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How IBM’s Watson Improved the ESPN Fantasy Football Experience

IBM and ESPN launched a groundbreaking initiative leveraging IBM’s globally renowned artificial intelligence system, Watson. 

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Photo credit: ESPN/IBM

(*MKTG is a Proud Partner of FOS)

More than 10 million people played fantasy football using the ESPN Fantasy app this past season.

Normally, users spend many hours over the course of a season researching how likely a player is to perform well any given week. Consuming every piece of fantasy football-related content during the season is not something any person has the time or energy to do.

For this reason, IBM and ESPN launched a groundbreaking initiative leveraging IBM’s globally renowned artificial intelligence system, Watson

“One of the key benefits of AI is being able to consume huge volumes of information in many different formats,” states Noah Syken, VP of sports and entertainment partnerships at IBM. “So that was particularly compelling to us. How do we actually scoop all that information up, understand what is and isn’t valuable, and be able to present it to fantasy players in a way that’s really compelling? We feel like, with the boom/bust feature of this in particular, we accomplished that.” 

Watson analyzed millions of documents, including news articles, blog posts, videos and podcasts every week during the football season. This analysis yielded insight that ESPN presented to users through the ESPN Fantasy Football app and website, projecting, among other things, how likely a given player was to score on the high or low end of their ESPN-predicted range.

In other words, while fantasy apps have historically provided projected point totals for a given player for a given week, Watson adds a layer of data focused on the probability of a player scoring more than their projected point total (“boom”) or less than their projected point total (“bust”). Watson also leveraged ongoing analysis to project a player’s likelihood to play in a given week as well as the current and trending media sentiment about players.

“We’ve been talking about what meaningful ways we can bring IBM technology to ESPN platforms for a while,” says Elizabeth O’Brien, sports and entertainment partnerships program director at IBM. “Fantasy football seems almost custom-made for the technology that we developed. It has enormous popularity, it’s all digital, and it relies on massive amounts of information and data. So, we pulled together a construct for how AI could help fantasy owners while complementing the expertise of ESPN experts.”

The ESPN Fantasy Insights with Watson capability draws upon the latest in machine-learning techniques and deep neural networks to analyze “dark data” that traditional software cannot process. An expert team of IBM IX data scientists and developers collaborated to train IBM Watson running on the IBM Cloud to deliver meaningful insights on a daily basis in a way any fantasy owner can understand.

Implementing this into the app itself was no easy task. Aaron Baughman, principal data scientist on the IBM IX team, led the coding for Watson’s integration into the ESPN Fantasy app. The team rose to the unique challenge of making the analysis from all the news articles, videos and podcasts presentable in a useful and user friendly manner.

“To have a machine read and comprehend all the information, we had to go through different iterations of training. We had to do a lot of software development, but we also had to ensure that the system could comprehend all the different types of information and we used different types of AI techniques in order to do it through a novel pipeline.”

Baughman goes on to talk more about presenting the information to the user.

“We wanted to make sure that the insights could really help people. We used the evidential approach to put up stats and outputs from our AI system along with charts, graphs, and easily concealable numbers. For people that wanted to dig a little deeper and know why the AI predicted what it did, we would link to relevant articles/content from ESPN. We always wanted our story to be complementary to ESPN.”

When it came to marketing this offering from IBM and ESPN, the two took a unique approach with the help of agency MKTG. They assembled a group of influencers that included actor Jerry Ferrara of “Entourage” fame, ESPN fantasy football expert Field Yates, NFL veteran turned ESPN commentator Charles Woodson, sports journalist Bonnie Bernstein, co-host of ESPN’s “The Fantasy Show” Daniel Dopp, MIT Math PhD student and former NFL player John Urschel, and ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell. The group entered into a fantasy football league together, which provided for some opportunities for social content both on IBM’s channels and on the participants’ social channels.

Over the course of the 2018 football season, which lasts roughly four months, IBM, and agencies MKTG, DDG, and Ogilvy worked tirelessly to create a substantial amount of editorial, social and advertising content, adding a healthy dose of personality to the campaign while educating consumers on the benefits of Watson. This was no easy feat, as MKTG Senior Manager of Digital Strategy Logan James will tell you.

