Features | From Pivot Magazine

How big data is changing sports fandom 

Professional sports teams have long used analytics to shape the field of play. Now, they’re using it to shape the fan experience, too. 

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Brad Pennefather, head of the Vancouver Canucks’ customer analytics team, at the Rogers ArenaBrad Pennefather, head of the Vancouver Canucks’ customer analytics team, at the Rogers Arena (Grant Harder) 

It’s the last home game of the Vancouver Canucks’ season, and though the team is already out of playoff contention, the Rogers Arena is full to capacity. Fans are here in part to check out Quinn Hughes, a hot prospect from the U.S. college system—and brother of 2019’s No. 1 draft pick, Jack Hughes—playing in just his third National Hockey League tilt, as well as Elias Pettersson, who will go on to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year. But when all eyes turn to the opening faceoff, Brad Pennefather is more focused on what’s happening off the ice.

Pennefather, a CPA, is a pioneer in the emerging field of fan analytics. As the Canucks’ vice-president of membership, sales and business intelligence, he heads up the Canucks’ customer analytics team—a six-person unit with expertise in digital media, fan experience and brand research—that shapes how “members,” as the team calls them, experience the Canucks brand, whether they’re sitting in luxury boxes or checking scores on their phones. 

For now, the analytical practice is mostly descriptive; it tells the franchise exactly who its fans are (age, gender, where they live) and their level of commitment (how many games they attend per season). It’s also beginning to tell Pennefather’s team what fans like—individual players, game presentation, food and music played at the arena. As the field develops and incorporates more sophisticated artificial intelligence tools, it will likely become more predictive, anticipating how fans will respond to new offerings, and eventually prescriptive—helping set corporate tactics and strategy.

Teams are turning their data-gathering systems around and pointing them in the opposite direction—up into the stands

During the game, though, Pennefather is focused on old-school customer service. He cruises the arena, checking out entry gates, answering questions and making sure guests are enjoying their evening. Sporting a blazer and a close-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, he is an approachable presence in the concourse crowd, barely raising his voice over the game-night din. He looks like a typical Canucks fan dad—as it happens, tonight he’s accompanied by his teenage daughter—except for the fact that he’s ready to step in at a moment’s notice to help clean up a spill or serve a long concessions queue.

Fan analytics, Pennefather explains, is a combination of in-person interactions and hard data points. “There’s a little bit of art and science to it,” he says. “The numbers point you where to look. The observations and one-on-one engagements with members get you to the why.”

Gathering this kind of information does not require especially invasive means. Because mobile ticketing is connected to customers’ phones and online accounts, says Pennefather, “we know who’s coming in the door,” which helps with security and fraud prevention. With that information, as well as opt-in surveys and other business intelligence, the analytics team studies the fan journey—from parking their car or getting off the SkyTrain to entering the building, finding their seats, watching the action, buying food and drinks, and even heading home. The team looks for points of friction that need to be smoothed out. In recent years, for example, it’s helped the franchise improve fans’ satisfaction with staff as well as the quality and variety of the arena’s food and beverage options. 

Pennefather’s team has developed the fan analytics practice in dark days—the Canucks haven’t made the playoffs since 2015. If and when the Canucks return to the top of the standings and sellouts become more common, the club will be counting on his team to make sure fans are satisfied with their experience, no matter the score when the final horn sounds.

Brad Pennefather, head of the Vancouver Canucks’ customer analytics team, with fans at the Rogers Arena as the Canucks take the icePennefather with fans as the Canucks take the ice (Grant Harder)

Professional sports teams were an early adopter of analytics and big data—think Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller Moneyball and its 2011 movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt. But the edge that big data bestowed was for many years confined to the field of play: the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks squad that made it to game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 was assembled not just on the hunches of scouts and management but with painstaking analysis of then newly tracked performance metrics like shot attempt differential and offensive zone starts.

Only recently have professional sports teams turned their data-gathering and analytical systems around and pointed them in the opposite direction—up into the stands. The widespread adoption of smartphones and mobile social media was key to instantaneously gathering fan feedback. Rich Campbell, a marketing professor at Sonoma State University, highlighted this emergence of a “second screen”—fan engagement on a phone or tablet while watching the game on TV—in a talk he gave to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2013.

Today’s sports fans, especially younger ones, consider sharing their game-day experience on social media—an Instagram post of the action, a Snap from their seats—just as important as experiencing it first-hand. That presents a two-pronged opportunity for sports businesses: to extend their brand’s reach to the attendee’s social network, and to get fans’ reactions to the experience in real time. This evolution of fans’ relationship with sports teams, Campbell noted, parallels a broader shift between customers and brands: from transactions to relationships to collaboration.

Like a lot of consumer-facing businesses, the Canucks track their Net Promoter Score (NPS), a number comparing the share of very satisfied customers versus those less impressed. Having a high NPS is a marketing boon—the brand’s devotees spread the good word on the organization’s behalf in person and on social media—as well as a good omen for attendance and demand for tickets. A negative NPS, by contrast, is a sign of a sick brand.

