The Sports Nerd’s Dream Weekend

This is my attempt at synthesizing all the stats and mind-blowing words of wisdom that came my way during the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Word has gotten out among the sports nerd community that this is the place to be for conversation about analytics and how they affect the game, the fans, the media and the entire culture of sports. The conference began in 2006, when it was held on the MIT campus, with some sessions literally held in MIT classrooms. Now, it’s held in the Hynes Convention Center and boasts an attendance of 2,200 (up 700 from last year).

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about the conference, but I remember watching Michael Wilbon broadcast PTI from Boston about a year ago because of the conference. I remember thinking, “wow, that sounds awesome.” Anyway, it stuck in my mind and when I was blessed with some professional development funding from the UO journalism school, I knew how I would use it.

This year’s agenda was filled to the brim with terrific panel options and intriguing research paper presentations (not to mention, some of my favorite sportswriters and personalities like Michael Wilbon, Rob Neyer and Jackie MacMullan). Right away, I knew I wanted to be at the Baseball Analytics and Media Rights: Pricing, Power and Competition panels. As the conference wore on, I could sense a shift in my views and interests towards different areas of analytics; that shift guided my selection of other panels. Yes, some were better than others, but they all offered a fresh perspective on analytics and shifted my thinking in some small (or large) way.

I learned more than can fit here, but my big takeaways:

1) Only the paranoid survive.

From media execs to MLB general managers, this was an oft-echoed sentiment. Brian Rolapp, COO of NFL Media, said complacency was the only threat to the stable relationship between sports media entities (such as NFL Media and MLB Advanced Media) and broadcast networks (such as ESPN, Fox and NBC Sports). In order to stay on top of trends – in this case, understanding how sports fans consume media – you must actively seek new, innovative opportunities. The opportunities won’t come to you, and the media landscape – especially in sports, the only area of television that must still be watched in real-time – changes rapidly.

Mark Shapiro, president of the Cleveland Indians, discussed the paranoia that comes with using statistics to analyze baseball. Like with media deals, that paranoia is required if you’re going to stay on top of the latest and greatest advancements. You could be sleeping when the next analytics breakthrough is made, but you’d better know about it first thing in the morning. Shapiro said he wakes up every day, reads about a new trend and thinks, “are we on this, or are we behind?” – and that’s coming from someone who’s bought into analytics for a long time.

2) Analytics don’t tell you everything. You have to account for the psychological element of sports.

In every analytics-focused panel I attended, the discussion invariably turned from a breakdown of analytic advancements in the sport to a reminder of psychology’s place in the analysis. Numbers tell you a lot about a player on the field, but they tell you nothing about a player’s past, his family life or how he fits in a city or with his teammates.

I found it interesting that the person who seemed to champion this the most was Scott Boras – who I always pictured as the icy, conniving agent who sat behind a desk all day, working to secure gigantic deals for clients (okay, I didn’t see it quite that dramatically). However, he displayed empathy for the players’ plight, and seemed to be the biggest champion of sports psychology on the baseball analytics panel. He even said baseball should train and hire sports psychologists to help bridge the gap between statistics and humans.

Psychology factors not only into player evaluation, but scout evaluation. Eric Mangini talked about “evaluating the evaluator” on the football analytics panel. You have to adjust your perception of a scout’s advice when a guy who’s good with defensive backs tells you about a wide receiver.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about psychology’s place in sports. Before the conference, “psychology” to me was a major someone chose when they didn’t know exactly what they wanted to be; now, I have great respect for those professionals because without their input, all the numbers in the world (and not just those related to sports) are meaningless if the human element is not considered.

3) There’s so much happening out there that you don’t even know about. And stuff you think is cool now will be obsolete in a year (or less).

It probably sounds over-generalized, but my ultimate takeaway from the weekend is that you can never be satisfied with accepting things as they are. That’s the complacency Brian Rolapp and Mark Shapiro warned about: Be alright with the status quo, and the most striking innovation may pass, leaving your way of operating in its wake. Endless curiosity is essential if you want to do something great.

Think about it this way: Except for maybe baseball analytics, every panel I attended made some reference to Jeremy Lin; a guy who few had heard of at last year’s conference. Of course, Lin’s story was hard to miss, but he’s emblematic of the fast-paced world of media and sports. The hot topic a year from now is likely something we’re not considering, and our acknowledgement of the “next big thing” will hinge upon our understanding of current trends and industry changes.

