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Miami Dolphins using analytics technology to get home-field advantage

Miami Dolphins CTO Tery Howard turns to analytics technology and IBM to make Sun Life Stadium all that it can be.

It's true, the Miami Dolphins didn't get Peyton Manning. If all goes according to plan, however, Dolphins Chief Technology Officer Tery Howard will have the fans cheering at Sun Life Stadium, no matter what happens on the field. Using analytics technology from IBM, she is behind the Dolphins' game plan to integrate and analyze data from back-office ERP and CRM systems, stadium cash registers, gate sensors, weather and traffic systems, and you-name-it in order to optimize Sun Life operations and enhance the fan experience.

"The product on the field, we can't control. We wish we could but we can't. So, irrespective of a win or loss, we want you come back, because there is no other place to experience the game like here," Howard said.

Actually, the big sticking point for stadiums like Sun Life is the part about being a place like "no other" to see the game. Built in 1987 for $115 million, the 75,000-seat venue faces stiff competition from many quarters, starting with its game-day TV partners who, as Howard puts it, "do a phenomenal job of producing a great experience at home." "Ho

tery howard, headshot, miami dolphinsTery Howard

me" is the stadium's biggest competitor for sports events. "They are our partners," she said of the networks that broadcast the games. "And we have to be sensitive to that -- but at the same time, we're challenged." 

Sun Life simply can't afford not to "be all that it can be" for fans. The aim of all the big-data crunching, Howard explained, is to deliver personal service to 70,000 fans. Ready for some football? How about a service that can map the best route to the stadium based on current traffic patterns, or send mobile alerts on which gate to enter for the shortest wait time, or offer real-time discounts on food and drink based on consumption habits? With analytics technology, this Bud really is for you. "We want to provide benefits that are relevant to you -- not what we assume is relevant, but based on your habits," she said.

Taking a page from its television network partners, the stadium also plans to augment the game-day experience with virtual comment. It will offer mobile apps for accessing real-time game stats from anywhere in the world, and for sharing photos and video with friends.

Besides its media competitors, the stadium goes head-to-head with brick and mortar venues -- including shiny new state-of-the-art stadiums -- to attract events ranging from rock concerts and international soccer matches to the WrestleMania extravaganza opening at Sun Life April 1. "That's a huge event for us. We want to position ourselves as a destination for these world-class events," Howard said. And with the Marlins moving out of Sun Life to their own new ballpark this year, there will be many more dates to fill.

Making stadiums into 'smarter cities'

Identifying the business stake and analytics value in corralling large data sets is considered an important first step for CIOs who are contemplating a big data initiative. At the recent Gartner CIO Leadership Forum in Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, CIOs were advised by analyst Douglas Laney to start with the question, Who cares? "Think about questions the business needs insights into that will inspire them to do something differently," he said.

We have all of these different touch points of data. Now, how do we start aggregating them for new insights?
Tery HowardCTO, Miami Dolphins

When IBM approached the Dolphins about using its Smarter Cities analytics technology to help optimize stadium operations, analyze and visualize visitor data, and augment the physical experience with new amenities, Howard jumped. Tearing down and building anew was not an option. "We have to look at the infrastructure we have and how we can compete with the new stadiums being built around the country. And it turns out to be technology," she said.

Because the team's owner, Stephen Ross, also owns the stadium -- an arrangement not commonly found in professional sports -- the Dolphins organization has the ability to take advantage of the stadium's existing customer "touch points" and make the necessary changes to improve them through technology. And there are touch points galore. For example, Sun Life claims it has the world's largest point-of-sale system under one roof, with close to 800 terminals. "We strive to have every transaction processed through a device," she said. All gates scan tickets as fans walk in. Telecommunications systems monitor stadium activity, and CRM systems track every interaction with fans. All team vendors are managed through the Dolphins' ERP system.

"We have all of these different touch points of data that work wonderfully well within their silos. Now, how do we start aggregating them for new insights? The IBM analytics technology solution is the beginning, and we are building a roadmap with them" Howard said.

Brave new world: Data-driven decision making

Howard stopped short of detailing how the project will play out, except to say it's begun with a pilot that aggregates data from several systems, including point-of-sale transactions and tickets, and encompasses about 1 million records. Down the line there will be security and privacy issues related to gathering data from fans who opt into the stadium's member club. The first objective is to feed timely information to such people as the general manager and CFO so they can use this data to make sure operations are properly staffed to manage the logistics of efficiently herding and hosting stadium visitors for any event.

There were no revenue targets imposed on the project, but "IT is starting to see some interesting metrics that will provide for that payback," Howard said, adding it's "too early" to share. "We are aggressively identifying what are the priorities and metrics for us, so we can determine what to tackle in phase 2 and phase 3."

Asked about the biggest technical hurdles so far, Howard pointed instead to what many CIOs and analysts agree are often the real challenges in moving to a data-driven organization -- changing the way people look at data and the culture of how business decisions get made. For the first time, the organization will be able to aggregate all its data -- past and present, from a variety of sources -- and look at it "from an intelligent perspective, as opposed to just data points," she said. That's a lot of change for an organization where data systems "worked wonderfully well in their silos," she added. And no doubt a lot of assumptions will be tested. "So it is changing us, metamorphosing how we operate. It's exciting."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

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