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Sport professionals talk analytics

Tampa, FL (April 11, 2013) — Professionals in the sport and entertainment management industry know that when they tell people what they do for a living, it often seems like a glamorous career to those on the outside, one that conjures images of work hours spent in boxes at baseball games or backstage at concerts.

John Breedlove

For people who work in data analysis, the reaction to their careers often is a completely different one, associated with spreadsheets, graphs, data, and overwhelming amounts of data.

–But in fact, the two fields are not that different, as several sport industry professionals told USF students on Tuesday. These sport and entertainment industry leaders told students that critical thinking and data analysis are essential skills for those aspiring to become leaders in the field and help teams stay profitable.

John Breedlove, the manager of insight and strategy for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, told students in USF's Sport & Entertainment Management MBA program that business analytics in sports isn't all about crunching numbers, or "Moneyball"-type team stats.

"A big part of analytics is just being able to tell a story effectively through numbers," Breedlove said. "When you bring data to any conversation, it really helps bring that level of truth."

Breedlove was one of several executives who gave presentations Tuesday about their careers in sport business analytics with the Florida Panthers, Orlando Magic, Tampa Bay Rays, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Many were former students of Sport & Entertainment Management Program Director Bill Sutton, who has a long career in the industry.

One of the most dramatic examples of the potential for data analytics to transform a team's finances came from Andre Therrien, who, shortly after finishing a stint as a graduate student working alongside Sutton at another university, went into a three-month internship with the Florida Panthers and ended up saving the team millions of dollars and creating his own position with the team as a business analyst.

Students listening

After graduating from Sutton's MBA program, Therrien looked for ways to set himself apart from other interns working in the finance department. He looked at financial statements and found a long Excel spreadsheet of people who owed the team money. But the list was just numbers and code, with no easy way to sort who owed what.

Therrien built a spreadsheet that did sort out who owed what -- and found the team was owed more than $4 million by ticket holders who were still reaping the benefits of their tickets without paying. With the new information, he was able to red-flag those who owed the most money, and the team could prevent them from continuing to use their tickets. Therrien was hired as the team's first business analyst, and now the team is able to keep debt at a much lower level.

"That's all analytics is: it's painting a picture for people to make effective decisions on," he said.

David Bencs, a business strategy manager with the Orlando Magic, said business analytics was a way for him to differentiate himself from the other students in his sport business graduate program.

"I always was a huge basketball fan, and I thought it would be cool to do something about it," he said.

He soon realized that becoming familiar with data analysis was the best way to do that. Now, he works with data the Magic collect to predict what the environment will be like for ticket sales months in advance because the NBA requires ticket prices be set in January. He showed students data charts to illustrate how the process works.

"We have to be able to accurately forecast how our team is going to look and what demand is going to be," Bencs said -- a tough task, especially last year when it was unclear who the coach would be or if Dwight Howard would still be on the team.

Jason Gray, senior manager of financial planning and analysis for the Tampa Bay Rays, said his biggest challenges come from predicting which games will be the most popular. When he first started with the team, he said there wasn't much rhyme or reason to the forecast meetings, which determined the ticket pricing -- it was bringing the price up $200 here, bringing it down $400 there.

"That's when I knew we needed to start getting into analytics," he said.

Mike Mondello, the associate program director of the Sport & Entertainment Management program, organized the symposium and was pleased with the event, which was attended by students in the sport MBA program.

"Anytime you bring real-world experiences into the classroom for the benefit of the students, it is a good thing," Mondello said. "The feedback from students, faculty, and team participants suggest we will make this an annual event here in the Muma College of Business."