citifield

The New York Mets may play in the largest market in sports, but with the shadow of the Yankees hanging perpetually over them, and with a budget a fraction of the size, they are forced to behave more like a small market ball club. The comparison to startups is irresistible, with these comparatively underfunded organizations forced to rely on innovation to compete against big money institutions like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Fittingly, the most famous and successful example of this scrappy mentality comes from that cradle of innovation, the Bay Area, when the Oakland A’s applied sophisticated data analysis known as Sabermetrics to scout undervalued players, thus placing the team in a position to take on teams with double the player salaries.

Of course, just like in the tech world, the bigger teams saw what the smaller clubs were up to and adopted those innovative techniques to their own ends — even the Yankees had hired a Sabermetrics analyst – thus forcing the smaller clubs to always be on the lookout for the latest technological edge.

It’s with this as the backdrop that the New York Mets invited six tech luminaries to CitiField yesterday for its “Tech on Deck” panel to discuss how big data can help their businesses. The panelists hailed from companies big and small, from corporate giants like Mastercard to the New York ticketing startup SeatGeek, and represented industries as diverse as sports, health-care, law enforcement, advertising, payments, and ecommerce. The sponsor of the event, Thunder11, couldn’t have picked a more fitting game before which to hold the event: Last night the Mets played the A’s meaning the event, in addition to emphasizing the Sabermetrics movement, also helped make for a nice “Silicon Valley vs. Silicon Alley” narrative.

Before we go any further, let’s note that “big data,” like all pieces of tech jargon (“disruption,” anyone?), has a meaning that depends largely on who’s saying it. For some, big data represents a truly sophisticated analysis of information to extract actionable insights that make a real difference. For others, it’s little more than a box to check off on a pitch deck — a way of riding the coattails of a legitimate movement, and thus threatening to de-legitimatize it.

But the individuals who gathered last night weren’t fooling around. With the wide breadth of industries represented, there was a lot to talk about, but the focus was on separating important data from mere noise, and applying that data to actionable results.

Dan Wawrzonek, Senior Manager of Projects and Information Technology at Major League Baseball, spoke about some of the exciting new analyses teams have pioneered to improve their game.

“Using advanced metrics, what you’re seeing is teams employing a defensive shift for left handed batters,” says Wawrzonek. The shift is a risky move, involving the movement of up to six infielders and outfielders to narrow the area of coverage. If applied incorrectly, the results can be disastrous: the Yankees’ Johnny Damon stole two bases on one pitch in the 2009 World Series thanks to a defensive shift. But thanks to improved batter analysis, teams can better determine when to employ these shifts, causing a huge surge in the technique.

“Last year we had 100 shifts over course of season,” says Wawrzonek. “This year alone we’re projecting 14,000 year wide.”

At this point it’s too early to tell how well it’s working, but USA Today sportswriter Paul White notes that the overall MLB batting average is three points lower than last year, and he attributes this slump to an increase in defensive shifts.

The fellow panelists shared all manner of big data-informed insights from their fields, some obvious and some not. Vib Prasad, Senior Vice President at MasterCard and Group Head of Emerging Payments, shared an anecdote about some of the data collected for one of the credit card company’s clients, Whole Foods. What MasterCard found was that those grass-fed gluten truthers who shop at Whole Foods also really really enjoy… fast food breakfast. Perhaps Whole Foods should start selling organic Egg McMuffins?

Back to sports, co-founder of SeatGeek Russ D’Souza spoke of a very specific yet under-emphasized data problem: How to price sports tickets.

“Teams haven’t been terribly savvy about pricing tickets,” D’Souza says, and neither have ticket brokers. Compare that to the airline industry which uses wildly complicated math to determine ticket prices that constantly fluctuate based on a staggering number of factors. SeatGeek, which works like Kayak for sporting events, takes into consideration matchups, seat location, and day of the week to find the best values for customers. It’s a helpful service, but also one made possible because the bigger primary and secondary ticket sellers, so locked in their ways, completely overlooked it. That’s an important lesson for both startups and the Mets.

Meanwhile, the amount of data businesses can are able to collect to better serve (or spy on) its customers is increasing exponentially. Kirk McDonald, the President of programmatic ad company PubMatic, has a vision for big data’s future that is downright terrifying — terrifying because his predictions are probably right.

Every time we touch our phone (or ask Siri a question) it represents “billions and billions of intentions to do something,” McDonald said. “[Young consumers] expect everything they touch already knows something about me. They don’t expect anything generic anymore, and when you look into the future, the entire world is customized.”

When pressed on the privacy implications of this, McDonald shrugs off these concerns. He asked the audience how many of them used Google Now, and then asked how many of them were creeped out the first time Google knew what they were going to do before they did it. A number of hands shot up.

“How many of you got over it?” he asked. I don’t think a single hand went down.

“The creepiness factor of this stuff wears off,” McDonald says. “The efficiency is going to trump the privacy.”

And finally, as for whether or not the New York tech scene can ever compete against its West Coast brethen? I’ll only say that New York beat Oakland last night 10-1. Look out, Silicon Valley.

[Photo by Sue Elias]