Even if you don’t care about sports or the numbers that guide and define them, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is a fascinating dissection of systems: how they work, who manages them, how they gather and process data, and the technologies they rely on.

Teams and venues have an exponentially-increasing reliance on frictionless customer experiences, and Small Planet attended the conference again this year to learn as much as we could. Plus it’s just cool talking about all this stuff.

Sports 2040

Beginning at the end: this lively and occasionally quite awkward final panel is worth watching, especially Morey’s unvarnished thoughts on crazy soccer rules and Bill James on the looming crisis for baseball.

Facial Recognition

In the “How Big Is Your Jumbotron?” session, there was speculation that some level of facial recognition technology could be deployed in 75% of pro stadiums and arenas in as little as 5 years. And it would be used in myriad ways: gate admission, food/beverage purchasing, security.

It’s generally (and genuinely) seen as a positive. As with airport gate entry, it could make a lot of in-stadium experiences more pleasant. However … not a lot of talk about privacy or data protection. Feels like a way to gather more behavioral data, package it, and leverage it to sell us more stuff, under cover of faster beer lines and keeping us safe.

The New Realities for Venues

It’s easier than ever to not go to a live sporting event. The at-home and online experiences are slick, plentiful, and easy, so why slog out to the Meadowlands?

This echoes the “Netflix and Chill” streaming era, where the quality of content and ease of access viably compete with theater experiences. Sports venues are under pressure to make the live experience worth paying for. As stadiums and arenas become more expensive to build, more wired, and more desirable as multi-purpose gathering spaces, ownership can’t afford to pay rent on a space that gets used only once or twice a week. 

Additional event bookings like concerts and fan gatherings are part of the solution, as are ways to use or rent out the facilities (kitchens, suites, meeting areas, bars and restaurants) in off times. 

Interesting tidbit: Gillette Stadium has well under a million people, total, attending home Patriots games over the course of a season. It has 13 million attending events throughout the year on non-game days. 

Cashierless Purchasing and 5G

The drive to cashierless purchasing is moving quickly too. Long lines are still a pressure point, and some stadiums are looking to pilot “grab and go” food and beverage services over the next year (again, using facial recognition tech). Amazon and Major League Baseball have been circling around a tech licensing deal for months

It wasn’t that long ago that arenas were doing everything they could to stop you from looking at your own screen during a game, even debating whether WiFi could or should be offered to attendees. That tune has changed. 

There’s a full embrace of how 5G can improve the fan experience and make in-game, in-venue wagering a reality very soon. Over the last 8 months, Verizon’s rolled out 5G to 24 pro football stadiums and indoor arenas. Interesting article on it here.

Random Stuff:

New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson had over a million Instagram followers when he was in high school.

Boston’s TD Garden has up to 85% mobile entry for games.

New York residents bet $837 million on sporting events in New Jersey in 2019.

Check out this fascinating Kirk Goldsberry slide on where shots are taken now versus 20 years ago in NBA games.

Philly’s Wells Fargo Center has 84 screen sizes designers have to create visual assets for! Designers, we feel your pain.

Analytics people don’t like bunts in baseball (not worth it) or punts in football (go for it on 4th down!).

The “Dark Arts: What the Sports World Can Learn from Chess” panel opened with a blindfolded Danny Hess (Chess Grandmaster) taking on 4 opponents at the same time, including Houston Rockets GM and conference co-founder Daryl Morey. The panel made great points about how chess has long led the charge on AI, player evaluations and rankings, and cheat detection.

Mississippi State Head Coach Mike Leach was on a football analytics panel and was absolutely peak Mike Leach.


Talk about betting was fairly subdued this year, but a few panels tackled it head-on (read this nice thread about the Sports Gambling Innovation panel from Sportlogiq). 

The consensus seems to be that in-game betting the real area of growth in the U.S. A frictionless mobile experience (particularly during initial registration) is the easiest path to acquiring new bettors, especially casual fans who just want to put $5 down on something. Mobile wagering needs to be as easy as Uber or Amazon, and the language around betting odds and advantages needs to be simplified.

Personalized Games

One of the interesting concepts bubbling up from Google Cloud’s panel “Innovating for the Next Generation of America’s Pastime” was the idea of mining a baseball game for personalized content. 

Baseball gets such a rap for being long (true) and boring (yep), why not start with the complete game as source material for making shorter, customized games for viewers. Advanced search tools can create personalized content for viewers who just want to watch:

  • A particular batter or pitcher
  • A particular section of the lineup
  • Situations where runners are on base
  • Statistical anomalies or curiosities (no-hitters, batting streaks)

Not sure how this would work in real-time or a near-live experience, so we’ll read up on it. Could this fit into an NFL “RedZone” model where your content preferences trigger alerts or prompts that switch you over to the action if you’re watching something else?

The NBA Schedule

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin’s idea about starting the NBA season in December got a lot of media and Twitter attention (and created buzz in the room). The chatter was both familiar and tinged with lament about both the logic of it and the difficulty of change: 

  • “The season doesn’t really get going until December anyway.”
  • “The NFL and college football schedules dominate October and November anyway.”
  • “In July and August you’re really only competing with baseball.”

NBA revenue has been in a growth state for so long, it’s got to be tough for the folks inside the league to look past TV and licensing deals and consider that there’s too much product, too many games, too long of a season, too many playoff teams, and too much mileage on players.


Are teams and leagues creating emergency plans for canceling/rescheduling games, or revamping health and sanitation protocols at venues? Are they thinking about how globalization makes sports properties subject to the same supply chain pressures that consumer products face. Or how COVID-19 will affect Tokyo 2020 or the NBA’s plans for China?

Coronavirus was addressed peripherally in sessions by team and league executives, and it feels like everybody’s in “information-gathering” mode. Translation: wait and see.

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