In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Michael Conley, Chief Information Officer for the Cavaliers Operating Company, joins Rob Cressy to talk about the Cleveland Cavaliers have used technology to elevate the fan experience and take ownership of a fans entire gameday journey. How are they digitizing the stadium environment and adding in personalization? What is the delicate balance between implementing new technology and the adoption of it by fans? How is 5G changing the landscape and why is this so important to pay attention to?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04) Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood — a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience in our great gameday more efficiently. I’m your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Michael Conley, Chief Information officer for the Cavaliers Operating Company. Michael, super excited to have you on the show.
Michael Conley: (00:35) Thank you very much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Rob Cressy: (00:38) Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Michael Conley: (00:43) Sure. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m just the cave man. No, I’m just kidding. So you have mentioned, my name is Mike Conley, Chief Information Officer for Cavaliers Operating Company. I’m going into my seventh season at Rocket Mortgage Field House. My responsibilities are really centered around technology, both the innovation side of technology and the infrastructure. So I lead our initiatives here, which include three tiers or really four tiers. We have an emerging technology arm, where we have a senior director building said group and their main responsibility is to stay on the forefront of technology constantly, looking for and vetting out the latest and greatest vendors and technology providers in the space and scoring them against our own kind of grading system for how we value technology through our own internal value streams. And then makes that data and the information available for the organization. It democratizes it. So as people are starting to look for solutions, whether it be in-house or on a house, there is a healthy catalogue of vendors that are scored with details and the right contacts. And that allows us to really focus them in our areas of strength while having somebody that’s always out there, keeping the finger on the pulse of what’s going on.
(02:16) We also have a development operations arm. We’ve got architects; we’ve got front end developers; we’ve got back end developers; we have designers; we have UX…you name it. We’ve made a heavy investment internally so we can really be nimble to meet the needs of the organization and not be so heavily relying against the vendor space, and start getting into a situation I call vendor soup, where all these people are pointing fingers at each other and we’re not coming away with any real meaningful solutions.
(02:49) Our network operations team — that’s your Wifi, your LAN… I mean all the good things that a traditional IT group would be made up of. And we look at that rather aggressively, understanding the changing landscape there. And then your standard IT operations, which is…a lot of people call them help desk. I’m not a big fan of the term. They do a lot more than just answer calls at the desk. They really kind of keep the organization running and the business efficient on a day-to-day basis. But on top of that, all of our digital strategy and efforts from content development to our revenue and advertising strategy, your marketing strategy and the digital side as well as our digital production. So kind of a wide spectrum and business intelligence fits into that with a dotted line as well.
Rob Cressy: (03:36) Good to see that you’re not working on much over there.
Michael Conley: (03:42) I love it. It’s always something new every day. And I say I’m fortunate because I get to come in and be a leader of a team of extraordinary people. I considered myself a servant leader to them. My job is to remove hurdles and make your jobs more easy on a daily basis while providing a higher level strategy for where we’re looking at the business three to five years from now.
Rob Cressy: (04:04) Cool. As we speak, we are less than two hours from the NBA draft and you of the entities, the Cleveland Cavaliers is one of the things that you are working on. So can you give us any quick insight into, does this day change at all for you or for us who aren’t? Part of a Cavs organization? Is there a buzz or what does a day like this?
Michael Conley: (04:31) Yeah, of course there’s an internal buzz. I mean this is kind of like our opportunity to turn over a new leaf on every team. Every year has, has a smattering of draft picks that are gonna impact the roster in the following year. I think we’ve been on the other side of the equation the previous four years. So now having a high draft pick back in the lottery and also having a fixed slot in the 20s brings a lot of real excitement. We’re going to start to see the new face or new faces tied to the organization come in. Especially now that we have a brand new coaching staff with coach Beilein and coach Vicars, staff that had been brought in. I mean the culture’s changing. Anytime you change culture, you need change agents to help you in that process. And I think we’re excited. It’s hard to send young men to help us shape the roster as we move forward. But in regards to this a change in our day to day, you know, yes and no. I think we approach our day to day, very consistently. We understand we’ve got services that we need to deliver back to the organization. So a lot of our time on the IT side is spent setting up the war room for our basketball operations team, making sure all phone lines and Internet connections are operating. Secondly, so kind of your standard reactive type of stuff that you need to do. But you know, the other side of the coin is really how we’re trying to take a look at this opportunity as a brand and maximize how we generate greater loyalty in a new marketing message out to our fan base.
(06:05) So a lot of that effort is just trying to identify how we want to present the brands and the opportunity around these new players back to our fan base when we do open up the doors again for the new season. And there’s a lot of strategies that really goes around the table. How do we introduce these new players to the region? How do we now also focus on all the new fans, following these new draft picks that were either at their colleges or follow them from the time they were at AAU all the way in, and introduce this new fan base to who the Cavaliers brand is. So there’s a lot of strategy that goes into it ahead of time, but a lot of the magic really happens once we’re able to turn the page and actually bring the traffic in and make them a part of our roster.
