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'Telling Stories With Data' Highlights Fifth Annual Sport & Entertainment Analytics Conference

By Keith Morelli

Woman speaking

TAMPA (March 28, 2019) -- Data is data. It’s cold. It’s hard. It’s unwavering in both its simplicity and complexity. It isn’t nuanced, it doesn’t make suggestions or give advice. But there is a way to make the numbers talk, according to some experts who say transforming data into something with context and texture lies in the words of explanation; words that tell a story and ultimately result in successful applications.

The theme of this year’s annual Sport & Entertainment Analytics Conference, held over two days the last week in March at the USF Gibbons Alumni Center, was, after all, “Telling Stories with Data.” It’s the telling of stories that made the difference for Tiffany Kelly, former data analyst with ESPN, who now runs a consulting business she cofounded and at which she serves as chief algorithms officer.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference, Kelly urged students and professionals in the audience of nearly 200 to allow the numbers to tell the stories, and “not to ignore the human traits in your models.”

She told her own story, of showing data to a Louisiana State Univesity basketball player who was below average in shooting. The player, who wasn’t much interested in the data, countered by saying the numbers didn’t take into account contested shots and other factors that players know about, but data analysts don’t. So Kelly was able to tweak the metrics to come up with several of those factors, including contested shots, and plug them into a formula to more accurately reflect the true nuances of the game and the players’ performances.

“Get the athletes on your side,” she said. That made a world of difference in making the hard data more accurate and relatable to players and fans. Did the player improve his shooting? Maybe. Maybe not, but the data on his field goals maybe were a little more accurate.

Her career began when she found herself in a room full of sports data analysts, all of whom were men. She chose that career because data is unflinching and leaves no room for gender discrimination. Even if she was the only woman in the room, if she excelled, she would be successful. Her strategy worked. She now is considered a pioneer in sports analytics.

“At my first job, there were no women,” she said. “I wanted to change that. Analytics provided me with an equal opportunity.”

Part of her success was that she was able to interpret the data and relate conclusions in ways people could understand. Through her, the numbers could talk.

“Analytics has the power to enhance or destroy,” she said. “They can tell stories that are amazing.”

For the fifth consecutive year, the Sport & Entertainment Analytics Conference presented cutting-edge trends to its audience of marketers, business data analysts and sports/business students.

“Using data analytics is no longer a competitive advantage,” said Mike Mondello, business professor and chair of the conference. “It is a competitive necessity.”

Jordan Rutner graduated from the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program last year with an MBA and master’s degree and now works for Kore Software, a cosponsor of the event. This is his third conference, the first as a working professional.

“I want to continue to see what’s going on in this industry,” he said. “This also gives me a chance to network with other professionals.”

The aim of the conference is to provide executives in the sport and entertainment industries with the latest developments in marketing and information analytics to keep those leaders on the crest of evolving technology. It also is a chance for graduate students in the Muma College of Business’ Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program to meet and network with potential future employers. Many of those grad students assisted in staging the conference.

Keynote speakers and panelists talked about various topics ranging from metrics and analytics to innovative ways of getting fans interested in their products and keeping them interested.

Allie MacLeod is in her third season with the Tampa Bay Lightning and serves as the market intelligence manager for the organization. She didn’t really study statistics or data analytics in college, but has a firm understanding of its potential. Like Kelly, she also says she’s a “rare animal” in the world of data analytics: someone who can tell stories with the numbers in front of her.

She spoke about efforts by her organization to create business partnerships with area corporations; partnerships that could benefit both the team and Amalie Arena, the Lightning’s home ice, and various businesses around the Tampa Bay region. For example, she said, data concerning fast food consumption among Lightning fans have led to profitable outcomes when those businesses form sponsorships and other business relationships with the team and arena.

The same was true for a local automobile dealership. The right presentation of that data convinced those businesses to partner with the Lightning in a variety of ways, which created new revenue streams for the team and added exposure/profits for the businesses.

That success came down to MacLeod’s ability to transform raw data into story lines that business owners and managers could understand. That ability, she said, makes her unique in the world of business analytics.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” she said. “People who understand analytics usually can’t communicate analytics. I am a rarity in this field.”