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Sport & Entertainment Analytics Conference Goes Virtual

By Keith Morelli

Sport & Entertainment Analytics Conference

TAMPA (March 19, 2021) -- There is a reason high school football Coach Kevin Kelley has won five of the last six Arkansas state championships. It’s analytics, stupid. Well, that’s what he said …

Kelley was the honored guest of the sixth USF Sport & Entertainment Analytics Conference held Thursday on a virtual format. He was among key data proponents in the industry to talk about the importance of analytics in not only sports strategy, but also marketing and financial strategies as well. His revolutionary use of analytics in football garnered national attention and has been a feature of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO.

Kelley was the perfect example of how analytics has changed the face of a profession. His teams usually passes on first down and never punt on fourth down. He has found that sacking the quarterback more than the opposing team results in a huge advantage, so he adjusts his defensive strategies accordingly.

When he came to Pulaski Academy, the school was a so-so football program, he said.

“That’s what got me into analytics,” he said. “I wanted change the culture, I knew it wasn’t going to be enough just be a good football coach.” He dove into the numbers. “You have to trust your numbers, your analytics. We try to call plays more efficiently and analytically that anybody else.”

If that means calling onside kicks every time, so be it. Incidentally, numbers showed that a female player on his team recovered most of those onside kicks and so, she became a critical part of the special teams unit, he said.

“I’ve changed everything to what wins games more than anything else,” he said. “To me, that’s what you ought to be doing. The same is true in business. You find out the most successful ways of doing things and you focus on that data.”

He admitted that as an accounting major in college, he has an affinity for numbers.

“I love numbers,” he said, “and I found a way to incorporate numbers into my work.”

He stopped short of saying he has changed the way coaches from high school to college to the NFL now strategize game plans. Tradition used to have college and high school coaches mimicking what strategies at the professional level. He said that is not the case anymore.

“The best coaches on the planet are the high school guys,” he said. “They get the hand they’re dealt and they have to make the best of it. I’ve had to coach differently every year.”

Kelley has found that analytics is now a way of life for him both on and off the field. It makes him question why he does everything he does, from choosing the socks he wears to mapping efficient routes while on the road. “When someone asks me why, I want to have a good reason,” he said. “It makes me more efficient in life.”

Kelley was the recipient of the Innovator in Analytics Award, presented during the conference.

Other speakers at the “What’s Next”-themed event talked about trends in the sport and entertainment industry, and some pointed to some major challenges ahead. While the trend of fan engagement has been in a downward spiral for years because of younger generations displaying little interest in professional sports, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to accelerate those trends with the cancellations of sports seasons or some leagues playing games with no fans in attendance.

Rich Luker, founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll, said interest in sports has been declining for nearly two decades prior to COVID-19.

“There has been a problem for more than 17 years,” he said. “Millennials have been declining in avid interest for over 15 years. Baby boomers interest was growing over that period but they are going to age out and next market not going to be there.”

There are reasons for that, he said. For example, sports has never made an investment in getting male fans. The industry assumed they would always be there, he said, and that is a false assumption.

“We are at a time when sports must invest,” he said. The declines are substantial, avid fans are down by 19 percent, team sports fell by 14 percent. Americans preferring to attend versus watching sports on television fell by 56 percent from 1988 to now.”

“We are on the couch. We’ve been on the couch for a year,” he said. “Things at rest tend to stay at rest.”

Luker highlighted three challenges facing sports emerging from the pandemic:

  • Fear. Fear of the pandemic has touched everyone over the last year and more than 70 percent feel it is not safe to get together with more than 1,000 people. When the arena and stadium doors open, he said, fans are not just going to fly in. The fear is going to stay around after the pandemic leaves.
  • Tangible Impact: Tangible impact of the pandemic on popular culture is pervasive. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 directly affected a few people. The Great Recession, many more. The COVID-19 pandemic affected just about everyone. Conversely, it will be the first impact to disappear, once the health care workers distribute vaccines to a majority of people.
  • Social Lethargy: People once took gathering with each other for granted. “We never thought there would be a time we couldn’t do it,” Luker said. “Now, 50 percent of people are home all the time. You end up on the couch, doing things on the computer. The challenge is going to be getting people off the couch.”

Sport and entertainment need a strategic plan, he said, for increasing face-to-face engagement.

“To this point, fans have built sports. Sports didn’t build fans,” Luker said. “For the first time, we are going to have to invest substantial amounts of money to get those fans back.”

There are hopeful signs, he said.

“During COVID, we spend less time with others, but we want to spend more,” he said. “Now, we are spending more time on the Internet, but we want to spend less.”

The daylong conference included segments presented by Aimee Freedland, senior account director at Nielsen Sports at Nielsen; Craig Duncan, chief revenue officer at Venuetize and Nicholas Martinez, director of analytics, research and strategy with the Miami Heat. Panel discussions also took place on the NFL and on gambling.

“There was no business impacted more [by the pandemic] than sports and entertainment,” said Mike Mondello, professor in the USF Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program at the Muma College of Business, and chair of the conference. “Teams and leagues are faced with enormous challenges. However, these challenges do present some unique opportunities.”