Chris Pittenturf grew up ten minutes from the Detroit Pistons’ home in suburban Oakland County. At the time, it was the only professional team playing outside the city limits, and this quirk of geography supported an early and earnest fandom. By high school, he was playing seriously and working at the arena as an usher.
He attended Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, expecting to major in basketball and take classes on the side.
“That changed pretty quickly,” he says, laughing. “I started getting more serious about my education.”
With a business degree and a focus in managing information systems, he began his career in the auto industry. “It seemed like everyone was in the auto industry,” he recalls. That was in 1998, before the recession and the big-data revolutions that have redefined the American economy and workforce came to pass.
He was on the Pistons’ website buying tickets one day in 2005 when he saw an opening for a database administrator. Now the vice president of IT and analytics, Pittenturf uses his position to develop fan loyalty, craft targeted interactions, and explore the emerging possibilities of digital data management.
The Pistons organization is in a moment of transition. Just a year ago, they moved from the suburbs into downtown Detroit; the new practice facility and headquarters in New Center will open in 2019. The moves have provided opportunities to build new partnerships as well as redefine what a business partnership can be.
Pittenturf is especially excited about the Pistons’ relationship with Rocket Fiber, a Detroit-based internet service provider. Rocket Fiber will be providing connectivity for the Pistons’ new facilities, but the two organizations are imagining much bigger things. One of the possibilities would be to provide city-wide public wireless internet coverage to Pistons fans free of charge.
“The benefit to the fan is obvious: they get a powerful network and access for free. For us, we gain insight, in aggregate, to how our fans utilize the network,” he says. “There is even the potential to influence consumer behavior by providing partner discounts and incentives around the city to network consumers—things like drink specials at 5:00 p.m. for Pistons fans at Louie’s.”
Given the hesitation and trepidation around privacy, corporate data collection, and targeted marketing, Pittenturf acknowledges that norms will continue to evolve. But the relationship between team and fan is distinct from other commercial enterprises; there are unique opportunities to build that connection and make the fan part of the mission.
“When we send a fan-facing survey, we find that people are eager to participate because they want to be affiliated with us,” Pittenturf says. “They’re fond of our brand. In sports, we’re lucky in that regard.” That’s especially visible among younger fans. As millennials develop more buying power, they bring along their more casual attitudes toward data collection. All that adds up to a high level of valuable engagement.
The strategic approach starts long before tip-off. “We can customize an email based on information that we know; we’d personalize it with names and that sort of thing—but if we know your favorite player, you might get a video of that player or have the chance to enter to win a custom jersey,” he explains. “Any information can drive customization.”
Then, courtside, data-based customization continues to support the relationship and the experience. “If we know that a season ticket holder buys a beer and popcorn at the end of the first quarter in every game, we can grab it for him and bring it to his seat,” Pittenturf says. A strategic constellation of customized touch points fosters loyalty, and healthy loyalty adds value across the enterprise.
To do that, the engagement and analytics team emphasizes a few simple strategies: ask only for relevant information; explain what that data will be used for, and share the results with the participants. He points out that fan polling was key to the organization’s decision to adjust tip-off times from 7:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on weeknights and from 6:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sundays. And although the cause can’t necessarily be isolated, sales have been trending upward since the shift.
In a move like that, the risk is in the implicit commitment to use the data. Without a real response from the organization, the data collection doesn’t develop the relationship; it damages it. Fans are quick to pick up on a lack of commitment or coherence, so the onus is on the organization to use the information effectively.
Efficient collection and usage of data have been especially valuable in this peculiar moment of NBA history. The NBA Finals have featured the same matchup three years in a row; the Pistons, meanwhile, have had only one winning season in the past ten years. As a result, the organization has to develop and support an authentic, compelling narrative that keeps fans invested.
“We’ve got to have a believable, authentic message about who we are—whether we’re competing for championships or not,” he says. For the Pistons, maybe that means emphasizing growth, youth, and defense while playoff wins wait in the wings. For Pittenturf, it means targeting fans efficiently and exploring innovative ways to offer value.
“That puts a premium on departments like mine to capture information from our fans, understand them better, and provide experiences that extend beyond the court,” he explains. “That’s the value of what my team does so well: we’re integrated with marketing, sales, operations, and we use that information to effect change in our departments and fan experiences.”
Photos: Caleb Fox