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Analytics a slam-dunk for Celtics

The Boston Celtics use data analytics to increase ticket sales and evaluate players. Better analytics ultimately means better basketball games, according to the team.

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BOSTON -- On one wall of the Boston Celtics sales office hangs "the plasma," a 40-inch television screen displaying an arena map of the TD BankNorth Garden, with every seat rendered in various shades of red, orange, yellow and green. A smaller version of this clickable, analytics interface sits on employee's desktops. The colors indicate which seats are sold or available, and the patterns offer insight into ticket-sales' trends.

The legendary franchise is using sophisticated business intelligence tools to overcome some of the traditional challenges of sports team management, explained Daryl Morey, senior vice president of operations and information with the Boston Celtics.

"I've never seen a business that shouldn't be more analytically driven than ticket sales … we have fantastic data on who the customers are, where they're sitting and what they'll pay," Morey said during an interview at the Celtics' offices last month.

The customer data comes to the team from an inside sales team, which handles corporate and specialty ticket sales, via Ticketmaster, the West Hollywood, Calif.-based ticket processor that handles most sales of individual seats.

Morey wanted a tool to visually analyze this data in real time, which would enable the ticket sales team to quickly create promotions and the management team to conduct revenue analyses based on sales trends. The ultimate goal was to increase ticket sales for the Celtics' home games, played in the 18,600-seat TD Banknorth Garden in Boston. Real-time functionality and ease of use were important requirements, Morey said.

"Our marketing is more real-time than other places … in other businesses, it's not as event based," Morey explained. "But, if we don't properly sell, price and get the right offer out for the Minnesota game tonight [January 18], we've left money -- that will never come back to us -- on the table."

Setting up for the shot

In their search for an analytic tool, the Celtics looked across the Charles River to Cambridge, Mass.-based StratBridge Inc. The company develops Web-native analytics applications based on its platform. Working closely with the Celtics, StratBridge developed StratTix, a visual analytics tool that shows seats sold in an arena in near real time. The Celtics implemented the system in August of 2005.

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In the current implementation, the StratTix software sits on a local server at the Celtics office, which holds ticket data from both internal and Ticketmaster sales. Eventually, this data will move to a hosted model for ease of management, with a secure connection between the Celtics database and the StratBridge servers, Morey explained. The StratTix software analyzes the ticket data and renders it in the Web-based, color-coded map of the arena, which displays sold and available seats. In all, there's a three-minute, fifteen-second delay from the time the ticket data comes in until the updated seat status appears on the Web display. And what a display it is.

Morey showed off "the plasma," as the main StratTix display is called around the office. It's become a popular stop on tours and a place employees in sales regularly gather around to strategize.

Employees can also access the interface through any Web browser. They can sort through arena maps showing ticket sales for different games or analyze stretches of events. They can run projections or see how much revenue a given seat is producing during a season. This is especially important because the Celtics have a complex ticketing structure -- with over 100 different ticket pricing levels defined for individuals, sections, packages, competitive games, students and others. The interface enables the sales team to quickly see trends and make better decisions on the fly about promotions.

For instance, if many lower-cost seats are open for an upcoming game, the sales group might send a targeted e-mail offer to local college students. The operations team also uses Web analytics, which allow them to track e-mail click-throughs and see the results of promotions.

The final score

The Celtics have seen regular "five-figure" returns from promotions inspired by the new analytics tools, Morey said, though he declined to give more specifics. Next year, he expects the impact of StratTix to be even bigger, because the analysis this year is providing input for new pricing strategies. For example, the tool showed that fans typically cluster around the aisles. The sales group plans to redraw the lines for price breaks next season, so that changes happen in the middle of sections.

But it's not just about the money, Morey explained. Increased ticket sales ultimately make for better basketball games.

"We optimize the business to give Danny [Ainge, the Celtics executive director of basketball operations] as much money as possible to go spend on players -- the more money we make, the more he has to spend," Morey said. And the better the players are, the better the game is.

When it comes to their athletes, the Celtics also analyze statistics using tools from StratBridge. They don't disclose how much weight they give to these numbers, Morey said. In a team sport like basketball, subjective measures can be just as important.

"Every [player] decision has two main components, the scouting or traditional analysis and the numbers … depending on the situation, you weight them differently," Morey said. The draft is one area where a team might bias more toward a player's statistics, he explained.

Sports and beyond

Sports teams are very interested in this kind of analytics functionality, said Matt Marolda, founder and CEO of StratBridge. The Boston Bruins, who also play at the Garden, recently implemented StratTix. And, after seeing the Celtics' success with the system, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is exploring a similar relationship with StratBridge.

There are also applications beyond sports and ticket sales, Marolda said. Companies dealing with "expiring products," such as produce or even hotel rooms, might also benefit from near real time visual analytics of data, Marolda said.

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