Hockey tech plays catch-up to the speed of the game | #SportsDataSV 2014

San Jose Sharks, #SportsDataSV, SportsDataSV 2014With advents like optical puck tracking, player tracking and even fight tracking technology, hockey is on the cutting edge of sports tech. San Jose Sharks COO John Tortora joins hosts John Furrier and Jeffrey Kelly on #theCUBE during our special #SportsDataSV event, to share some insight as to how the Sharks are utilizing technology to not only improve the fan experience, but improve their business.

Here is a fun fact: The Sharks came to San Jose in 1991. Then, in 1995 they became the second professional sports team to have a website. (The Seattle Mariners were the first.) Hockey has always been a fast-paced game, but the NHL is taking that speed by the horns and trying to introduce technology that draws in both the casual and hardcore fan. From puck tracking to player tracking tools, hockey is trying to capture the speed of the game — a real-time experience the industry has historically struggled to convey through the television. The average height and weight for a hockey player in the NHL is 6’2″ 210 pounds, skating at 25 mph and shooting a puck at over 100 mph.

Hockey is also the only professional US sport that doesn’t have an out of bounds. An interesting concept would be if NHL teams placed sensor technology on the boards to share game data with fans. Can you imagine getting a reading to your mobile phone of the force with which a player hit the boards?


Good and bad of hockey

Hockey still struggles with is ‘going mainstream’. However, hockey does very well in the markets where the teams are located. For example, Tortora shares that the Sharks are as popular as the Golden State Warriors in their market. The NHL struggles in markets where there is no hockey, and it hopes compelling things like HDTV will help the organization break into those markets. Another tactic the league is using is big ticket events like the Winter Classic to attract mainstream fans.

It wasn’t but a few years ago that New Years Day was dominated by college football. Now, Tortora argues, hockey owns New Years Day. The NHL hosted six outdoor games this season, and Tortora said that the Sharks are working with the NHL to finalize possibly hosting a Winter Classic outdoor game next season. This year Los Angeles hosted the Anaheim Ducks versus the Los Angeles Kings, and the game was a success. During a night game in January, 65 degree weather kept the ice frozen and the game commenced without a hitch. That night, the NHL passed the ‘outdoor test’.

Big Data and hockey

Tremendous amounts of data go into managing ‘behind the scenes’ matters, too. Whether looking for opportunities to build more rinks, or managing one of the seven sheets of ice in the Bay area under the Sharks Ice brand name, Tortora says that part of the Sharks’ vertical integration strategy is engaging in the youth hockey market. The Sharks have 28 travel teams and figuring skating programs on its ice sheets.

Data also goes into player development. The Sharks are working with SAP on scouting software in hopes to normalize its evaluation process of potential players. Tortora is very adamant though, that “nothing will ever replace the GM seeing the player.”

Data also helps reduce travel budgets, and mitigate risk when it comes to picking who to scout. The Sharks’ coaching staff has an XOS Digital, one of the most popular sports video scouting systems that breaks down video footage and makes it available to the players digitally, sometimes as soon as on the plane ride home from an away game.

In the front office, the Sharks use three different SAP products:

  1. Success factors – employee evaluation tool
  2. BBD – Business By Design, a financial analytics and CRM processing software
  3. JAM – collaboration tool where employees can work together on anything from a sponsorship deck to marketing plan, and avoid over cluttering email inboxes


Revenue side of hockey

So how exactly does data mix into the revenue side of the business for a professional hockey team? Tortora explains that revenue is still mostly locally-driven, relying heavily on ticket sales. The NHL sends the teams huge amounts of data as it relates to league-wide sales on a bi-weekly or weekly basis. Tortora calls this a kind of “club services” approach that details: ticket sales and how they’re tracking league-wide, and suite sales and how they’re tracking league-wide. These reports offer much more than just number of tickets sold, however. The Sharks are also able to see how many tickets were club level, at what price point, the average price point, and how many comps are included mix. All of this data are provided in near real-time.

The league even communicates labor issues and revenue sharing news in these reports. Part of the NHL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiated last year, there is a revenue sharing mechanism and salary cap in place. So much has changed in the NHL over the last 10-15 years, and there is still so much to learn.  Tortora recognizes the role of data analytics in expanding on the NHL’s lessons.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is take a measured approach. You have to be careful of the cost of implementing the technology, versus the demand, versus the ultimate utility. At the end of the day you have to evaluate all of the fan technology we use, or that’s out there that could be used, in the context of watching a hockey game, or in the context of watching a concert at the arena. We have many fan technology innovations, one of which is mobile ticketing.”

Interestingly, NHL data shows that fans don’t want mobile ticketing though. They actually liked having a physical ticket. The utility of ‘mobile tickets’ is ahead of where the customer currently is, and that’s useful insight for the NHL as it seeks to go mainstream.