A handful of other random observations for the poor souls still reading, 900 words in:

  • Being in New England, I was reminded that “Portland” isn’t always associated with Oregon.
  • I’m a Starbucks devotee, but it’s never bad to mix up the routine. Dunkin’ Donuts needs to come back to Oregon.
  • Every time I said “University of Oregon,” I was met with, “Oh, Nike U” or “Don’t you guys have a lot of football uniforms?” Thanks, Uncle Phil.
  • Having access to an historic baseball park, navigable public transportation and important national landmarks makes Boston one of my Top 5 cities (full list coming at an undetermined point in the future).

Since there was so much to process from the conference, there might be another post or two on Sloan-related topics; I’d like to flesh out my thoughts from a few sessions, especially the media rights panel and its intersection with Mark Cuban‘s discussion of the connection between social media and television.

If you’re interested in analytics, or attended the conference and had a favorite speaker/panel/moment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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King’s Court: A Way for Seattle Mariners Fans to Feel Like Royalty

After years of watching the Seattle Mariners wallow in mediocrity, fans might finally have a good team to root for. It’s still early in the season, but the M’s have a winning record and are riding a wave of momentum after winning their weekend series against the New York Yankees.

Part of this momentum stems from the Mariners’ impressive starting pitching. Rookie standout Michael Pineda has been lights-out, and Felix Hernandez, who won last year’s American League Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher, has continued his success.

However, while the team’s fortunes seem to be looking up, game attendance still reflects that of the days when the Mariners struggled to beat even the worst teams in the league. That tide is turning, though, with one terrific promotion that has been a boon to the Mariners and a great case study for effective promotional campaigns.

Fans who sit in the Mariners' King's Court section receive this t-shirt, featuring Felix Hernandez and his signature wind-up.

Professional sports teams have long used bobblehead dolls and free t-shirts to entice fans through the stadium gates. Even a less-than-exciting matchup can draw a crowd if a free gift is offered. A 2000 study by Mark McDonald and Daniel Rascher in the Journal of Sport Management found that promotions at Major League Baseball games increase short-run attendance by 14%.

With this in mind, the Mariners decided to capitalize on Felix Hernandez’s popularity and success. They took his nickname, King Felix, and created King’s Court, a section in the Safeco Field stands for which fans can purchase reduced-price tickets. Fans who sit in the section receive a free King Felix t-shirt (which, I must say, is awesome).

The first King’s Court promotion was held during Saturday night’s game against the New York Yankees, and it was a runaway success. A day after its initial announcement of the promotion, the club tweeted that the first section was sold out and another would be added.

Not only was the promotion itself a good idea, but the execution was also spot-on and holds lessons for future PR practitioners like myself. In reading more about the promotion, I pinpointed three lessons that this promotion holds for current and future PR practitioners who want to launch a successful campaign:

1) Capitalize on the best player you have.

The best “player” doesn’t necessarily mean the best athlete on your team. It could be your company’s best product or the best feature of that product. If your client makes ice cream and knows most of its customers prefer Rocky Road, your client should offer customers a discount on that specific product. It might encourage them to purchase more Rocky Road and/or more cartons of another flavor.

No fans would sit in a special section named after one of the Mariners’ more pedestrian players. Understanding what or whom the fans love and capitalizing on their willingness to support that product or person will lead to a more successful promotion.

2) Accommodate your customers and clients.

King's Court cheers on the Mariners during their 5-4 victory over the New York Yankees on May 28.

The original King’s Court section sold out quickly. Rather than saying “better luck next time” to the fans who still wanted to purchase King’s Court tickets, the Mariners opened another section for the promotion. While I don’t know exactly how many more fans purchased tickets in the second section, The Biz of Baseball blog noted that Safeco Field was filled to 79% capacity that night, larger than average attendance for the team.

It’s rarely possible to please every single person in a situation, but doing your best to accommodate customers, clients and guests can never do harm. Give people what they want, like another free sample or a discount on their favorite product.

3) Respond to your fans.

Some Mariners fans who were watching the game on television had not heard about the promotion by gametime on Saturday. When asked what the section of yellow shirts was all about, the Mariners responded with an explanation and a link to the site where he could purchase his own tickets. By not only informing fans of the promotion, but also giving them easy access to the ticket link, the Mariners are encouraging participation in the promotion and helping grow ticket sales.

