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49ers draw on SAP partnership to improve fan experience in real time  

The ‘Executive Huddle’ – the SAP-powered venue-management platform at Levi’s Stadium – has put the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers at the forefront of fan experience management and shows how far partnerships between tech companies and rights-holders can go beyond sponsorship.

  • Levi’s Stadium first US venue to install venue-management platform Executive Huddle  
  •  Team previously spent days poring over match-day data, now they can do it within seconds  
  • Half of 32 NFL teams, plus MLB, NBA and NHL franchises, interested in analytics tool  

The ‘Executive Huddle’ – the SAP-powered venue-management platform at Levi’s Stadium – has put the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers at the forefront of fan experience management and shows how far partnerships between tech companies and rights-holders can go beyond sponsorship. 

Launched in the NFL pre-season last August, the Huddle pulls data from nine streams – including attendance, parking, food and beverage, retail, ticketing and social media – to interactive dashboards in a specially-outfitted suite. It allows Levi’s Stadium executives to visualise every aspect of stadium operation and respond to issues or opportunities in real time.  

And it was directly because of an existing relationship – SAP became a founding partner at the stadium in 2012 – that the 49ers became the first professional sports team in the United States to install this platform, which builds on the German software firm’s connected-stadium experiences at Bundesliga teams Bayern Munich and TSG Hoffenheim, as well as German ice hockey team Adler Mannheim. 

“The whole partnership space is changing, especially on the technology side,” says Mark Lehew, SAP’s global vice-president of sports and entertainment industry solutions. “If you look back a couple of years ago, it was the traditional partnership. Sports teams would do partnerships with technology companies for the revenue, just as they would with other partnerships.  

“But I think the technology companies, like us, changed our model and said, ‘we don’t want to have a partnership with you just to put our brand around your venue or in a box, we want to solve authentic business problems for you using our software, so when you showcase it and talk about it, you’re not only using our technology but you’re talking about the impact that it’s made on your business.’  

“I think a lot of forward-thinking clubs that are doing partnerships with technology firms are doing it for that case. They are all looking at it as another lever to pull to get an edge on people. When you look at the fan, any sports team, any entertainment park, all are competing for discretionary spend. How do they stand above the crowd and win that dollar? If they can find a way to creatively use technology to win that dollar, they are better off for it.”  

The 49ers previously spent days after games poring over data to analyse the fan experience at Levi’s Stadium, whereas now they can do so within 15 seconds. SAP, meanwhile, has engaged in talks with around half of the 32 NFL teams about installing a Huddle, and has had approaches from a number of NHL, NBA and MLB teams as well.    

The Executive Huddle suite at Levi’s Stadium

From fan surveys to real-time data analysis
Analysing and, in turn, improving the fan experience at Levi’s Stadium has been one of primary goals for the 49ers ever since the team moved to the $1.3bn (€1.14bn) venue in Santa Clara, California, from Candlestick Park in 2014.   

The team’s business strategy department initially focused on fan surveys and focus groups to gather feedback, going from 500 annual surveys – which quickly expanded in size to get more granular detail – to 30,000 within a few years.   

Meanwhile, matchday data from numerous sources, such as ticketing information from Official Ticketing Partner Ticketmaster, was painstakingly collated into a report and shown to key executives on Wednesdays after games in a multiple-hour presentation. “At the time [it] was an NFL best practice in terms of the turnaround time,” says Brent Schoeb, the 49ers’ chief revenue officer.  

Over 200 improvements have been made at Levi’s Stadium as a result of this assessment, at the cost of approximately $10m, but this wasn’t enough for 49ers team president Al Guido, who in 2016 charged his staff with exploring real-time changes.  

Immediately, 100 HappyOrNot kiosks – which measure customer satisfaction via four smiley-face buttons ranging from very happy to very sad – were installed next to specific amenities, such as restrooms and concessions stands, around the venue. HappyOrNot traditionally sent out reports the day after responses were received, so the 49ers worked with the Finland-based company to create a real-time reporting app.  

Satisfied that the 49ers could capture real-time data and organisationally react to it, Moon Javaid, the team’s vice-president of strategy and analytics, looked to take the next step. He approached various technology companies in early 2017 about whether they could combine the 49ers’ nine data streams – including HappyOrNot – into a single platform that would track changes in real time and be easy to visualise.  

Fans enter Levi’s Stadium before the game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears on September 14, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Noah Graham/Getty Images)

“I evaluated 20 or 30 vendors that were out there and didn’t think there was anyone was capable of doing it in a way that we wanted,” Javaid says. “No one was doing it effectively and I didn’t think anyone had the wherewithal to do it in a [suitable] time frame.”  