According to Pennefather, the Canucks started looking at fan analytics four years ago. The marketing team was already responsible for gathering data points outside Rogers Arena: feedback on social media, elsewhere on the web and through surveys. It uses that information to tailor marketing pitches to individual fans. If a fan shows an attachment to Pettersson, for example, content in their social media feed will feature the young Swede; Bo Horvat fans will see Bo. Canucks Sports and Entertainment also gathers data through contests and giveaways run in concert with corporate partners such as Budweiser, Ticketmaster, TD and Rogers. 

“That training as a CPA helps you understand how all this data in fan analytics affects the business overall.”

With the help of market research company Insights West, the Canucks categorize fans into six attitudinal and behavioural segments, including longtime Canucks devotees, sports junkies who might follow the Raptors as closely as they do the Canucks, as well as new and casual fans. The big picture, Pennefather says, is “Are these member segments getting more engaged with the brand or less? All the actions we do are designed to make them more engaged.”

Because customer analytics is such a new field, people come to it from different backgrounds, such as marketing or information technology. Pennefather has years of experience in sales, marketing and operations with organizations including the B.C. Automobile Association, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Coca-Cola. He says his accounting background bolsters his skill set. “That training as a CPA helps you understand how all this data in fan analytics affects the business overall,” he says, adding that his experience helps him draw connections between member analytics, marketing and, ultimately, profit and loss. “I appreciate how all these things contribute to the bottom line.”

When you enter the Rogers Arena, there is free (and surprisingly robust) Wi-Fi—provided you sign up for it, surrendering your email address in the process. So while the Wi-Fi allows users to post rinkside selfies—not a bad brand awareness tool in itself—it also solicits participation in games and surveys. A couple of seasons ago, the Canucks introduced an app that fans can interact with while inside the venue. “For now, the app features mostly content, but has just started offering gamification,” such as predicting which mascot will win an on-ice race, Pennefather explains. “We see it evolving over time into something like the Starbucks app that you can use to purchase food and drinks or merchandise and that tracks those purchases.”

Each game night, some 400 to 500 attendees in the nearly 19,000-seat arena become a focus group the Canucks can interact with in real time. The company is working with Rival Technologies, a startup led by Andrew Reid (founder of Vision Critical Communications Inc. and son of pollster Angus Reid) that specializes in the use of artificial intelligence in market research. Its bots ask fans questions like how they felt about the special food offerings that night, or the selection and volume of the music.

As with any trove of personalized information, there are questions around its use. The Canucks have partnered with data management firm SAP, and according to Pennefather, the team goes to great lengths to protect the data and adhere to the principles of Canadian privacy law. No data is sold to third parties, he says, and all personalized information is gathered on an opt-in basis. “Two of the values in our brand are trust and integrity, so we’re sensitive to privacy and security.”

“Big data is exploding. But many companies are still struggling to simplify how to make their data actionable.”

Pennefather is coy about the trade secrets he’s gleaning from Canucks fans, but he offers another example of his findings from the Vancouver Warriors, a National Lacrosse League franchise that the Canucks organization bought in 2018 and moved to Rogers Arena from the Fraser Valley. “It was a brand new product, very different from hockey,” Pennefather says. The Net Promoter Score from the first game in September was underwhelming, so his team went to work, adding beer and food discounts. On the advice of the analytics team, management also changed the way it communicated inside the building—with announcements, video clips and printed programs—which had been more or less copied from the successful Calgary Roughnecks lacrosse franchise. “Things they did in Calgary didn’t work here,” Pennefather says. The brand voice had been tongue-in-cheek and poked fun at the visiting team, but lacrosse is not as well-known in Vancouver, so the announcers dialed back some of their statements. It worked. At the next game that was tracked at Rogers Arena, in January, the NPS virtually doubled.

The volume of data that the team’s front office is able to gather is only going to increase. “Big data is exploding,” Pennefather says. “But many companies are still struggling to simplify how to make their data actionable.” So the analytical side—picking the meaningful information from the noise—is going to become more and more important. One way the feedback from this past season will inform tactical business decisions, he notes, is in the increase in theme nights, such as a Chinese New Year night in February, when the menu offerings were changed in an effort to acknowledge the team’s Chinese-Canadian fan base. 

The Canucks’ outreach to new Canadians has not gone unnoticed. “The NHL franchise continues to have a strong fan base because it managed to connect in a meaningful way with British Columbians of all ethnicities,” Mario Canseco, president of polling company Research Co., wrote in a recent blog post. “This cannot be understated. The people in charge of the Vancouver Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association were not as attentive to this growing group of prospective fans. This is one of the reasons the Grizzlies now play their home games in Tennessee.”

As for the Canucks’ last home game of the season, the diehard fans are rewarded: the team comes from behind in the third period to defeat the playoff-bound San Jose Sharks 4-2. Though he doesn’t figure on the score sheet, Hughes shows flashes of brilliance, deking opponents and initiating the odd offensive rush. Pennefather and his daughter join the torrent of fans filing out of the building, satisfied as everyone else. By one of the exits, a security guard bellows a message Pennefather would no doubt endorse: “Good night, folks! Thanks for coming out. We appreciate your support.”