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What pro sports can teach us about digital transformation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Chombosan / Shutterstock)

Artificial intelligence, automation and big data are all becoming essential parts of companies’ digital transformation. But what does that look like in practice? The world of sports is a great place to look for concrete, successful examples. Basketball, baseball, American football – they’re all embracing digital transformation to achieve business goals, whether that’s building on the customer experience, improving performance during gameplay or increasing their bottom line.

In October, the National Football League (NFL) touches down in London for its eleventh year as the highest grossing sport on the planet prepares for three packed out Wembley fixtures. For over a decade, the mass hysteria around the sport on this side of the Atlantic has seen suggestions of a future London franchise becoming a permanent fixture. But how does a sport, which consists of teams from only one nation, generate the global buzz and revenue to outstrip our own football, which is played in nearly every country on the planet? And what can business leaders learn from these dynamic sports, like NFL and baseball?

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 (opens in new tab) games on Facebook last year. Fans who couldn’t make it to the stadium on a Friday night could keep an eye on their favourite team through their Facebook page.

“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 their 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 (opens in new tab).

“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

Computer vision, deep learning, AI innovation and deep learning are just a small sample of the many technologies transforming the fan experience. With the league making investments in AI-focused startups such as StatMuse, fans can ask questions that cover a range of topics from game statistics to player insights – all of which are answered using the voice of your favourite athlete. However, while the range of AI deployments seek to entertain fans, these technologies can also help optimise player performance and ultimately alter gameplay style. From personalising athlete nutrition schedules to developing custom workouts, digital transformation can drastically improve the quality of the game.

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 still businesses. Sports organisations must continue to innovate to increase profits. 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 football pitch, LaLiga, Spain’s professional football association, partnered with Microsoft to develop an app (opens in new tab) for fans to stay up-to-date on their favourite 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 (opens in new tab). 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 digital transformation experience. You’re not just taking what you have; you’re seeing what you can do better and continually improving.

No matter where you look, you can find examples of digital transformation at work. Sports have a history of embracing the digital technologies that drive change — and they’re laying the groundwork for businesses to follow. That’s better than a game-winning buzzer beater.

Mark Bunting, Chief Marketing Officer, Rackspace (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Chombosan / Shutterstock

As Chief Marketing Officer, Mark Bunting leads the global marketing practice for Rackspace, including global marketing strategy, communications, brand, advertising, creative, digital, field and channel marketing.