Seattle-based tech blog GeekWire hosted their inaugural "Sports Tech Summit" at Safeco Field on Wednesday, featuring a variety of panels and "fireside chats" with team owners, business owners, and a couple of actual athletes (including Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin).
Seattle Sounders principal owner Adrian Hanauer was actually key in organizing the event, having brainstormed the idea with GeekWire co-founder John Cook years ago. During an owners panel that also featured Vancouver Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett and LAFC co-owner Henry Nguyen, Hanauer talked about technology’s role in the Sounders organization, from sports science to app-based ticketing.
An investor and tech businessman himself, Hanauer praised his organization for being "leaders in sports science" from the beginning. He mentioned Dave Tenney, the team’s Sports Science and Performance Manager, "who sits on a FIFA panel on the integration of tech, sport, and data." Despite the Sounders being leaders in such areas, Hanauer noted that "we’re in a game that has been statistically proven to involve more luck than other sports" and that you can only do so much with tech and science.
As for what can be controlled, Hanauer admitted that a lot of them only provide "infinitesimal advantages over competition." Some of the areas that he said were "controllable" by the club were: "soft tissue injuries, getting players back from injury quicker, and getting them tuned and optimally performing on gameday." But as for actually getting the ball to go into the net, Hanauer said "that is certainly something that is harder to control."
Hanauer mentioned the term "pain points" a few times during the panel, stressing that reducing their effects on the fan's experience is a priority for the organization. He referred to things like parking, stadium ingress, concessions, upgrades and wifi as pain points that the Sounders want to reduce. He said that "tech for the sake of tech" shouldn’t be a priority, but that "we have to be solving problems and creating opportunities and finding ways to help our businesses, not just because it’s cool." It might be tempting for owners and clubs to introduce some new piece of innovative tech just to show it off, but Hanauer subscribes to the idea that if tech doesn’t reduce pain points with fans, there’s no place for it in the organization.
Hanauer focused on an area that has seen a bit of controversy in the last year: the Sounders’ app-centered ticketing system. "I’m a huge believer that mobile will be ubiquitous and effectively the companion for almost every single fan at some point." The organization tested the app/paper ticket system in some 2015 home playoff matches and was pleased with the outcome, he said, which led to the system being put in place for the 2016 season. The former GM also said that adoption rate doubled expectations, and that "we’ve had a lot of people pro-actively tell us that it’s the way they want to use our product." But in keeping with the philosophy of easing as many pain points as possible, he said that "we need to make sure that we listen to as broad of a cross-section of our fans as possible." Despite the new system’s success, the club is going to be looking for ways to make it easier to get into the stadium for all fans—not just some of them.
The other tech angle that Hanauer discussed in the panel was data collection and how it’s used by the coaching staff and front office. Despite the sophistication with which the Sounders collect and analyze data, Hanauer downplayed its role in how the Sounders operate. "It’s an imperfect science. It really is more art than science, even our sport science and people collecting data would say that." He said that the many levels of the organization—data collectors, medical staff, coaches, and scouts—all interpret and utilize the data differently. The club could get a ton of data on a player’s chance of injury in a match and give that information to a coach, but if the coach decides the player is too important to leave out, that’s his decision. "All we can do is collect as much data as possible, give as good of information to the different layers of the organization," and let those people make their own decisions.