They also tweeted Sunday, the day after the game, and asked fans for their thoughts on the section. The replies showed that fan response was overwhelmingly positive and that many fans want to buy King’s Court tickets later this season. Asking for feedback shows that the Mariners care about their followers’ opinions and are looking for ways to improve the King’s Court experience. You can do the same by asking event attendees for their thoughts via Twitter or by sending customers a survey to gauge their satisfaction with your service. Customers want their voices to be heard, so giving them an opportunity to express their opinions is key to a successful promotional campaign.

Hopefully, the excellent promotion execution continues and King’s Court becomes a tradition for Mariners fans. Even if the Mariners’ performance on the field starts dipping towards mediocrity again, I’m sure King Felix and his Court will give many fans a reason to keep coming through the Safeco Field gates. I’ve already talked with my dad about when we can head for Seattle to don the yellow t-shirts, enjoy a baseball game and become a part of the King’s Court.

Journal citation:

McDonald, M. & Rascher, D. (2000). Does Bat Day Make Cents? The Effect of Promotions on the Demand for Major League Baseball. Journal of Sport Management. 14, 8-27.

Photo credits:

T-shirt: Image from the Mariners’ King’s Court page

King’s Court: Elaine Thompson, AP photo. Accessed from the Kitsap Sun.

Here We Go Again!

It’s been awhile since I last updated The Opinion Paige, but I’m resurrecting the blog for my Strategic Public Relations Communications class (also known as J452). If you’re new here, welcome! My name is Paige Landsem and I’m a junior at the University of Oregon studying public relations.

Before I neglected it, this blog focused on public relations, journalism, current events and sports. It was a jumble of thoughts, but now it’s going to be a more focused look at the intersection of sports and PR. I’d say those are my two favorite topics. There seems to be a never-ending stream of PR issues in sports, whether it’s an athlete doing some tremendous charity work in his community or getting in hot water for making a controversial comment.

You can't see the signature too well, but this is me with the baseball Trevor Hoffman (Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader) signed for me. My dad caught the ball during batting practice at a Brewers v. Indians game.

While sports and PR are my two favorite topics, baseball and college football are my two favorite sports. Growing up, I’d listen to broadcaster Dave Niehaus bring Seattle Mariners games to life. My dad and I make a point of visiting the nearest Major League ballpark whenever we’re in a new place, and I count my Trevor Hoffman autographed baseball as one of my most prized possessions.

My love for college football began about 18 months ago during the Oregon Ducks’ run to the 2010 Rose Bowl game. It only grew this past season, when we went to the BCS National Championship (and yes, I’m still a little bitter about the loss).

Since sports and PR news dominate my life, I’m excited to use this blog as an outlet to examine those topics and engage with fellow sports fans to gain insight from their points of view.

ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel: social networking has changed dynasties and recruiting in college football

Ivan Maisel, a senior writer at ESPN.com and host of the ESPNU College Football Podcast, wrote a very intriguing piece about how college football “dynasties” have more or less met their match over the past several years.

He cites changes in freshman eligibility, an increased emphasis on the passing game and the growing desire among college players to get to NFL as soon as they can. But he makes one other interesting point: that the rise of social media, like Facebook, Twitter and even online sports news sites, have also contributed to the downfall of a dynasty.

Through social media, recruits can see everything that’s happening with every team around the country. Just because they live in Texas doesn’t mean they can’t play in Oregon (I’m looking at you, LaMichael James).

It’s an interesting read, especially if you root for a team that’s getting a chance now that some of the dynasties of the past ten or twenty years are falling:

Amplify’d from sports.espn.go.com
• The media, the Internet and social networking. College football is covered more than it’s ever been. Ask the fans in the SEC for their opinions about Boise State. They’ve got them. Last weekend, for the first time in the history of the game, every FBS team had its game televised. Recruits are more aware of teams outside their regions than they’ve ever been. The ability to follow a team on the Internet has flung open the doors of every program to more people than ever. That means there are more opportunities for players. Coaches are more willing to recruit a broader territory than they once did. Unfortunately for coaches, the Internet is a two-way system. Communication goes out. It comes in, too.
No matter how big a control freak the coach is, he can’t control Facebook and Twitter. They move too fast. The world is spinning faster than ever. The days of dominating week after week, season after season are disappearing. A dynasty is not what is used to be. 

Read more at sports.espn.go.com

Sidney’s Shot and Ole Miss’ Mascot

While most other college students have returned to campus, I’m still basking in the glory days of summer because classes at the University of Oregon don’t begin until the last week of September.