“This was a massive program,” James says. “We had the influencers focus on provoking replies and comments with their audiences in order to stimulate conversation about the Watson tool. In the four-month long season, the influencers collectively posted over 250 times during the campaign. As you can imagine, there was a lot of content needed to support the campaign so it was important to optimize it for each influencer week-to-week based on how previous posts performed and how they were performing in the actual league.”

For all parties involved, this made perfect sense as MKTG SVP Gavin Blawie can attest.

“IBM understands the value of influencers and has for years,” Blawie says. “IBM has long been a proponent of adding credible third-party voices to help complement their official brand narratives. It really helps bring an additional social overlay to the traditional assets like television and signage that you typically get from sponsorships.”

In terms of choosing the influencers, IBM and MKTG chose names from around the world of pro football, fantasy football, analytics, and popular culture to offer several different unique points of view on utilizing Watson. All in all, the influencers enjoyed taking part in the league while gaining a whole new perspective on fantasy football from the Watson integration.

“This opened up my eyes to new ways to think about fantasy football,” says Yates. “What IBM allowed me to do was quantify risk. If I play someone with a high-bust percentage, I could also play someone with a high boom percentage and that way I felt like I was able to balance my lineup, especially in the early and middle parts of the season.”

Ferrara, a very early adopter of the fantasy football world, noted that he is always looking for a new competitive edge when it comes to the game that he has invested so many hours into over the years.

“In real-life football, data is king in a lot of ways, so it’s natural that it would be just as important in fantasy,” Ferrara said. “So when you get to see what Watson was able to do by analyzing all those articles, which no one in their right mind really has the time to do, and basically streamline all that relevant data in an easy way in the app, that was something that I relied on heavily in this league.”

IBM has been providing its sports and entertainment partners with valuable insight for years. This ESPN integration is just the latest example of the company creating new ways for partners to leverage cutting-edge tech innovation. This is the same core technology IBM brings to partners across business and industry around the world. As it continues to evolve, you can expect to see it in other areas of business and sport alike — including influencing your waiver-wire strategy for many seasons to come.

“By putting enterprise-grade AI in the hands of fantasy owners on the ESPN platform, we create value for ESPN by differentiating their platform, O’Brien adds. “We create value for fantasy owners by helping them make better decisions and we help people understand the value of Watson and IBM technology.”

(*MKTG is a Proud Partner of FOS)

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Examining The Future of Sports Sponsorships

GumGum Sports’ latest report, “The Future of Sponsorships”, details several key trends that sponsorship professionals should be keenly aware of.

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(GumGum Sports is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)

Since the dawn of professional sports, sponsorships have been a critical part of the space. Sponsorships draw massive numbers of eyes to a sponsor’s logo or product and supply teams/organizations with a significant portion of their revenue. GumGum Sports estimates that the combination of TV and social media team sponsorships drives $3 billion alone in media value back to the league’s sponsors, nearly a 5x return on investment.

And that’s not even factoring in value from digital streaming or the viewers that are able to watch via an illegal streaming service. In GumGum Sports’ latest report, The Future of Sponsorships, details several key trends that sponsorship professionals should be keenly aware of:

  • Artificial intelligence will quickly become an even bigger part of measuring the success of sponsorships by providing deterministic insights like sales uplift among rights holder fans vs. the general population.
  • Somewhere between 40-60 percent of every leagues’ inventory is missing a significant portion of its overall value.
  • The key to more accurate media value measurement is the ability to track data against a goal or industry standard. This gives those staff members involved in carrying out the actual campaign something to strive for.

Download ‘The Future of Sponsorships‘ to learn the various ways in which technology will build greater trust and performance between sponsors and rights holder

As the world around the sports industry continues to change, so does the overall sponsorship space. Those organizations who chose not to change with it run the risk of not fulfilling their potential or achieving maximum revenue.  Therefore, it behooves most professional sports organizations to understand how much room for improvement they actually have when it comes to securing and executing their various sponsorships.

