SBJ/March 13-19, 2017/Opinion

At Sloan conference: Tickets, data and advice for young people

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Cleaning out the notebook after visiting some campuses and old friends: Columbia University and Neal Pilson’s class, followed by a trip to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to visit with Steve McKelvey, Janet Fink and others while meeting with Todd Crosset’s class. All while taking in a day at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, and driving to Vermont to celebrate my father’s 87th birthday. A great few days.

> WHO ARE YOU? I REALLY WANT TO KNOW: At Sloan, there was so much discussion about the holy grail — getting to know the identities of ticket holders. Ticketmaster North America President Jared Smith said the company has made great progress on the digital end of their business and in getting to know their paying consumer, but still haven’t nailed the physical part of who is actually in the building. “We all talk about personalization,” he said. “But we can’t personalize the experience for our fans because we don’t know who they all are. Unlike the airline industry that can recognize and reward their best customers at the airport, we can’t reward our best customers when they walk into a stadium. We can’t say, ‘Welcome, use our VIP ticket line’ or offer priority access for our best season-ticket holders. There is a lack of personalization for the on-site business, and that is the next great opportunity for us. If we’re able to solve the identity problem of who is walking into our building, it would unlock a great deal of innovation.”

This reinforces the point I’ve heard time and again: The future of ticketing will revolve around identity. This was reiterated in a later session where most of the panelists — especially team executives like MSG’s John Abbamondi and the 49ers’ Jamie Brandt — stressed that the future of ticket sales will be far less around the “season-ticket package” but more about investment levels and experiences for the buyer. Consumers will still commit the same dollar amount (or more) to teams, but the product mix will change and be far more flexible — from courtside seats for two at one game, to four seats in the club level for another game to eight seats in the mid-bowl for a group outing. Fans will make their investment in the team and select the experience they want, rather than be forced to buy a schedule of games or tickets they need to use.

A panel discussion at Sloan: Jared Smith, Michael Spillane, Casey Wasserman, Michael Rubin and Jessica Gelman.
Photo by: MIT SLOAN SPORTS ANALYTICS CONFERENCE


> DATA MINING: My takeaways on data remain consistent: There is a great deal being aggregated and accumulated, and the smartest organizations are the ones actually acting on it. But there is still a lot of variance on the levels of analysis, or as Wasserman CEO Casey Wasserman said, “A lot of people have it, but not a lot of people use it.” Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin, one of the companies using personalized data very effectively, had an interesting point of view of where his company is still missing an opportunity. “We are really good at using data to help our business,” Rubin said. “Where we aren’t very good is using data to help our partners do their business. So we see a major opportunity in having our partners use our data and helping them with that data.”

> “AS CLEAR A CHOICE AS THERE HAS EVER BEEN”: With Budapest dropping out of the race for the 2024 Summer Games, it’s now down to Paris and Los Angeles, and Wasserman, who serves as LA 2024 bid chairman, said the two finalists have very distinct bid characteristics. “It’s as clear a choice as there has ever been in an Olympic Games,” Wasserman said. “One is about a great history, and the other is about a modern, progressive city with a facility plan already in place. We want to showcase L.A. as the no surprises, highly predictable Games. We are very different bid cities. The [International Olympic Committee] members are going to vote for the people they know, like and respect. So it’s my job to get to know all of them as well as I can.” An example of Wasserman staying true to his word is that he flew from a dinner at the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans straight to Sapporo, Japan, for the Asian Winter Games to spend time with a number of IOC members and make the case for L.A. The political landscape has made Wasserman’s job far tougher, as President Donald Trump has become the most unpredictable factor in the bid. Wasserman must work to have the IOC judge L.A. on its own merits, and not become part of any reward or punishment for things that are happening geopolitically. My biggest question: Does Trump represent the U.S. at the IOC vote in September in Lima, Peru?

> QUOTES THAT STOOD OUT: Two former college stars talked about missed opportunities while on campus and their advice to current student athletes. Former Duke University basketball star Shane Battier suggested: “Exploit your alumni network. I wish I had met more people and networked. Exploit your network in sports. Be a pest and tell people, ‘I want to learn from you.’”

Former University of South Carolina football player Marcus Lattimore agreed, saying, “I wish I would have networked a little more. But anything I need now for my foundation, all I have to do is look at our alumni directory, make a connection and I can get the help I need.” … In a discussion of the business around college sports, the ever prescient athletic director at the University of Notre Dame, Jack Swarbrick, pumped the brakes a bit when the conversation turned to the promise of new technology: “There is not enough attention being paid to the rights implications,” he stressed. “New technology and distribution challenges are good, but there are going to be some real, real rights implications.” … NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, on getting players to be comfortable speaking on political and social issues: “I have encouraged them to have a voice, to be multidimensional and to be part of our process and our system.” On the NBA publicly expressing its value system: “If you are doing a good job as a brand about what you stand for, fans understand your action and will say, ‘That is what I would expect you to do and say.’ Fans may say, ‘I don’t have to agree with them and their position, but I respect their point of view.’ ... There is a role for institutions like the NBA to have a voice.” … The last word goes to Bob Bowman, MLB president of business and media. Asked about the day-to-day challenges of the sports business, he said the intense competition drives his need to continually evolve. “You wake up paranoid every day,” he said with great angst.

> ADVICE FOR $500, PLEASE: With the Sloan conference attended largely by students, various panelists offered their advice for success. Among the highlights:

Michael Spillane, Nike president, product and merchandising: “Be willing to start at the bottom. Take on hard things that serve you well and separate you. … Also, passion is the No. 1 element/commonality I have seen in people who do well.”

Ticketmaster’s Smith: “Make your own luck, and be willing to do things outside of your comfort zone.”

Wasserman: “When I’m told by some people that they don’t want to sell, I tell them we are selling all the time. All you do in this business is sell all day long. When people tell me, ‘I don’t want to sell,’ I tell them, ‘Well, you don’t want to work in sports then.’ Selling is a universal trait in successful people. We are out and we are hustling all the time.”

Reebok President Matt O’Toole said young people need to think about “What do you want to be doing and what kind of culture do you want to be in?”

ESPN Executive Vice President Marie Donoghue noted the small size of the sports business and stressed, “Be nice and treat people well.”

Fanatics Chief Commercial Officer Cole Gahagan: “Be assertive. There is a lot of big personalities and ego in this business. You can’t be afraid to be assertive, yet in a humble, respectful way. Raise your hand. Be assertive.”

Thoughts to add? If so, please let me know and we’ll run them in an upcoming column.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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