Sports Technology Stakeholders On The Challenges of Recruiting and Retaining Talent

We asked five decision-makers in sports technology to discuss the problem of finding and keeping the talent needed to collect, monitor and manage the growing amount of sports data. Find out the pain points, primary concerns, and even the proposed fixes for landing top-earning sports data analysts.

Thank you to Brian Kopp, Sandra LopezBrad Sims, Tania Yuki and Vince Ircandia.

Brian Kopp, Senior Advisor, Catapult Sports
(former President, N.A., Catapult Sports)

Is there a challenge with hiring talent in the sports tech industry? And if so, how do we combat that?

I think the sports industry is very similar to entertainment, where a lot of people want to get into the industry because they want to work in sports. And so historically, companies – people in the industry – have used that to their advantage and end up under-paying talent because they figure there’s a premium in working in this industry.

I think you’ll always see that, and you’ll always have that dynamic. I think one of the biggest pain points right now is with this entrance of data. Having talent to manage and analyze and fully utilize that data is more important than ever. Yet the recruiting and maintaining of that talent can be difficult because that need is in a lot of other industries.

For example, a team could convince a really good programmer to come work for them for a couple of years because hey, I want to go work for a sports team. But when they look around and see they can make twice as much money not working in sports, eventually – if they’re really good talent – they’re not gonna stay in sports. So, the best way to do that is to start to pay closer attention to market rates for talent.

Which I know is hard and I know it’ll change the dynamic and the economic model, but the boats are all rising in a lot of these professional teams where they’re able to make more money. That floats the athletes and it floats the ownership but it’s got to start floating to certain roles like people who are managing data. Because it is that critical. It is that important part of an organization that they’ve gotta start paying for that type of talent.

Otherwise they keep kind of churning through people. You see a lot of teams where they’ll have programmers that stay there for a year or two, and then they’ll just go find another one. And yeah, that tends to work, but the best teams have some level of continuity.

So, I think the biggest hiring talent challenge is on the programming side and the data management side, because that talent is in demand in a lot of other industries that tend to pay more than the sports industry does.

Sandra Lopez, Vice President, Intel Sports Group

How are you optimizing hiring tactics for talent to accommodate the industry’s rapid growth?

In today’s hyper-competitive world, talent is easy to find.

What I believe is often overlooked is an assessment of core values. Does the candidate embody the cultural values of the organization? Any organization or department should be able to clearly define their culture, right? In defining the culture – the attributes that we stand for – we should go find individuals who reflect that.

And when you are creating a new market or new experiences – one can no longer state they have X number of years in the space. At Intel, we believe we are entering the next revolution in computing, which we call immersive media and enabled by technologies such as volumetric. If somebody tells me they are an expert in volumetric and they’ve done this for 20+ years, my point of view is, well, it’s new, so you don’t necessarily have that experience in the space, right?

When you create new markets, a lot of people don’t have the experience in these new markets. I am looking for new-age skills. Maybe they are practitioners and are an experienced business development person or experienced marketer or experienced electrical engineering. However, what we need to consider beyond their experience look at is what I call EQ, more the emotional intelligence really driven by the culture that you’ve defined within your organization. In addition, the person needs to embody quick learnability. In new markets, you need to be a perpetual student: be intellectually curious, be willing to fail fast, and be willing to take risks.

I can’t speak on behalf of my broader set of colleagues. I can speak on behalf of myself specifically. As I look at talent, I really look for grit. I look for respect. That’s stuff that’s important to my team. Interesting enough, I was just interviewing a candidate, and this candidate said, “Look, we don’t know what the future is. We don’t even know what the future is going to look like a year from now,” meaning more from a business standpoint. That was a fantastic comment as I was interviewing him because what it told me is that he is capable of pivoting and adjusting to market dynamics.

New market, new business. Are you entrepreneurial? Are you gritty enough? Are you creative enough? Are you passionate enough? Do you embody respect? You tend to look for not the traditional, “Let me look at your resume and your experience” I can read one’s resume. You should consider other attributes that you need for the organization to be successful. And most important question you should ask yourself, would you be OK if that person was your boss?