To download the full report from GumGum, click here.

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Strategies For Building A Winning Ticket Sales Strategy

It is vital for ticket sales executives within sports to understand what goes into filling a stadium and the analytics used in building that strategy.

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(*StellarAlgo is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)

A strong ticket sales strategy is an important key to success for any professional sports team, especially those looking to grow rapidly.

“When we look at building a strong ticket sales strategy, our first focus is understanding our audience: how our fans engage with the club, their preferences and purchasing behaviors and their experience with our guest services,” says Allison Yee-Garcia, VP of Marketing at Sacramento Republic FC. “We seek to understand these key metrics through genuine interactions and strong data collection and analysis, which then shape how we move forward with new initiatives.”

A strong understanding of the audience gives a team a head start on preparing for the future.

“As we look toward a potential MLS stadium, we are already planning to implement technologies that will enable a robust understanding of our fans, including a cashless environment, beacon technology and data-enabled fan activations,” Yee-Garcia says. “We also recently launched an official mobile app that’s helping us with fan profile development and surveying as well as setting the groundwork for a move to an all-digital ticketing environment in 2020.”

Building a strong sales strategy can be a difficult process. In the opinion of many professionals within the sports industry, however, it comes down to a few critical factors.

READ MORE: The Kansas City Royals Partner With StellarAlgo To Learn More About Their Fans

Get Personal

In an age where everyone carries a screen in their pocket at all times, consumers are being sold products at every possible second. Teams need to find ways to make fans care about their messaging in order to stand out. This is one philosophy that StellarAlgo imparts to the more than 30 professional sports teams they work with.

“Your fans are busier than they’ve ever been in history. They get more marketing messaging than they ever have,” says StellarAlgo Founder and CEO Vince Ircandia. “There’s more demand on their attention than there ever has been in the past. While you have these really, really passionate people that love your brand, teams need to innovate and think hard about how well they understand their fans, and message to them on a more personal basis.”

Personal messaging can help build the lifetime value of that customer. For that reason, teams that develop a strong community around their brand will see better results than using a more generic marketing strategy.

After recently beginning a partnership with the Kansas City Royals, StellarAlgo is working with the team to go through audience analytics including survey data, marketing automation, primary and secondary ticket purchase history, and other datasets to find commonalities amongst their most engaged fans. This helps the team realize the best ways to cut through the clutter and reach new fans.

Know The Important Analytics

It is expensive to find new fans. If teams can better understand the fans within their current databases, they can find ways to bring them back more and more frequently.

“Segmenting those fans starts with having a really good dataset,” Ircandia says. “So we are using pretty strong machine learning techniques in order to really let our algorithms determine how fans cluster and which of those attributes are really important in terms of the messaging around the fans.”

For example, StellarAlgo helps teams pay attention to the size of frequent transactions. This can often be some of the most predictive data. Understanding where a customer is in their customer life cycle can help teams tailor their messaging.

“If there’s someone that’s just made a whole bunch of purchases with you, you’re going to deal with that a little bit differently than you would deal with somebody that maybe hasn’t engaged with you in a while or if they’ve engaged with you in a really specific way as of recently,” says Ircandia.

Behavioral and demographic data also makes a difference. Certain groups of people may like to purchase tickets far in advance, some may prefer to purchase day of game. Others value cheap tickets over premium experiences or family events over other themes. Understanding how those fans cluster helps prepare ticket reps for the sales process.

Know Why Something Was Successful

Engagement, clicks and revenue all factor into whether or not a sales campaign was as effective as it could have been. But why did the customers respond the way they did to the different elements of the campaign? Understanding this is important to replicating success in the future.

READ MORE: StellarAlgo Turns to Machine Learning to Help Solve Ticketing Challenges

Be Able To Change Course Quickly, If Needed

Many organizations don’t have the time to evaluate the success of a campaign until after it is over. Machine-learning and automation can help solve some of these issues.

