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Game on: How StellarAlgo engages sports fans

CEO Vincent Ircandia shares his game plan for turning die-hard spectators into valuable team assets.

Just about every entrepreneur stresses the importance of having a winning mindset, but Vincent Ircandia takes that sentiment to heart. The CEO and co-founder of StellarAlgo has a Stanley Cup ring, he was part of the muscle behind a MLS Cup championship win and he has proud memories of representing Canada on the world stage of collegiate baseball.

Before launching his AI analytics company in 2016, the Calgary native spent years in the backrooms of some of North America’s top teams, developing the science of fan data analysis. Just as Billy Beane turned to sabermetrics to boost on-field performance in Moneyball, Ircandia is on a mission to elevate the fan experience, whether they’re in the stands or at home on the couch. For Ircandia, every fan is key to driving big business.

“The fan is the most passionate customer on the planet,” he says. “People don’t paint their face to go to their favourite grocery store or fly on their favourite airline. But for sports, they have that level of passion.”

By the end of this decade, global sports sponsorships are on pace to become a U.S.$109-billion industry. Ircandia wants to make sure stakeholders are getting a healthy return on multi-million dollar investments. StellarAlgo distills every possible sports fan metric — ticket and merchandise sales, website and mobile app visits, marketing and advertising data, online game streaming numbers, and so on — into a hyper-detailed game plan that helps teams, leagues and brand partners make the most out of valuable sponsorships.

Here, Ircandia explains why understanding fans is such a unique challenge, how the business of sport goes way beyond getting butts in seats and what the Maple Leafs’ chances are this year.

How challenging is it to understand sports fans?

When you think about the way fans interact, they follow their favourite teams and players through many channels, and the level of engagement is much deeper than it would be for a typical customer. The size of the data is exponentially more than anything you’d see from another customer base. So you’re tasked with identifying the signals and making sense of these really large, broad data sets — it’s challenging.

What is it about sports that makes fans so loyal?

Winning championships isn’t the only reason to cheer for sports. In good times and bad, fans turn to sports to escape or connect with their community and the people around them. It’s an incredibly unifying force.

How do you capitalize on that passion for advertisers and partners?

Advertiser relationships are the second- or third-largest revenue stream for leagues and teams. It’s about harnessing the value of the entire fan base, not just the ones who will go to a game. So, if partners can reach customers in a more authentic and desired way, then those customers are more open to engage with a business. Businesses and partners are increasingly asking: “Are we getting an ROI on that? Are those fans becoming customers of ours?” StellarAlgo has a really important role to play in helping build those relationships. We see big lifts in ticket sales, we see merchandise sales go up, we see fans engaging more with mobile apps — which, in turn, means we’re meeting the needs of big sports advertisers as well.

Can you explain how StellarAlgo improves the experience for fans?

We’re able to surface the right moments and channels to reach a given fan, and we’re able to make it more personal. That also means you’re not messaging fans when you know they’re not going to be interested in a particular opportunity, so they don’t feel like they’re being spammed. Like, if I go to a Clippers game when I’m in LA, and then after I head home to Calgary, I get spammed to buy season tickets, I’ll be annoyed. We can comb through data and identify which fans should be targeted with certain offers.

How did you wind up working for sports teams?

Growing up, I was always involved in athletics. I went on to play college baseball, and as part of that I played for Team Canada at the World Collegiate Baseball Championships. After university, I started working in investment banking and equity research, but it just wasn’t my calling so I decided to go back to school. I went on to get my MBA from the University of Southern California, which culminated in a job with the L.A. Kings, who hired me to lead their first foray into understanding their fans in order to drive better experiences around our games. After that, I worked for the Kings’ parent company AEG, where I was in charge of data and fan tech for North America and Europe, then I went to the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA as VP of business analytics.

Were you part of any championship runs during that time?

I have a Stanley Cup ring from the Kings’ 2012 win. The L.A. Kings’ parent company AEG also owns the L.A. Galaxy, so we won an MLS Cup in 2011 when David Beckham was there.

What was the inspiration to launch your own company?

In 2016, I was on the NBA’s inaugural innovation and fan data steering committee. I was getting calls every week from people across the world asking us what tools we were using and how we were using data to better monetize our fans. But the tools we were using were very manual. Every fan got the exact same message, regardless of who they were. We sent them a lot of content, but nothing personalized. I just felt that there was a huge gap. And so, I met my two co-founders, both in Calgary. The rest is history. Today we have more than 120 partners.

Tell me about your new partnership with the NBA.

The NBA is so incredibly customer-centric. They saw an opportunity for the league and its 30 teams to better understand who their fans are and how to capitalize on building relationships with them. That led to a league-wide agreement with us. Subsequent to that announcement, the NBA actually invested in StellarAlgo. They came on as an equity partner because the league believes in our technology and has the opportunity to become ubiquitous across the world of sport.

Are there opportunities with sports betting?

Sports betting is a big growth area for the sports industry. StellarAlgo can actually reduce the noise in sports betting advertising and throttle it to the right populations who are interested in engaging with a sports betting product or platform, and avoid people who aren’t. If a customer’s profile identifies them as having a gambling problem, we can suppress them from getting messages and targeted ads.

What’s next for StellarAlgo?

There’s a whole bunch of things. We’ll be announcing a couple more relationships. One of them is a major women’s professional sports league. I’m really bullish on the future of women’s sport. I think it’s important for our world and I think there’s a huge business opportunity, as well.

Toronto Maple Leaf Fans are incredibly patient. What do you think their chances are this year?

Well, they’re a customer, so I’m gonna say … really good. Put it this way: We’re rooting for them. It’s funny; when I won the Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2012, we were the eighth seed and nobody thought we had a chance. But then we went 16-4 in the playoffs and won the championship — nobody saw it coming. So I’m a believer.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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