Brad Sims, EVP Franchise Operations
and Chief Revenue Officer, Cleveland Cavaliers

What do you see as some of your key challenges in hiring and retaining sports tech talent, and what are the Cavs doing to tackle those challenges?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is talent acquisition and retention. The early adopters in this space – and I will put us in this category – are looking in non-traditional places for talent.

Take my Business Intelligence team. Our VP was in the banking industry for twenty years as an analyst. We got our number two director from Apple, where he was overseeing all product growth, and analytics across all Latin and South America. We were able to get him from Miami. Our head of CRM came from the Dallas Cowboys, and another analyst came from the casino industry.

Most of our group seems to come from outside of the sports industry. So, the question becomes how do we find those people, right? If you look at ticket sales, those in corporate partnerships, marketing… in each of those areas, the majority of those people work in sports. We have to find people from other industries who are talented and who can bring some of their learning from the industries that are head and shoulders ahead of the sports industry as it relates to big data.

It’s hard, but we can cast a wider net and bring in people who come from other industries. But when you’re a small team just getting up and running with only one person, you don’t always know where to look for these types of people.  So, talent acquisition is a big challenge.

The other challenge is that from a compensation perspective the sports industry is not on par with other industries. There is a built-in pay-cut for those who choose to work in sports. Many people we’ve brought onboard have taken a pay cut. It is a challenge to find people who are in analyst roles in other industries that are typically making more money than what the NBA or other sports leagues are willing to pay.

So, that becomes another challenge.  How do we tell the story internally, in terms of an ROI? It’s pretty easy on a sales person: $30k in commission sales and they bring in $200k, you have people crunching numbers, reporting and insights and the question is asked “Why are we paying this person $75k?”

So, to people like CFOs or CEOs, if they’re not a big believer in technology, data or analytics it’s tough.  Fortunately, in our company we have that support both from a senior level and ownership level but most companies don’t.

It’s hard to quantify the return we get on this. I’ve had those conversations with our BI team and I tell them, “Hey, you guys are doing so many great things we have to tell your story and build your brand internally so that when we ask for more resources our Executive Leadership team will support it because they have a good feel for the impact you’re making.”

Tania Yuki, CEO of Shareablee

What do you look for in a data analyst, particularly as it relates to the current “shortage” of big data analysts?

It’s one of the hardest things. It’s actually one of the things that we list as one of our company values. And for those who are into data in a big way, I think often that creativity is probably the most important skill. Being able to crunch data and create things based on data is a quantitative skill. But being able to look at what you’re seeing from a storytelling standpoint, and perfect what it means, and help your clients read the tea leaves to decide what’s going and to really see into the future, that actually takes a very creative spirit and a boldness, and a bravery, and a willingness to sometimes perfect things that aren’t 100 percent prescriptive.

I think the tradition of research has been, “I’m just going to present you with the numbers, and then I’m going to back away. Because I don’t want to taint your experience of these pure numbers with my heretical proclamations of what they mean.” Right?

Like that wasn’t my job as a researcher. My job as a researcher was to bring you pure science, load balance, aggregated, beautiful, clean, data. And I think now the job of any big data company, or any research company, is to go that extra step, and to really help people make meaning out of it. So, finding people who both have the right brain and the left brain. You know, I think someone coined the phrase, “Whole brain thinking,” who can both crunch numbers very quickly, and then to size up feelings and meaning out of it, are probably just the two sort of things that we look for the most.

Vince Ircandia, CEO, Stellar Algo
(former SVP Business Operations, Portland Trail Blazers)

What are the challenges around securing the individuals who are qualified to translate the data?

Hiring talent is a big one. It’s a coveted skill set and industries are aggressively recruiting those with experience in areas such as data architecture, data engineering, data science and software development talent. Much of that talent currently goes to companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

One of the major issues is that there are so many different technologies and those partners change yearly, which creates a need for constantly monitoring, managing and optimizing the technology stack in order to get a true 360-degree view of your customer. Technology changes rapidly and any new hire must be passionate and willing to learn new tools, coding languages and technologies.

Data personnel must also be equal parts marketing and information technology efforts. The business and technology verticals continue to converge which requires the leaders of tomorrow to be consensus builders.

Fan expectations are rising and the expectation has shifted to one-to-one marketing where messaging is both timely and personalized.