So, what am I doing with this free time? Aside from working and attempting to clean my room, I’m soaking up all the sports knowledge I could ever want.

With a little extra time on my hands, I’m inviting SportsCenter into my room (because after 19 years of being uncool, I finally have a TV in my bedroom), listening to Portland sports talk radio in the car and actually reading the Oregonian sports page.

I’m not complaining; I choose to inundate myself with all this sports info. And since I’ve consumed unhealthy amounts of sports coverage in the past few days, I feel qualified to present the two greatest sports videos (non-game footage) of this week.

Number One: Hockey player Sidney Crosby’s 360-foot shot during batting practice at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park

Watch the whole thing; it’s only a minute long, and you’ll see the homer and hear Crosby’s fantastic Canadian accent.

Crosby, who plays for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, might be better known as The Only Active NHL Player the Average American Has Heard Of, but in this video he makes a case for being The Only Really Compelling Pittsburgh Pirates Storyline of 2010.

This is apparently newsworthy enough to receive coverage on the Penguins’ website.

It’s too bad there is overlap between the NHL and MLB seasons. Otherwise, Sid the Kid should consider donning a Pirates uni and turning the team around – a World Series trophy would complement the Stanley Cup nicely, don’t you think?

Number Two: ESPN’s Ole Miss Star Wars Commercial: Students Campaign for the Admiral Ackbar Mascot

Even if you don’t know Star Wars, you have to get behind this. The Ole Miss student who started this campaign should be guaranteed straight A’s for the rest of his college career.

When you bring together fan bases as passionate as those for college football and Star Wars, magical things have to happen. The ad was even covered on AdFreak, an AdWeek blog.

Did any other sports videos catch your eye this week? I’d welcome your thoughts on Sidney Crosby at the plate and/or Ole Miss’ potential mascot. And since I’m now a sports news addict, feel free to pass along any other interesting finds you may have.

The All-Important Internship

It’s only been four days since the official start of Christmas break, but I’ve already started pondering internship possibilities for the coming summer.  Yes, it’s strange to think about my plans for June while watching movies like “A Christmas Story,” but over the past few months I’ve heard nothing but talk of the value of great internships, especially in a profession like public relations.

I am grateful to have friends, professors and advisors who have told me about internships and who have opened my eyes to their necessity.  Always on the lookout for ways to make the most of my college years, I decided it was time to take internship hunting seriously.

One of the hardest things for me to do is narrow my search.  There are countless opportunities available, so it seems foolish to throw some options out just because it doesn’t seem like the perfect fit.  While I can’t be too picky, I also don’t want to land in an environment that is totally wrong for me.

Over the past few months, I’ve discovered that I have a big passion for sports.  I’ve always enjoyed them, but only recently have I considered incorporating that passion into my career.  So, I’m on the lookout for contacts and internship programs that deal with sports.

That’s not to say that I’m limiting my internship search to just sports-related positions.  I’m also looking for agency and corporate PR internships.  The Career Services Coordinator at the UO J-School posts a really thorough list of public relations internships that has helped me think of companies I’d like to work for in the future, and I’ve also created my own LinkedIn profile, which I hope to use to create connections with fellow public relations students and professionals.

If you are also a student searching for a journalism or PR internship, I’d love to hear about your experience and what tools and resources you’ve found most helpful.  Right now, I’m in the beginning stages of searching for internships and learning what they are all about, so I welcome any and all advice regarding the all-important internship.  As the search progresses, I’m sure I’ll continue blogging about my successes, failures and new opportunities.

Preparing for War

After a weekend full of turkey, pumpkin pie and multiple viewings of the “I Love My Ducks” video, I was ready to get back on campus and be a part of the Civil War excitement.  After spending the weekend with my father, an Oregon State graduate, it is nice to be back in a less hostile environment.

It seems like everyone and everything on campus is thankful for “I Love My Ducks.”  Take, for example, the UO Career Center, the Duck Store, and UO Student Services.  I’m sure they’re glad that the video dropped advertising slogans right into their laps.  Check out the ads they published on the back page of the Oregon Daily Emerald today:

The hype is building all over campus as we prepare for the Civil War.  Tomorrow, free “Beat OSU” t-shirts are being distributed.  ESPN will be here on Thursday (and hoping that, by the grace of God and the power of Twitter, I get to meet Chris Fowler).  By Friday, well, I don’t want to jinx anything, but I hope to be preparing for a Christmas break trip to Pasadena.

But whether or not we win, we still love our Ducks.