From Data to Dollars: Revolutionizing NBA ticketing


BOSTON — So much of the focus at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is on analyzing and optimizing performance on the court. SportVu cameras capture players’ every movement in real-time. Catapult smart shirts measure a player’s heart rate, total exertion, and distance covered. There’s even a basketball which can connect to your smartphone and make you a better free throw shooter. But that’s only one side of the technological and analytical revolution that Sloan highlights. The other, less-prominent but still vital side is the revolution in how teams learn about their fans, sell tickets, and actually make money.

The Portland Trail Blazers are enjoying one of their most successful seasons since Brandon Roy had two good knees. As you might expect, their ticket sales are up across the board. But after a closer look, it’s becomes clear that Portland’s uptick in on-court success doesn’t come close to fully explaining their revenue growth. For that, they have Sq1 to thank.

Sq1 is a data-driven sales and marketing optimization company with offices in Houston, Dallas, and Portland. Simply put, Sq1 uses data and technology to help businesses make more money. For the Trail Blazers, this meant increasing single-game ticket sales. So how did Sq1 deliver such impressive results so quickly? They focused on the fan.

Anyone who has ever tried to buy a single-game ticket to any major sporting event knows how unnecessarily difficult it can be. Seating maps, special offers, and clunky e-commerce take buyers in a million different directions when all they are hoping to do is buy a ticket and enjoy a game. Sq1 tapped into Portland’s dynamic pricing engine, cut through all the noise, and simplified the process. They made purchasing a ticket online more user-friendly and put in place advanced resources to generate a bevy of valuable data and help the Trail Blazers understand their fans’ buying behavior better than any team in the NBA. I had the opportunity to sit down with Vince Ircandia, VP of Business Operations and Analytics for the Trail Blazers, and Gabe Winslow, a Partner at Sq1, to discuss their partnership and the future of NBA ticketing.

VotS: So how has Sq1 helped the Trail Blazers?

Ircandia: In our business in particular, we’ve been slow to drive conversions on our website, and Sq1 has helped in a ton of ways to optimize that purchase flow and retarget to our customer pool. And we’ve had a ton of success with it this year. It’s kind of been the perfect storm for us. We’ve had great on-court performance this year, and we’ve now put ourselves in position to capitalize on that performance. We’ve had a record sales year. It’s been outstanding.

Winslow: One of the key stats for me is that 30% [of this season’s customers] are new buyers. Which is really a metric that you’re going to shoot for. It’s been a while since Portland’s had a good team so being able to leverage their on-court success with driving new fans is really important.

VotS: How does this initiative that you’re launching fit into this conference in terms of what people come to Sloan looking for?

Ircandia: The questions we’re asking right now are the questions a lot of people at this conference are seeking answers to. I think that we are starting to find some of those answers, and we’re pleased with the results that we’re getting off of that. I think that there’s no ‘secret sauce’ where you can just flip a switch and now we’ve got it all figured out. But we’ve definitely made some really positive strides. As Gabe mentioned this has been a record year for us in individual game ticket sales and we’re in a growth phase for our season-ticket holder base right now which is around 11,000. We’ve got room to grow and now we’ve got a lead pool through all these individual game ticket sales that we’re going to be able to convert. Tickets are still the #1 driver of revenue, so that’s where teams are spending most their energies and there’s still a lot of upside there.

VotS: Gabe, what is it about the Trail Blazers that made this work from an organizational standpoint? Obviously this is something that’s not happening with all 30 teams, so what is it about Portland that made them ready for this?

Winslow: Well that’s an easy answer. It’s Vince, it’s Dwayne [Hankins], it’s Chris [McGowan]. The management team they brought in. We had actually met with the prior management group and there wasn’t any kind of receptiveness to what we were talking about. When Chris came in and brought Vince, our first meeting was an instant alignment. These guys are all analytics focused. They’re optimized to the best whether its business operations or ticket sales or online marketing. So there was just a real synergy between how we approached the space and the way they were approaching the business. And they’ve given us a lot of freedom to really test and optimize towards performance.

VotS: So it’s fair to say it starts with the front office, it starts with people that are receptive to big data in order to be able to implement something that’s ultimately going to be able to make the team money in the future?

Winslow: Absolutely.

Ircandia: Very much.

VotS: In dealing with the League which has a vested interest in selling tickets and has provided regulations for how you market and sell tickets, how have you discussed Sq1? What have their guidelines been in terms these new strategies?

Ircandia: The League sees the numbers, so they see that our revenues are ticking up, and they know that through Gabe’s help we’re able to attribute a portion of that not just to team performance. So they’re seeing those lifts as well. We’ve gotten a lot of positive reception from a lot of the other teams. The League is laser-focused on ‘best practices’ so they’re always pushing that. And I think we’ve been identified, through some of the work that Gabe’s done with us, as being one of those best practices in terms of our ticket sales process.

VotS: It seems like what you guys are doing at Sq1 is not trying to replace the ticket vendors. You’re trying to drive more business by focusing around the ticket selling process.

Winslow: Yeah ticket vendors should love us because we’re driving more tickets through their portals. And we work with the vendors on actually changing and improving their technology. And they’ve started implementing some of what we’ve done with the Trail Blazers with other teams across the league.

VotS: Thanks so much for your time guys.

The Suns are in a similar position to the Blazers this year. They’ve been surprisingly successful with a totally refreshed roster and new coach. And now more than ever, Phoenix, who sent several members of their analytics to this conference, is in a position to revolutionize their own revenue generating processes with data, technology, and a renewed focus on the fans. For all of the innovation and work that goes into initiatives like what Sq1 has done with Portland, what these new and advanced approaches ultimately strive for is to improve the fans’ experience from the moment they think about attending the game to the moment they leave the stadium after the final buzzer. The Suns have empty seats in their arena, despite their high quality of play this season, not because there aren’t enough Suns fans to fill the seats, but because the process of targeting and customizing the fan experience still has room for improvement.