“Organizations are so lean and people get so busy that the postmortems that they do for sales campaigns are not generally automated. That’s one of the things that we try to do at StellarAlgo with our machine-learning technology,” Ircandia says.

“With this instant insight, teams can pivot in the middle of campaigns and learn. Being able to  iterate on what kind of touchpoints or what types of creative might be resonating with different segments at different points in time is really important. It can make a difference when it comes to turning fans into repeat visitors.”

For more on how StellarAlgo delivers actionable data insights for Major League teams, visit stellaralgo.com/major-league.

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Professional Basketball Combine Prepares Overlooked Prospects For The Pros

The PBC provides a number of prospects not invited to the NBA Draft Combine with the opportunity to show their skills and prepare for the future.

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(*BFWD is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)

Every year, a handful of college and international basketball prospects are invited to the NBA Draft Combine, where their skills, fitness and physical measurements are evaluated by scouts. Prior to 2017, non-invitees missed a huge opportunity to market themselves for future playing opportunities.

Fortunately for these prospects, the Professional Basketball Combine (PBC) provides another opportunity to showcase themselves.

READ MORE: Jennifer Azzi Is Growing the Game of Basketball All Over the World

Two-way contracts between the NBA and G League were introduced in 2017 along with three new G League teams, effectively creating 105 new opportunities for professional basketball players in the United States. Jake Kelfer saw this as an opportunity to give a handful of prospects the additional exposure that could propel them to the next level.

In the two years since Kelfer founded the combine, the PBC has produced nine two-way contract players, 23 NBA Summer League invitees, and the 2017-18 G League Rookie of the Year Antonio Blakeney.

“The event was designed for players to turn their dreams of playing professional basketball at the highest level into their reality,” Kelfer says. “I think the proudest moment is being able to see that the event has created an incredible value to the NBA community and to these players.”

Thanks to an active web presence and quality auxiliary events like a Celebrity Influencer Game as well as a skills camp for those pursuing a career on the business side of basketball, the PBC has been able to create a strong name for themselves on the branding side of things. That’s easier said than done for an event that only takes place two days per year.

“It’s definitely been a process that takes time to build, but for us, the key is really making sure that we highlight our players accomplishments along with the value that we provide to players, agents, and teams,” he says. “Particularly we want our players to know that we’re with them, and we believe in them past the two days when the event takes place.”

Kelfer and team continued to make the combine a year-round brand by debuting scouting profiles and stat trackers for players on their channels.

As the event has grown, the PBC now prepares prospects for life off the court as well as on. This year, Kelfer and company are debuting the first-ever PBC Prospect Development Program in conjunction with BrandForward, PTD Business Management, and Urner, Lemos and Paul of Wells Fargo Advisors.

“We really wanted to create a program to help these guys have the maximum success on and off the court,” he says. “Specifically, we’re going to be working with them on creating a digital footprint. How do you brand yourself as an athlete? How do you use your influence for positive change? How do you generate revenue through your social media channels? In today’s environment, players are able to capitalize on more than just traditional endorsement deals.”

The program will consist of several workshops for the combine participants regarding topics like financial literacy and personal branding. Both are important concepts for young professional athletes to grasp.

READ MORE:  ‘Be Better’: Inside Good Men in Sport’s Hard-Hitting Message for Men

“In today’s hyper-connected world, athletes have tremendous power in their platforms,” says Stephanie Martin, co-founder and managing director of BrandForward. “Brands are eager to leverage the direct-to-consumer relationships that athletes have with their fans, so we help athletes to take the reins of their brand and build strategies that support their larger goals. We’re excited to be part of the PBC Prospect Development Program because we believe personal brand-building can be truly additive to a professional athlete’s career both on and off the court.” 

While the PBC began as a way for athletes to showcase what they can do physically, the event has quickly evolved into something much bigger and into a very important part of the global community surrounding the sport.

The third Professional Basketball Combine will take place on May 21 and 22, 2019 at Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California. For more information on this year’s event, visit professionalbasketballcombine.com/about.

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