SportsPro SmartSeries - Smart data

Sport creates countless points of contact between committed communities of fans and the teams, competitions and events they care about most. Now, with technology creating new means of interaction, and development in analytics and algorithms delivering advances in understanding huge sources of information, it is becoming possible to build up more powerful and meaningful pictures of individual supporters – and meet them on their own terms.

by Michael Long and Eoin Connolly
SportsPro SmartSeries - Smart data

Data and the life of the fan

The notion that big data can enable sports organisations to enhance their understanding of fan behaviour both within and outside matchday venues is nothing new, with profiling, CRM and targeted communications common practice. But without thorough analysis and contextualisation, making sense of the vast wealth of data currently available remains a challenge for every sports organisation.

Customer-generated data is said to be the most collected type of external data, and it comes through myriad channels, from ticket purchases and marketing campaign analysis to social media. In a bid to glean valuable insights from this ever-growing source of information, organisations across the sporting world have taken to hiring analytics experts and data scientists capable of converting big data into smart data. 

Fan analytics is an impending growth area. Numerous agencies have long operated in this field but recent years have seen a proliferation in specialist offerings. Two such examples are IBM Fan Insight, a cloud-based analytics solution employed by the likes of the Ottawa Senators ice hockey team, and new ventures such as Kraft Analytics Group (KAGR), a data management, advanced analytics and strategic marketing unit established by Kraft Sports Group, owner of the New England Patriots National Football League (NFL) team and their Gillette Stadium home.

One common way in which organisations use big data to understand fan behaviour and drive revenue is through dynamic ticket pricing. The Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association (NBA), for example, were one of the first professional sports teams to start using data to set ticket prices, responding to demand and activity in the secondary market. 

With the help of a 6,000-square foot data centre and ‘smart turnstiles’ at their hi-tech Golden 1 Center, the Kings are also able to track consumer behaviour and log individual preferences from the moment a fan enters the arena. Combined with additional data generated through social media and the team’s app, this information enables them to offer personalised game day experiences, special offers, and a more proactive customer service. 

From there, advanced backend solutions like predictive analytics and advanced algorithms now offer a deeper understanding of who is actually attending an event, not just who purchased the ticket. While basic transaction data remains an important means of understanding a customer base, companies like Umbel, an Austin, Texas-based data company, strive to go beyond point-of-sale and concession data to capture in-venue information through location-based mobile marketing, gating Wi-Fi, beacons, geomapping and geofencing.

Such proximity technologies have been adopted by the majority of major league facilities in the US, with 93 per cent of Major League Baseball (MLB) ballparks reported to be employing beacons as of last summer. A Proxbook report released last year estimated there to be around 8.2 million proximity sensors currently deployed globally, and projected that by 2020, 400 million beacons will be in use worldwide.

Using proximity technologies to capture fan data has inherent commercial benefits, enabling venue operators to offer stadium-only promotions and providing sponsorship teams with more in-depth insights to present to potential partners. When combined with other data points, they can also provide further understanding of consumer brand affinity. Social media analytics tools like Ampsy, for example, enable brands, agencies, venues and teams to monitor sentiment and aggregate content around specific events.

Looking ahead, many experts in the field foresee rapid advancements in data gathering and analysis methods. Some envisage a future in which consumer data is captured not through smartphones, but through tiny microchips embedded under the skin. It could be that such a chip would serve multiple functions on matchdays, providing access into the venue, acting as a contactless payment device, and even alerting nearby first aiders of an impending illness.

Virtual Personal Assistants

After years of promise, voice-recognition technology has made significant strides forward and 2016 will go down as something of a breakthrough year for virtual personal assistants, or VPAs. Smartphone-based platforms like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now had been the most prominent examples but it is Amazon’s Echo, a voice-controlled, hands-free speaker, that has come to set the industry standard in terms of functionality.

Echo is powered by Alexa, an advanced cloud-based voice service that can not only perform simple tasks and provide real-time information across compatible devices, but also adapt to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. New capabilities are being developed all the time and at this year’s CES tech trade show in Las Vegas, Alexa appeared in all manner of connected devices, from in-car entertainment systems to lamps and laundry machines. 

Now, other tech companies are following Amazon’s lead. Late last year, Google parent Alphabet Inc released Google Home, an internet-connected speaker to rival Echo, while Apple is said to be working on its own Siri-powered home assistant that can control domestic appliances, locks, lights and curtains through voice activation.

As VPAs become more widely accepted as part of everyday life, it stands to reason that sporting entities will increasingly look to integrate themselves into what could be the fan’s most important digital relationship in the future. Experts at Gartner Inc, a leading information technology research and advisory company, predict that by 2019, 20 per cent of all smartphone interactions will take place via VPAs, while the firm also foresees a time when VPAs can perform more complex tasks ‘such as completing a transaction based on past, present and predicted context’.

More generally, though, the fact that the tech firms behind the ongoing VPA arms race are increasingly seeing sport as an ideal platform on which to showcase their products and services suggests it won’t be long before they find sporting applications for their nascent technologies. 

To some extent, this is already the case. Microsoft’s Cortana, touted as ‘the world’s most personal smartphone assistant’, began predicting the outright winner of every NFL game last season and correctly picked the outcome of an impressive 64 per cent of games over the course of the regular season. 

Another company investing in smart assistants is Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg spent much of 2016 developing Jarvis, an artificially intelligent, voice-controlled assistant for his home in San Francisco. Though it has the ability to perform typical functions like playing music and controlling lights, Zuckerberg claims that Jarvis is different to other VPAs on the market because it does not rely on a “do as I say model”. Instead, he describes the software as “simple AI” that can learn its user’s needs through “natural language processing, speech recognition, face recognition, and reinforcement learning”.

