” and come back to enjoy it again.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com.

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