Michael Conley: (06:54) And then a lot of that is understanding that, as players, their focus is on basketball. But what other types of storylines or opportunities do we have to familiarize our fan base on who these folks are? And that’s where we can really leverage technology to reach a wide swath of fans, whether through segmenting and targeting the message of these players out to our fan base.A lot of what we’ve built this off season, which is a really exciting product launch for us — the first of its kind. And so the NBA is a truly personalized news feed around the content we’re creating for our fans. So now if you’re a fan that goes to cavs.com or mobile app on a daily basis, you can create a profile, a log in to your profile and based upon the preferences you set with us and those preferences can either be provided to us direct statically by checking a box or really through the behaviors of what you’re reading. All of that really starts to personalize based upon your preferences. So if you’re really high on just following the new graphics that came in and you want to consume all the news tied to traffic and you don’t have to go through the clutter of all the other news we have inside, which is um, you know, leveraging a lot of artificial intelligence and machine learning around behavioral analysis of what an individual is doing online to dynamically deliver that personalized experience to them, whether they’re on our website or mobile app or consuming Cavs content across the board.
(08:30) So when we’re looking at the personalized experience, I have to imagine this is something that extends both online and offline because we’re fighting for attention even though you’re fighting for your attention around the calves, but it’s really everything that’s going to capture someone’s attention period.
Rob Cressy: (08:47) So now let’s move this over to the in-arena experience. How are you guys using technology to digitize the stadium environment and elevate the fan experience?
Michael Conley: (09:00) So if you were to kind of look at the sports fandom through two lenses, you’ve got your in-venue and your out-of-venue experience. 1% of our fan base, 1% will ever walk foot through our door. But we also know the expectation of that 1% of the fan base. But as those folks stepped foot into the building, each and every one of them is going to be unique in their expectations for that experience. And if you think about that from a technology side, you’re planning for a lot of different variables and how you’re trying to reach a sweet spot for an individual. So while we’ll leverage a lot of analytics to understand what the strength is of the products or the platforms that our fans are using inside the venue, a lot of that stuff stays constant.
Michael Conley: (09:49) A lot of the stuff you’ll see or in game stats and replay videos and things, but where we’ve turned and really put our attention on is the utility experience. So the utilities have a fan that’s preparing to come down to the venue. What is the experience like as they’re making their way to the downtown urban core from where they’re at. How can we inform the individual proactively about the easiest path now to get down to the venue. And we’ve been experimenting a lot with different push notification opportunities for automated, leveraging Google maps and other things to start to be predictive and assumptive to fans who are coming down, letting them know that if you’re 75 miles out when our doors open, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to get down here in an hour and a half and in time to actually get in. So here’s information that can keep you up to date as you get closer downtown. Or if you’re only five miles out when the door is open, oh, that’s a great opportunity for us to start to market to you around other our partners that may be in the entertainment district or other early arriving opportunities or discounts we may have at the venue to incentivize them to come in earlier. And then when a person comes into the venue itself, that’s really where I think we start that personalization meter because we want to be respectful and not everybody wants the white glove service that a hardcore, passionate digital-minded fan may want. There may be one side of the spectrum that is a purist. And the other that is, you know, give me everything and I’m going to multitask and consume it every second I’m inside the venue and then we start to fill in the journeys and the type of journeys that fall within those two ends of the spectrum. So a lot of our focus is from the time somebody walks up to the gate and they’re scanning in. We focus a lot on building a realtime data environment that informs our operations team where members, specialists and other folks internally in the organization when our top members or our special guests come into the building. And we’ve been in mobile ticketing now for almost a decade and mobile ticketing comes with a lot of rich data sets. And what we’re doing with that data now is repurposing that in real time to make actionable insights or actionable conversations between the organization and these fans. So a good example of that, I walked in with the flash seats app, I’m scanning, I scan the seat scanner, it scans my actual barcode ticket off of my app. Even before that seat locator prints out those two tickets, there’s already information about that individual, what door they came in when they came in at and who their rep is. So that rep is automatically getting notified about them, mentoring in and telling them where they’re at within their process, just through the venue. And the reason behind that is not…you hear a lot of this stuff about privacy. It’s a concern about we’re doing a lot of the automation, the backend that is leading to these results. So if I’m a member, my expectation is I’m going to get the red carpet service back to the organization cause I’m a special member; I’m dedicated to the organization. We want to go above and beyond to ensure that they know that they’re our special guests and we catered to our members.
