Ninety minutes before tip-off at The Palace of Auburn Hills, the Detroit Pistons get ready to square off in an NBA Central Division showdown. Meanwhile, another elite team is preparing for action behind the scenes. Chris Pittenturf, vice president of data and analytics, is in the arena’s command center, helping security leaders and front office executives interpret real-time data from a robust and complex system of reports and dashboards his team has built with a technology partner, Incite Informatics.
Armed with this data, Pittenturf’s colleagues will sell more merchandise, dramatically reduce wait times, improve safety, and provide a better overall experience for the twenty thousand-plus fans in attendance. The goal is to use data to create a unique fan experience anchored by personal interaction. “We want to be better at using data and technology than anyone else in sports and entertainment,” says Pittenturf, who joined Palace Sports & Entertainment in 2005 as a member of the IT team. The company, led by Tom Gores and Platinum Equity, also owns other venues, including DTE Energy Music Theatre, and operating rights to Meadow Brook Amphitheater and Freedom Hill Amphitheater.
As fans arrive, those huddled in the command center watch the basketball game (or other live events) unfold like a story told through rich data. “We’ve set up the infrastructure that lets us see the event live and breathe. And that’s valuable,” Pittenturf says. “Instead of doing a postmortem, we’re able to adjust and react on the fly.”
As stadium greeters scan what seems like a countless number of tickets, they know how many people are in The Palace at any given moment. If fans are late to arrive, Pittenturf’s team can compare the night to a similar event or scan weather and traffic alerts. They watch crowd sizes in each section in order to dispatch the proper number of ushers and monitor merchandise sales to ensure all items are in stock and on hand. Other tech initiatives from Pittenturf’s team supplement the data. He has worked with his colleagues to leverage Wi-Fi throughout Palace Sports’ properties. “Most people watching live events want to stay connected so they use our Wi-Fi, which is gated with authentication,” he explains. Users must enter their name and email address for access—which gives Palace Sports a way to gather data from its actual attending audience instead of drawing information only from those that actually purchased the tickets.
It’s an important piece of information because Palace Sports must learn as much as possible about its customers before it can provide an engaging experience night in and night out. “The more data we can accumulate about fan behavior and preferences, the more customized we can be,” he says. “Instead of blindly messaging an entire mailing list, we can then target specific demographics based on age, marital status, gender, and other attributes. We don’t want to spend money advertising an event for families with small children to a single college kid.”
That data is then processed through a data warehouse that lets Palace Sports customize its message and avoid user fatigue, as consumers frequently unsubscribe from lists or delete messages if they aren’t customized, relevant, and timely.
Palace’s intense focus on the power of data and analytics started with Gores’s arrival in 2011. His global investment firm, Platinum Equity, includes automotive, tech, and telecom companies. New CEO Dennis Mannion and his leadership team wanted to formalize data collection to unite disparate departments. Leaders asked Pittenturf—who had been bringing data-producing systems into the CRM and supporting business intelligence efforts—to manage CRM, business intelligence, and market research in one new department.
That department has learned many important lessons during its first four years. “We know we have to hustle,” Pittenturf says. “Consumer expectations and behaviors change and data teams have to be agile in order to provide a great experience or they do a huge disservice to the whole company.” Similar to many entertainment companies, Palace Sports & Entertainment is targeting tech-savvy millennials, a group that will soon pass baby boomers as the largest consumer cohort. They over-index on social platforms, gravitate toward the next best thing, and eschew the strong loyalty their parents had for iconic brands.
This younger group coming into prominence has a new level of expectation. “We have to provide them with the best experience in entertainment, and that puts a premium on my department and on data collection to do our job well. We’re under pressure,” Pittenturf says. But he also knows his team is up to the task. They’re now researching more ways to implement mobile wallet solutions that add convenience and gather more data. They’re also looking into immersive and interactive experiences.
In the not-too-distant future, friends scattered across the globe may be able to livestream the same concert together, each experiencing a Palace Entertainment venue without ever leaving home. Or maybe they’ll buy a virtual ticket for a courtside seat at a Pistons game and “attend” it with someone who lives halfway around the world. Pittenturf’s team is doing innovative work with data and technology in the sports and entertainment space, and they’re not about to slow down. “Technology continues to change the fan experience as we know it,” he says. “And we want to set the standard.”