Technological advances and the continued popularisation of VPAs are expected to coincide with accelerations in conversational commerce, an emerging area of technology that combines AI with messaging or other natural-language interfaces so that users can interact with businesses and brands through chat bots.

Bots and automated marketing

Since smartphones and personal mobile devices became commonplace, more and more companies have converted to the idea of using the data those products can record to tailor marketing to individuals and groups of users. Social media has provided one way of measuring and connecting with audiences. The proliferation of smartphone apps has also been a popular means of collecting that data by encouraging direct engagement, before allowing for direct communication.

Consumer behaviour, however, is changing. A report from media and technology consultancy Activate has found that a quarter of apps are used just once after download. But one category of apps that is revisited extensively by users is the instant messaging service. According to The Economist, 2.5 billion people worldwide have downloaded the likes of Facebook Messenger, the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, and WeChat. Getting access to consumers on those platforms is the next step for brands, and tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft have created development tools that will allow them to do so. 

Messaging bots, or chat bots, are artificially intelligent programmes that can interact directly with users – synthesising a conversation. They can be developed to impart a selected range of information, making them ideal for customer service operations, while other short-term possibilities include assistance with product selections – guiding fans through the process of buying tickets or merchandise. Access to photo messaging platforms is not currently supported on iOS and Android, but bot-powered apps can communicate through the likes of Facebook, Messenger, Slack, Skype and Telegram.

GameOn is a developer which has already created partnerships with the likes of Sports Illustrated, for a bot-powered NFL app, and Sky Sports in the UK, for an app modelled on Soccer Saturday presenter Jeff Stelling. Both deliver information like scores and team news, and allow for integration of photos, videos and live statistics. 

Two things could come to set bots apart as a marketing tool. The first is personality: bots can conceivably be programmed to take on the persona of a sports star or team, effectively giving a more accessible version of the social media experience. Bots can also learn, not only becoming more natural in conversation but also getting a better understanding through time of what each individual user wants. With a higher number of interactions than via a conventional app interface, that picture also builds up more quickly. 

Though Silicon Valley continues to focus on developing this kind of technology, it is in China, where messaging platforms are well-established, that conversational commerce is currently at its most mature. According to Gartner, Tencent’s WeChat, the popular social media platform that has partnerships with many prominent sports properties, offers its 440 million users ‘an all-in-one approach, letting them pay their bills, hail cabs and order products with a text’.

There is still some way for the technology to go to reach its full potential. Last March, Microsoft’s ‘Tay’ project – a bot designed to mimic the behaviour of a millennial social media user – had to be pulled from a public trial after just a few days when it began reflecting Twitter at its very, very darkest. Already, however, the potential for bots to enter the marketing mix is clear.

Smart wearables and very personal data

Mainstream consumers in developed markets are getting more used to the idea of wearable technology – even if for many it has not yet crossed the divide, as mobile products like smartphones have, from impressive to indispensable. 

Sales of smartwatches have stubbornly refused to take off, slowing year-on-year in 2016, and that seems at least in part because of a gap between concept and technology – that products like the Apple Watch require an accompanying smartphone to do most of the heavy lifting means that it can be difficult to make an emphatic case for purchase. There is one sector in which wearables are convincing buyers: health and fitness. 

The early leader in the smartwatch sector, Apple, has tailored its second generation line to more appealing to the fitness user, introducing waterproofing and independent GPS. Fitbit, meanwhile, is eating up other competitors in the space, buying Pebble in 2016.  

Fitness wearables are already showing potential as a means of creating a deep and active form of engagement between consumers and brands. In November, sports videogame publisher 2K announced a so far unique partnership with Fitbit for its new NBA 2K17 basketball title. 

Fitbit users who have created a personal avatar through NBA 2K17’s MyPlayer feature get a temporary in-game stats boost for their player each time they complete 10,000 steps in a day. The integration is made possible by the Works With Fitbit software platform, which is already facilitating relationships between the wearables and a variety of apps. 

Many of these have explicitly health-based purposes, related to water and calorie consumption, while others provide a means of accessing or sharing performance data on other devices. But the concept of developing goal-based promotions is one that could be applied in a range of contexts for sports teams, sponsors and governing bodies. 

Simple promotions could involve encouraging fans to walk to games, rather than taking cars or public transport, in return for matchday rewards and discounts. A more involved approach, bringing in wider sets of health data, might better suit bodies seeking to encourage grassroots participation, particularly among younger participants who want to measure their performance against their heroes. 

If treated sensitively, secured legitimately, and properly anonymised, data relating to health could conceivably be used to create a rich and sophisticated understanding of the physical state of amateur players, which could inform policy or academic research. Seattle-based startup Arrivale is among the companies attempting to take a more holistic approach to personal physical data analysis, with a process that combines saliva collection and a gut microbiome check with Fitbit monitoring.  

The slow growth of the wearables sales could prove to be a way of trialling these kinds of initiatives before the market reaches maturity. In elite sport, wearable technology is already very much on the march. GPS-enabled units and heart-rate monitors been a common sight on training grounds for many years, helping to track performance and prevent injury. Products from companies like Catapult Sports are now capable of measuring the impact of collisions – which could be critical in understanding the risks of concussion.  

Conductive e-textiles, or smart fabrics, could massively expand the potential of wearable devices. For now, a team in Pakistan has found a way of embedding tracking sensors into a fitted sleeve in a bid to resolve one of cricket’s thorniest issues. CricFlex measures the extent to which a bowler’s arm straightens in his or her action. It relays the results to a smartphone app, which then calculates whether the straightening exceeds the legally permitted 15 degrees. 

The idea is that umpires all the way down to amateur level could soon have access to tools to prevent ‘throwing’, but clothing capable of measuring biomechanical activity would have considerable potential in coaching.