Sports venues advance goals, enhance fan experience with data analytics

Sports fans today have more ways than ever to watch their favorite teams beyond the traditional, live stadium experience, including television, streaming services, even highlights on social media.  

For years, fans have been less inclined to choose the live stadium experience, with game attendance across major North American professional sports in decline. In 2020, financial news and opinion company 24/7 Wall Street reviewed 10-year changes in average home game attendance for professional hockey, baseball, basketball, and football teams across North America and found average attendance had declined by more than 10% over the past decade. 

An oft-cited reason for this decline is increasing competition from home-viewing options. A 2018 report by consulting firm Deloitte notes that fans at home often have access to better camera angles, as well as AR/VR, multiplatform, and other multimedia options. In response, sports teams and venue operators are working hard to improve and differentiate the in-stadium experience. A big part of that effort involves advanced analytics to gain better insight into what’s happening at a venue in real-time so staff can respond rapidly to changing conditions.

In today’s sporting venues, analytics is being put to work to help sports organizations and venue operators better understand where fans are parking and queuing to optimally station staff to take tickets and direct fans to their seats, restock concessions before they run out of items, even increase security staff in certain areas before a situation gets out of hand. 

Here are three examples of how sports organizations are using analytics to gain better insights into their venues. 

Metrics help NHL support sustainability goals 

The National Hockey League (NHL) is leveraging data and analytics to measure the carbon footprint of its teams’ venues and to glean insights into best practices for its sustainability goals, notable given the league’s venues’ dependence on energy to maintain their ice. The NHL has worked with partner SAP to create NHL Venue Metrics, a sustainability platform that teams and their venue partners can use for data collection, validation, and reporting and insights. 

“The most important thing about any sustainability platform is you cannot impact what you cannot measure,” says Omar Mitchell, vice president of sustainable infrastructure and growth initiatives at the NHL. “That’s consistent across whatever your functional role, whatever your industry focuses on. The only way you can really advance change is by measuring, and then from measurement, impact. Sustainability is all about continuous business improvement. Sustainability is all about innovation and business optimization. The only way for you to speak in the language of business is to have the data that help you derive those insights.” 

NHL Venue Metrics is an end-to-end, cloud-based platform to help venues measure and analyze the carbon footprint they generate across areas such as energy, water, waste, and recycling. The operational data is processed using SAP HANA Cloud and visualized with SAP Analytics Cloud. SAP is the technical lead, while Mitchell’s team works closely with the NHL’s club business and analytics group for data capture and the processing of ticketing and premium concessions, for example. Mitchell’s team also works closely with the IT group to ensure the platform and its data are secure. 

Mitchell’s advice: Showcase the business benefits of sustainability initiatives in addition to their environmental benefits. More than two-thirds of NHL arenas have converted to LED game lights rather than the old 1,000-watt metal halide lights. While the LED lights have led to substantial energy savings in those facilities, they also make the ice sheet look brighter, making the surface pop. 

“We’re not telling the venues, ‘You must change your lights,’” Mitchell says. “We’re showing them all of the examples and best cases for why this innovation is so important and successful, as well as the benefits from an environmental standpoint.” 

Texas Rangers’ state-of-the-art stadium built on data 

A new stadium, and the data it produces, have spurred Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers to reimagine its business operations. The team’s new Globe Life Field, which opened in 2020, was an opportunity to develop a robust and scalable data and analytics environment that could produce data in categories that didn’t even exist in 1992 when the team’s previous stadium opened. 

“In the old stadium, we just didn’t have the ability to get the data that we needed,” says Machelle Noel, director of business intelligence at the Texas Rangers Baseball Club. 

“At the old stadium, you’d pull up at the park and you’d give somebody your $20 to park and they would put that $20 in their fanny pack,” adds Brian Vinson, client success leader and principal consultant at Resultant, which worked closely with the Rangers on the new data and analytics environment. “Then you’d get to the gate and show them your paper ticket. They would let you in and then you would go to your seat, then maybe you’d go buy some concessions. You’d scan your credit card to get your concessions or your hat, or pay cash, and the team wouldn’t see that report until the next day or the next week.” 

It took hours of work for business operations to pull data and prepare reports after a game ended. The team’s new environment automates that task, generating a report within an hour of a game’s completion. It also provides near real-time updates that can be shared with executives during a game. This allows the operations team to determine which stadium entrances are the busiest at any given time to enable them to better distribute staff, promotion items, and concession resources. Departments can see what the top-selling shirts (and sizes) are at any given time, how many paper towels are left in any given restroom, even how many hot dogs are sold per minute. 

Noel and Vinson’s advice: Share your successes and educate stakeholders about the art of the possible. It’s not enough to just build capabilities, you need to help executives see how those capabilities will benefit them.  

“The idea that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ does not always work, because you can build stuff and people don’t know about it” Vinson says.  

NTT IndyCar turns the Brickyard into a smart city with analytics 

NTT IndyCar is leveraging analytics, AI, and digital twin in every element of its business, from managing its venues like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), known to fans as the Brickyard, to providing fans with real-time insights into the decisions made by teams midrace. 

NTT IndyCar has deployed NTT’s Smart Venue solution at IMS. The app takes its cues from efforts made to create smart cities, treating the venue, which draws upwards of 350,000 fans on race day, as a mini city. 

“We’re thinking about it more like the idea of mobilizing and planning to operate a city for a day, everything from moving people around to serving them through emergency services and being able to see around corners where we might want to dispatch someone even before an incident has occurred,” says SJ Luedtke, vice president of marketing at IndyCar. 

Smart Venue’s AI provides full visibility of the venue, with data calibrated every 30 seconds at greater than 90% accuracy. AI-enabled optical detection technologies, combined with real-time entry gate flow rate data, allow the organization to monitor crowds and traffic and generate insights about congestion at specific gates and tunnels using predictive analytics. 

“On a given race day, it is the second-largest city in Indiana,” says Bennett Indart, vice president of SMART World Solutions at NTT. “You can imagine 350,000 people trying to get into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For the past several years, we’ve been helping the operations team understand where the bottlenecks are. This year, we’ve actually added a function to provide that to the fans themselves on their mobile device.” 

Luedtke’s advice: Develop close relationships with your stakeholders. She notes that she and CIO Rebecca Ruselink work hand-in-hand. She says their partnership is strong because IT really tries to understand her team’s pain points and to answer their needs rather than just supplying the solution IT thinks would be best.  

“Our teams meet regularly,” Luedtke says. “We have a roadmap of things that we want to accomplish.” 

Data Management, Predictive Analytics