There was a lot of talk about new technology at the recent Stanford Graduate School of Business Sports Innovation conference, but what really caught my attention was conversations about how some smart people are planning to use new technologies to solve perennial fan pain points, like parking and concession issues, or just getting tickets close to friends who also want to see the game. I think using tech to conquer mundane problems is a great idea, and could be part of more common-sense plans that could do more to help sagging attendance than cooler ideas like video replays or Google Glass broadcasts at games.
Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s great when teams like the Indiana Pacers and the Orlando Magic push the envelope to do things like have Google Glass views shown on their arena big screens. But listening to the folks from the new ownership team at the Sacramento Kings as well as some other smart folks from the Pac-12 conference, the NBA and SAP at the April 8 conference at Stanford convinced me that we may be moving into an important second wave of stadium technology deployment, where we’re over the cool factor of the technology and are instead asking how it can be used to solve the kind of issues that keep people from buying tickets and attending games live.
To be sure, there are some table stakes to this game, and among most stadium professionals these days the need for ubiquitous connectivity inside arenas is a given. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is semi-famous in tech circles for his desire to have fans cheering instead of looking at their phones, but new Sacramento principal owner Vivek Ranadive said not having networks in stadiums is a Luddite kind of view.
“Young people are going to look at their phones 400 times a day, whether he [Cuban] likes it or not,” Ranadive is fond of saying. Ranadive, the CEO and chairman of data-management software giant TIBCO, is the new cool kid on the NBA owners block after swooping in to save the Kings from being shuttled back to Seattle. As an all-around smart guy who likes to accomplish things, Ranadive has lots of ideas for the league and his new toy. At the Stanford conference he talked about plans to make the Kings’ new stadium one of the most digitally advanced buildings anywhere; but what was refreshing to me was his and his team’s focus on the fan experience, something that bodes well for NBA fans in and around Sacramento.
Paint your face purple: Why fans are different
As the CEO of a multi-billion dollar public concern, Ranadive knows all about keeping customers happy. But fans, he said, are much different. “Fans will paint their face purple,” he told the Stanford audience. “They will evangelize, tell everyone else about [going to a game]. Other CEOs I know are dying to have fans.”
(They also might like to have a team owner who tweets selfies with cool people like Shaq.)
Luckily he didn't dunk on my basket pic.twitter.com/01CymV9ies
— Vivek Ranadivé (@Vivek) June 26, 2013
So how are Ranadive and the Kings looking to use tech to take care of those fans? Ben Gumpert, senior vice president of marketing and strategy for the Kings, told of some ideas as part of an in-depth panel discussion later in the day at the Stanford conference. Among the ideas where tech could make a kind of background difference: By providing traffic or parking information for fans en route to a game; by knowing when a fan is in the stadium, and maybe bringing by a free drink on that fan’s birthday. Or by using Google+ Hangouts to facilitate a pre-game fan interaction time.
“We’re looking at all the negatives [of coming to a game], like traffic, where do you park, what’s the most efficient way in to the building, is there a phone charger near your seat,” said Gumpert. “We want to be early adopters and have the smartest building, but we also see a lot of technology being behind the scenes.”
Surprise and delight
From a personal standpoint, I agree with the Kings’ philosophy — even though there is an exciting NBA team here in the Bay area, the “pain points” of having to trek out to Oakland to see a game live keep me on the couch every time. Parking, commuting to the stadium and ticket procurement are all things I haven’t explored and I’m guessing there’s no easy way to figure all that out. If the Kings’ plans work out, the team app will have a lot of that info, which I think is hugely more important than, say, making sure the app has video highlights or Instagram access to player pictures.I mean — Google Glass views are cool. But I wonder about a stadium and team ownership that is all excited about Google Glass TV views, but leaves parking up to some dude with a sign and an orange flag. Or leaves concession purchases in the 1950s, with one person taking your order, going back to get your hot dog, and then making change. If there is a trend toward using technology to fix real problems, instead of deploying technology for technology’s sake, I’m all for it.
“There need to be more ‘surprise and delight’ experiences in stadiums,” said Ward Bullard, formerly head of sports for Google+ who is now headed to a job with the sports-app division at SAP. “Using technology to bring value back to the fan hasn’t been strong enough.”
David Aufhauser, vice president and general manager of digital media for Pac-12 Networks, said there are many potential ways to use technology to improve the fan experience, especially via specialized types of access — like free ticket upgrades or giving fans the ability to watch press conferences or meet players personally. Bullard and Aufhauser, part of the panel discussion, also talked about ideas like allowing groups of fans to dynamically move their seats to sit together, or to better keep the shared experience alive.
“Sports is still one of the things people come to physically,” Bullard said. There should be a way, Bullard said, to keep the “high of the tailgate” party intact as fans move into the stadium.
“You don’t see many selfies from the couch,” said Gumpert. “What we need to do is find out which fan experiences matter most, and leverage the mechanisms” to improve the fan experience.
“It is a people business,” said John Abbamondi, vice president of team marketing and business operations for the NBA, who suggested teams use CRM to know if a person in the building is up for a season-ticket renewal. “Or [maybe] it’s their birthday, and you greet them with a special drink,” Abbamondi said. “Make it personal. It is about the high-five, the thing that gets you off the couch, That shouldn’t be overlooked.”