Michael Conley: (13:20) Well there’s a lot of logistics between the technology and the human aspect of how to pull that off, right? We’ve been able to leverage the technology in realtime data transfers to truly enable our team to accomplish that now. And whether it be at the point when they scanned in or if they’ve checked into a premium club or if they’ve made their way all the way down to the seat. That constant connection back between the member and the rep is always there. As a matter of fact, as if at the point when somebody scans in, our member specialist isn’t available to come and talk with them. That individual can go into their app and directly texts back and forth with their member specialists about anything they need while they’re inside the venue for that event. So they’ve got direct access to their members, a member specialist at any given time. And what that does is that allows us to set up a true understanding of how we build the best relationship for the fan in the near term and in the long term. So it gives us insights on what works to build loyalty and trust with an individual. And a lot of this stuff is really just predicated. I’m building stronger relationships for longer retention over time. And when you figure that part out, then you start to layer in the other aspects of technology. You talk about digital currency inside the venue. A lot of folks have been providing digital currency or loaded tickets, but there’s still a lot of venues that have fragmented experiences where that’s not fully tied into both the point of sale and a retail point of, or if they want to order on the app. It’s still very separated in what we’re trying to do is unify all that.
(14:56) So it’s equal experience of one place to go for people as opposed to us having a market. So many different touch points for people to remember over time. So if you want to engage with the organization, you gotta download the venue app and then you got to download the Cavs app and then you’ve got to download the monster’s app. We’re looking for one to many as opposed to trying to build out all these fragmented pieces of architecture. And then hopefully that member now remembers to, Oh, I’m in a monster’s game, I’ve gotta pull up the monsters app today. We’re taking that and making it more seamless so they can control their own destiny really defined to us how they want us to engage with them.
Rob Cressy: (15:33) What I like about what you’re saying is you guys are taking control of the fan experience even before they are in your arena. Even though, yes, the arena is a big part there, but when you think about experience, it’s now extending past to really help make the relationship even deeper. Because once again, we have so many choices for which brands that we’re going to support and fans are more likely to support the ones who understand the entire journey, not just when you’re spending money with us here in the arena. And you guys seem to be doing a really good job of blending together both the online and the offline. So the next thing that I want to talk about is you had a quote in your LinkedIn bio that I really liked. It said, if we can think it, we can build it given the necessary business requirements and timeline. But where I want to go with this one, I would love for you to elaborate on that. But with this in mind, we also have to talk about the speed of technology and the adoption of it. Because if you think of something and you can build it, that doesn’t always mean that everybody’s ready for it.
Rob Cressy: (16:45) I think they hit on the point you made there towards the end. I think we certainly are at a point where technology surpassed the adoption curve, which doesn’t always happen. It’s usually technology is trying to catch up to where the human adoption curve is. And we are so far ahead right now that we’ve got to be very mindful about how much technology we pushed down or introduce to our fan base or even expect them to really be able to wrap their head around. You don’t want to inundate somebody so much where they feel like the technology becomes a larger part than the product on the floor. It’s got to be a compliment to that. So I think the quote is if we can think that we can build it given the right business requirements and timeline.
(17:29) A lot of that is uh, you know, if you read between the lines, I’m a very protocol-driven person because you need to have process in order to have the positive results that are going to be meaningful and contribute back to the business. I don’t want to speak in generalizations, but sports and entertainment for the most part trails lot of the other verticals from corporate America, from the business side, meaning like while fintech has been trying to transform the industry now for the past 20 years in preparation for the technology curve that’s happening now. Sports is literally going with the ebb and flow of like, oh, I heard this team’s doing it. Why aren’t we doing that? So it’s very reactive. I’m trying to take that risk out and say, okay, what do we need? And we approach everything first towards if we solve a problem, we’re going to have adoption.
Michael Conley: (18:19) If we have adoption, we’ve got viability, if we’ve got viability, we have ROI, right? So let’s focus on ways that we can improve our problem solving and approach that with the expertise we can bring to the table and, and figure out rather than bringing solutions to the table, we’re all talking through what are our problems, we’re attacking them with the best resources available. So you’re thinking about functionality and practicality as opposed to end result. And that really often gets lost in this business because everything is so fast paced. Most people are, are, are purchasing a single ticket to an event, right? So that that exchange is rapidly happening around each individual event we have. And more often than not, we’re not thinking about the longer curve on how we can start the plan ahead to better the experience.
(19:10) So we’re taking a step back. We’ve invested in resources here internally to be able to customize and truly develop at a cadence as acceptable for the organization. So now we’re running in parallel by solving problems with the organization as they happen and being agile in our development to be able to roll things out in iterative two week cycles. So we’re never too far ahead of ourselves and trying to get down to the development hole, we’re rapidly releasing things, we’re focused on minimal viable products and testing and feedback. So we don’t bury ourselves in project that three months down the line we realized it was a waste of time.
