Interview: 'There Really Is No Area Where Analytics Cannot Have An Impact Within A Sports Organization'

We sat down with Ken Borkan, Director of Strategy, Operations & Research for the Phoenix Suns' Marketing Partnership group


Ken Borkan is the Director of Strategy, Operations & Research for the Phoenix Suns' Marketing Partnership group and serves on the NBA’s Analytics Advisory Board. Ken oversees the MP Strategy & Operations team focusing on strategic projects, research, and streamlined best-in-class operations. Before integrating fully into Partnerships prior to ’16-17 season, Ken spent the previous four in the Suns Analytics group leading the team's non-ticket sales business analytics, heading up WNBA basketball analytics (2014-2016) and supporting Suns basketball analytics. Prior to joining the Suns, Ken was a senior analyst for Capital One developing credit policy and optimizing line strategy. 

Ahead of his presentation at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit this July 24 & 25, we sat down with Ken to discuss how sports analytics has developed and how he feels it can progress going forward. 

What, in your view, have been the key developments in sports analytics in the past few years?

Aside from ever-changing and enhanced technological capabilities, there have been two main pushes in sports business analytics the last few years: 1) Taking ownership of data downstream to include data collection efforts, and 2) Integrating data across platforms to get a 360 degree view of fans. On the first front, teams began to realize over time that despite having great analysts, the data collection methods & overall quality was poor and not being thought through from onset. An increasing number of teams are bringing their internal CRM/Operations teams under the Strategy & Analytics groups. This trend leads right into the second point; now that strategy teams are managing what data gets collected, they can make better use of it. A main use is integrating data in order to micro-target. For example, combining datasets can allow us to know that a particular fan who has a beer every game in the 2nd quarter and has been flagged as a fence-sitter in terms of renewal intent could be sent a push notification offering a free beer in the 2nd quarter as a surprise and delight, potentially increasing odds of renewal.

What do you think are the key areas in which sports analytics can help sports teams and organizations?

There really is no area where analytics cannot have an impact within a sports organization if employed in the right way. The most obvious areas are those that generate the most revenue: ticket sales and marketing partnerships (i.e. sponsorships). However, even those departments rely heavily on other functions where analytics can help guide the strategy, notably marketing and digital. Data-driven decision making in these areas is no longer just a ‘nice-to-have.’ If you’re a team without such resources, you are playing from behind and missing a needed competitive advantage. Outside of those areas, there are also opportunities around working with vendors that may share profits with a team, such as concessions and merchandising. Even the box office through automated reporting and community relations through analysis of investments can see value. The key remains prioritization given the theoretical endless list of use cases.

Have we now hit the point where all top-level sports teams and organizations are all in on analytics? If not, how can we achieve greater buy-in?

We are definitely not yet at a place where all top-level sports teams are using analytics to their furthest capabilities. The buy-in among leagues is reasonably variable and they are certainly on different timelines. The NBA has been arguably the fastest to move in this area and most progressive so far. Of the 30 teams, 29 have a dedicated strategy/analytics group; the league even employs its own internal strategic consulting group to help teams as well. Even within leagues, there is variability of buy-in among teams; even within a team, there can be variability between departments.

The way we achieve further buy-in is by starting small, getting easy wins, and building up trust. Especially in the departments that have historically used analytics less, relationships and communication can be THE key to getting everyone on the same page.

Other than buy-in and engagement, what are the key challenges for sports analytics professionals going forward?

Going forward, the biggest challenge for me lies in trying to quantity and project how viewership trends will change over time. We know consumers are moving away somewhat from standard television in general, but we also know interest and engagement in our sport is near an all-time high, but these days people are not just watching from their television sets; they are streaming on mobile devices, catching clips on Facebook and Twitter, seeing highlights on ESPN, etc. With so much money tied to television deals and so many partnerships dominated by television visible assets, it is of paramount importance that we know how many eyeballs we really have on our games and marketing assets, across all channels. From a partnership perspective, our biggest challenge is figuring out how to demonstrate that these assets are reaching as many if not more people even as aggregate television ratings across the league may take a dip.

You can hear more from Ken, along with other industry-leading sports analytics professionals, at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit this July 24 & 26. To see the full schedule, click here


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