What Pro Sports Can Teach Us About Digital Transformation

Sports teams are pioneering new technologies to improve fan experience and player performance

Artificial intelligence, automation and big data are all becoming essential parts of companies’ digital transformation — the integration of modern technology into all areas of the business, changing how they operate and deliver value to customers.

But what does that look like in practice? The world of sports is a great place to look for concrete, successful examples. Basketball, baseball, football, soccer… they’re all embracing modern technologies to achieve business goals, whether that’s building on the customer experience, improving performance during gameplay or increasing their bottom line.

Improving the customer experience

More than ever, fans are consuming content in new ways — on their computers, mobile devices and on-the-go. This allows teams to reach fans in unique ways. For example, the Major League Baseball began streaming games on Facebook last year. Fans who couldn’t make it to the stadium on a Friday night could keep an eye on their favorite team through its Facebook page.

Bill Schlough senior vice president and chief information officer for the San Francisco Giants.

“Fans are consuming our game in more bite-sized chunks,” said Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer of the San Francisco Giants Bill Schlough. “The good news is, people still want our content, so we’re finding new ways to get to our fans. We have to make sure it’s easily accessible, high-quality, short clips so they can get whatever they want.”

The Giants are also pioneering unique ways to enhance fans’ experiences at the stadium. In 2004, they were the first MLB team to roll out Wi-Fi universally within their stadium. Even as recently as 2014, only 12 MLB stadiums offered Wi-Fi or a Distributed Antenna System to boost mobile signals. Today, all 30 stadiums have connectivity.

The Giants playing at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

“Think about it — I go to a game, I take a picture, I want to send it to somebody,” Schlough said. “There are still places where that’s not a smooth, efficient process. We’re up to 1,600 Wi-Fi access points now to ensure fans have universal, high-speed coverage. We’ve also been investing heavily in cellular coverage. Our top priority is ensuring everyone is staying connected.”

Improving the product on the field

The fan experience is just one element. Teams are also using automation, analytics and AI to enhance their performance in games. Perhaps you’ve noticed the style of play in the National Basketball League shifting over the past half-decade or so.

Using the league’s Second Spectrum technology, NBA organizations can analyze players better than ever before. Teams are transforming their game plans to include more layups and corner three-pointers. Players make threes from the corner more often, resulting in about 30 more points per 100 possessions. That’s a huge competitive advantage. Player tracking also allows teams to dissect defensive tendencies, plus where — and for how long — players are touching the ball when they’re on the court.

Steph Curry, point guard of the Golden State Warriors, holds the record for three-pointers, sinking 402 in the 2015/16 regular season. ©Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

On the baseball diamond, teams can track the speed of fielders and how efficiently they go after balls hit towards them. Analytics may show a left-handed batter may almost exclusively hit the ball to the right side of the field when facing a right-handed pitcher. The end result is teams shifting their positioning based on a batter and pitcher matchup. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“We’ve seen more change in analytics than perhaps any other area,” said Schlough. “Originally, the only real data we had was traditional statistics, like batting average and home runs. But now we can measure things like the break of a pitch or exit velocity (the speed of the ball coming off the bat). You can measure the actual spin of a ball now and determine if a pitcher’s getting tired. It’s cool for the fans — and it’s also changing the way we play the game.”

Improving the bottom line

Of course, at their core, professional sports are businesses. Sports organizations must continue to innovate to increase profits, and one of the most active areas of focus is ticketing. Twenty years ago, all tickets were printed on paper. If you wanted to sell one through a site like StubHub, you’d send it via snail mail. Once StubHub received the ticket, they’d put it online and physically send it to a buyer once purchased. Can you imagine waiting two days before actually knowing you had a ticket for a game?

About ten years ago, the Giants began developing technology to allow StubHub to activate and deactivate barcodes online, allowing tickets to be sold right up until first pitch. Now, teams even offer mid-game seat upgrades. If you’re sitting in the upper deck and notice an enticing open seat behind home plate or courtside, you can open up the team’s website or app, click a few buttons, get a new barcode and enjoy the action up close.

On the soccer pitch, LaLiga, Spain’s professional soccer association, partnered with Microsoft to develop an app for fans to stay up-to-date on their favorite clubs. Users can earn points and virtual currency to unlock exclusive content and services. From a business perspective, the app offers free content to customers by selling space to advertisers, while also providing business intelligence and social listening on fans. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Even e-sports are undergoing a digital transformation. Fantasy football players are using machine learning to build and maintain their rosters. They use these models to find players who are projected to have breakout years — or those likely to underperform and should thus be avoided. The results may not be perfect, but that’s part of the process — seeing what can be done better and continually improving.

No matter where you look, you can find organizations driving change through technology improvements. Sports has a history of embracing the technologies that drive change — and they’re laying the groundwork for other businesses to follow. That’s better than a game-winning buzzer beater.

Learn how Rackspace can become your organization’s trusted partner, delivering modern IT as a service and guiding your digital transformation.

Mark Bunting served as Rackspace Chief Marketing Officer from 2018-2019. He oversaw the global marketing practice, including global marketing strategy and all aspects of the marketing organization including communications, brand, advertising, creative, digital, field and channel marketing. Mark’s leadership objective was to ensure all customers of Rackspace understand the full breadth of what the company provides as an unbiased, trusted advisor in today’s multi-cloud world. Mark also oversaw the transformation of the Rackspace brand. Mark brought more than 25 years of experience as a technologist, author, TV personality and influencer to Rackspace. He has served as interim CEO and CMO at various technology companies where his experiences ranged from driving traditional marketing strategy and deployment, to sales and marketing organizational restructure, to agency and personnel selection and team building. Mark has also held acting C-suite roles at Apollo Education and McAfee, and currently serves as a mentor to numerous technology start-ups at the Texas-based accelerator Capital Factory. In addition to his experience in the C-suite, Mark is a recognized TV personality on the topic of demystifying technology and has appeared on programs for The Discovery Channel, CNBC, The Learning Channel, Fox and his own series, “Bunting’s Window,” which ran for 23 years on 11 airlines globally. A serial entrepreneur, he has also founded numerous digital and media brands, including SkyTV, which was sold to Ziff-Davis. Mark is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he is currently a lecturer at the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations. He is based in the company’s San Antonio and Austin, TX offices. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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