Rob Cressy: (19:48) One thing we like to do is share insight and trends with the audience and we’ll get you out on this. I’m curious what has your eye right now that the audience should be paying attention to, but really with the mindset of something that’s actionable. And I really liked what you talked about with thinking about the longer curve and functionality and practicality because oftentimes when you are forward thinking and you see so much that’s conceptual, you’re like, man, that looks awesome and then it never really comes to fruition. So in the end it’s really not going to solve the problems. So we want to be able to leave with something. What do you got for us?
Michael Conley: (20:27) Yeah. And I want to go back cause I think you’ve made a really important statement there. I think as a society we’re so caught up on the aesthetics now that we lose sight of the importance of functionality.
Rob Cressy: (20:38) Right. Crazy.
Michael Conley: (20:40) I built my career on being a product guy. Like you got to go back and make sure you’re tackling and blocking correctly before you can feel the football team. Right. There’s no difference in being able to build off high level product that’s going to be adopted. So you are 100% correct. You gotta look past the aesthetics, look at functionality because anything could look nice if you put lipstick on it. That’s the way I look at it. This whole 5G you know, this introduction of 5G and the disruption of 5G while trying to manage the expectations of the industry experts and talking about how it’s going to change the landscape, and the speed at which it’s going to change the landscape, compared to the reality for when we’re going to be ready to fully deploy and our fan base is going to be ready to take advantage of that technology, is something we’re trying to be smart about our investment and in 5G with WiFi infrastructure right now. We now have better understandings and insights about WiFi. If you’re in an arena or a building that outsources all of the DAS to maybe a carrier that then has to sign on all the other carriers onto the network. So you’re not getting the insights and understanding of how the mobile consumption is taking place at the venue. So when you’re introduced 5G, now all of a sudden you have this big disruptor that you’re saying, okay, this is a really, really big important investment for us across the board as an organization. But how much time and effort should we be putting in before we make that investment?
(22:43) There’s still so much unknown about it: the protocols, the very different providers approaching it in a different way. But the end results, they’re all telling us it’s low-latency — zero latency. It’s going to be a game changer for the mobile experience. Anytime you hear that, those red flags start to go up and say, nothing is ever that easy. We’re trying to plan to be aggressive but also be responsible about our investment. Because when you’re talking about infrastructure, if you don’t get that right, that sets you back a long time. So we’ve redone our LAN and we’ve got one of the fastest back planes now in all the NBA. So we can do a lot of internal transfer data and video and information faster than we’ve ever been able to do before.
(23:34) That’s on a physical LAN network, right? Our WiFi is next and then we’re going to look to figure out how we balance in the evolution of 5G into it. Because for me, the infrastructure is the constant, the applications are the things that come and go, right? If we get the infrastructure right and stable, we can plug anything in and out at any point in time and still be able to evolve. However, if we’ve invested too much in the application side, we can never be nimble enough and flexible enough to be able to react to the needs of the business or the fans. I’m certainly stressed out and I don’t want to say stressed out as much as, I guess immersed myself into understanding the evolution of the 5G space than I ever did with 4G and LTE when we went from 3G to 4G. It’s just a completely different animal and architecture. Everything centers around a point of sales. So if we have an F&B provider, we’ve got a great relationship with Aramark. We have a lot of great collaborative development with their group, but they’re still a third-party entity that operates inside our venue. So they’re operating on their own infrastructure, their own point of sale, but yet we’re trying to connect them seamlessly into the fan experience into retail, which we own and operate. So we’re very fortunate to have a great group of folks and leaders here on the Aramark side that have been open and receptive to a collaborative relationship that leverages our development resources into their stack and vice versa.
(25:22) So we can break down any barriers that we would have on the fan experience side for the benefit of the fan. And we’ve got some really cool tools that are coming out — first generation of its kind inside of sports and entertainment venue that leverage real time data and a point of sale system to start to personalize the suite experience for when somebody checks in, and let them know that their order and their food is will be out fresh in 10 minutes. So as fans come into the venue for the upcoming year, they’re going to see some new touch points that are really built on this strong collaborative relationship we’ve got with Aramark and our development team here. And we’re excited to bring those to market.
Rob Cressy: (26:03) Awesome. Michael. You’re a wealth of information. I really enjoyed this conversation. Where can people connect with you?
Michael Conley: (26:11) Sure, yeah. I’m not as active as I was once on social media, but every once in a while throw a snide comment out through something just to keep myself, you know, entertained. But @mpconley on Twitter. LinkedIn, same thing @mpconley if you want to find me there. The larger we can make our network for other folks that are going through the same thing and the more best practices and knowledge sharing we can do, the better off we’ll be across the board. So thanks for the opportunity to talk not only with you, but to your fan base as well.
Rob Cressy: (26:46) And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram @fanfoodapp, or on LinkedIn. And you can hit me up on Linkedin by searching Rob Cressy.