This was where the 49ers’ relationship with SAP paid dividends. “Nikki Hawkins, who is our director of partnerships, went to Germany and saw a solution from SAP [on a tour of their venues],” recalls Javaid.   

“We had been chatting about me looking for a solution randomly a few weeks prior to this and I asked if any of our partners had something like this. Nikki came back from Germany and showed me a tool that they were using over there [an app version of the Huddle] and it was exactly what I wanted.”    

It was “happenstance”, observes Lehew. The 49ers set up a formal meeting with SAP in November 2017 and signed a contract in January 2018 to install what became known as the Executive Huddle.   

The biggest hurdle to overcome was getting all the data directly from source to be able to visualise changes in real time. “The technical challenges that SAP overcame were really significant,” says Javaid.  

“Because we don’t own the data, we had to reach out to all of the companies to get permission to go straight to the source and grab the information from them.   

“So we had to build a pipe to all these separate companies to get their data. We had to go to the source directly because we wanted to have this information update within minutes so it couldn’t go from one server to another server and then come to us because it wouldn’t have happened in a timely fashion.    

“Those were challenging conversations to have for people to open up their data streams for us to pipe into but SAP had those conversations and were able to get that for us.”   

From there, the 49ers redesigned a suite at Levi’s Stadium – it now includes a giant touch screen, a four-panel wall and three additional televisions – for executives to observe and analyse changes in fan experience in real time.    

“SAP not only pulled in that software but did it up in an intelligent fashion that was visually appealing so not only could business intelligence and analytics departments read the data, but it was in a digestible format so if anyone from the executive team walks into the room they can understand what’s going on pretty quickly as well,” says Schoeb.  

HappyOrNot kiosks at Levi’s Stadium

Plans to take Huddle ‘predictive’
The Huddle’s first season has primarily been a “learning year”, says Javaid. “We need to learn how to interpret the data, we need to learn how to communicate to the rest of the organisation that these things are happening in real time and we need to change them,” he says.   

It has proven an initial success. “Early on we had a pretty good case study where looking at some of the parking data we could see one of the lots was going to overflow, so we were able to capture that in real time and tell our parking team operations to change one of the signs to move folks from one parking lot into another,” Schoeb says.   

The 49ers are not divulging how much the Huddle – which is also available to staff via a mobile app – cost to install or how much they have generated as a direct result of it. But the team believe the investment to keep fans happy on matchdays will pay off in the long run.  

“The challenges that we’re solving…we’re not moving mountains. If a cashier is not trained, a restroom is dirty, we’re out of food at a stand, a refrigerator is broken at a stand,” says Javaid. “These are really small things that can be solved quickly that can really improve the customer experience. If you solve one of these issues, you are affecting hundreds, if not thousands of fans, who are going to the same concession stand or the same restroom.    

“Our goal is to solve as many of those small hurdles as possible on gameday to ensure that every fan has a great experience from the time they leave their door to the time they get back home.”  

He adds: “It’s really hard to measure ROI [return on investment] on fan engagement and fan happiness. There has to be a belief that you want to have the best customer service and we have that goal. It’s an investment in your customer experience and your lifetime value of your customer.   

“For us, we renew our season-ticket holders at about 98-99 per cent a year and we want to keep those rates high. Our team performance hasn’t been quite as good as some of our fans would like in the past couple of years but our fans keep coming back and hopefully some of this is attributed to the fact that we’re working to make their experiences as strong as possible.”   

The plan is for the 49ers is to go predictive with the Huddle in two-to-three  years, and anticipate when problems will occur – such as hot dogs are about to run out or entrance gates are getting too crowded – rather than react to them.  

“This is an analytics platform that no one really has right now. It allows us to do crazy things in the future that will be super interesting,” Javaid adds. “This is only feasible with the platform SAP has given us.”  

SAP has benefited as well, with many sports teams across various leagues showing interest in installing the Huddle in their venues. “Everyone struggles with the same problem: you outsource so much of the business,” says Lehew. “You have one business running concessions, another doing ticketing, someone else running merchandise and then parking…you have data shot-gunned everywhere. Everyone wants it pulled together and in real time so they can visualise it and take action during the game while the fans are still in the building.   

“Either people are looking from a viewpoint of efficient venue operations or people are looking at a, ‘let me better understand who is in the building so I can personalise their experience better’ [viewpoint]. One of the problems people have is that they know very few people who are in the building. You have one person buying four tickets and you have no idea who the other three people are. This is a kind of solution to that problem.” 

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