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How local teams are merging sports and tech

Mark Parker



From left: Julie Souza, head of sports, global professional services for Amazon Web Services; Scott Gutterman, senior vice president of operations for the PGA Tour; Jimmy Reed, director of ticketing and digital experience for the Tampa Bay Rays; John Breedlove (speaking), director of insights and strategy for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and Andrew McIntyre, senior vice president of technology and innovation for Vinik Sports Group. Photos by Mark Parker.

The four professional sports franchises in “Champa Bay” are increasingly looking to new technology to bolster gameday experiences and maintain a competitive edge.

Representatives from the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Vinik Sports Group – which owns the Tampa Bay Lightning – and the PGA Tour came together this week to discuss how technology and sports create a winning combination. Julie Souza, head of sports, global professional services for Amazon Web Services (AWS), moderated Wednesday’s panel at Tampa Bay Tech’s poweredUP festival.

Andrew McIntyre, senior vice president of technology and innovation for Vinik Sports Group, began the conversation by noting Lightning officials are creating a new software development department to increase analytical data utilization.

“We’re doing a huge cloud migration of those analytics assets and then building a team so that we can fill that with speed and velocity,” he explained. “To make sure that as we’re learning from this data, we can apply it directly. Whether that’s player evaluations or in-game strategy.”

John Breedlove, director of insights and strategy for the Buccaneers, said the team is utilizing a new tech platform – Lava – to customize gifts, discounts and incentives for fans. He noted it also merges customer data from separate ticketing, concessions and merchandise vendors.

Laval enables team officials to know how many beers or hot dogs a season ticket holder purchases, and recording behaviors allow them to influence future decisions. Encouraging people to show up to games early is one aspect.

Jimmy Reed, director of ticketing and digital experience for the Rays, relayed how the team incorporated checkout-free technology into the Budweiser Porch – its busiest bar. The initiative coincided with Major League Baseball implementing a pitch clock to shorten games.

Fans insert their credit card at one of the kiosks, grab what they like and return to their seat. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision and shelf sensors handle the rest.

When asked what “cool” new tech they would like to borrow from other organizations, Breedlove pointed to the baseball team across the bay.

“I’m very jealous of the Rays’ technology,” the Buccaneers’ Breedlove said. “It feels like you’re stealing. When you think about these things from a consumer psychology standpoint – when things are that frictionless, you do them more.

“For us, people complain because they went during halftime, and they’re still in line by the third quarter.”

Rays officials are utilizing new technology to enable checkout-free concession purchases.

Scott Gutterman, senior vice president of digital operations for the PGA Tour, explained how new tech will allow golf fans to catch every stroke as they happen. Television viewers currently see about 3% of the action due to the sport’s format, and only after a few minutes delay.

He said the ultimate goal is to stream around 32,000 shots across four days of tournament play. PGA officials, in partnership with AWS, will deliver the footage through multiple platforms worldwide.

“Our opportunity to move things into the cloud is continuing to reduce the cost of that effort,” Gutterman said. “We’re getting closer and closer to doing that every week.”

McIntyre said Vinik Sports Group adopted Evolve Express, a new safety screening platform first utilized by Walt Disney World. Fans can now continue wearing backpacks and purses and keep items in their pockets when entering Amalie Arena.

He said the system scans their bodies and creates a three-dimensional “box” if there is an area of concern. McIntyre relayed that an additional 3,000 to 5,000 fans now make it to their seats before puck drop.

“You simply walk right through,” he added. “And it still enables the same level of security.”

The Rays continue their high-profile pursuit of a new stadium. While team officials continue upgrading Tropicana Field, Reed looks forward to new technology – like checkout-free shopping – becoming standard rather than a unique alternative.

He said building a new facility would allow them to incorporate the latest innovations from the ground up, increasing utility and decreasing costs compared to retrofitting existing infrastructure. The Rays will soon have that opportunity.

McIntyre said sports franchises must continue attracting fans at an earlier age. While he remains unsure if the burgeoning metaverse offers the best avenue to achieve that goal, Lightning officials continue monitoring early adopters.

That includes MLB’s Atlanta Braves organization, which created a digital twin of its new ballpark and surrounding entertainment district – similar to what the Rays/Hines development team has proposed. McIntyre relayed that the initial focus was increasing operational efficiencies, and the Braves are now hosting social events in their corner of the metaverse.

“I think we need to be experimenting in those spaces,” he said. “If we’re not in five years from now, then we’re probably going to have some problems.”


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