It has been a renaissance season for the San Francisco 49ers, who improbably sit one game away from Super Bowl LIV in Miami. While the football world didn’t anticipate that the 49ers would be in this position this season, after finishing the 2018 NFL season 4-12, they have ridden a historic pass defense, led by recently crowned rookie of the year Nick Bosa, and a high powered rushing attack, led by offensive captain Jimmy Garroppolo, putting the team in position to return to the biggest stage in football for the first time in seven years.
This moment for the organization also comes six years after the team moved out of their Candlestick Park home and into the technologically advanced, 70,000 seat Levi’s Stadium. The new stadium moved the team out of the San Francisco area and into the midst of the technology capital of the world in Silicon Valley and specifically in Santa Clara, Calif. With their new location and organizational philosophy of being innovative and a technology first-mover whenever possible, the team has been best in class off the field in addition to potentially being a Super Bowl participant on the field in 2020.
Their technological willingness to be first and quick-moving is clearly evident in their use of the Executive Huddle, a real-time tracking system created by German software company SAP. The team has said this system has yielded positive results and that they plan to expand its use next season. Currently, the 49ers are the only team in the National Football League that utilizes the Executive Huddle software, giving them a unique ability to make real-time adjustments to their processes and game-day experience during a game instead of having to wait to evaluate after the game.
“It is a perfect marriage of technology and customer feedback at a major sporting event,” 49ers President Al Guido said last week before the team’s Divisional Playoff game against the Vikings. “It starts with the infrastructure at a new venue. We’re lucky to be close to tech companies that allow us to do this.”
The Executive Huddle software is located discreetly in a suite on the west side of Levi’s Stadium that overlooks the field and many of the fans that the team is looking to optimally serve. The suite contains five big-screen monitors that display real-time data of fan behavior, enabling the team to observe every aspect of the fan experience. The software can observe If a particular cog in the complicated process is running less than optimally in a given game day, which could occur for a variety of reasons. With the Wall Street Journal reporting earlier this week that the NFL is secretly engaging league staff to discreetly observe the fan experience during games, this real-time feedback is more valuable than ever.
“I want to remove every single barrier that [fans] may have in their mind, so they might come to a game next time,” 49ers Vice President of Strategy and Analytics Moon Javaid said earlier this season. “The way we do that is trying to solve every single minor issue or inconvenience that you might have.”
SAP introduced Executive Huddle in 2017. They collaborated with the 49ers, hoping to assist the team in their weekly strategic planning, with the long term hope that the partnership could help the team make adjustments to their operations on the fly during a game. Guido has stated that it previously took the organization days after games to gather the data from game-day and produce reports that could lead to actionable adjustments, with the ultimate goal being more revenue for the team and better fan experience for their consumers. The team had hoped the Executive Huddle would lead to a faster process and their wish became a reality for the franchise.
“We put on (eight) games a year, hopefully, more than that if its playoffs, and we only have one chance to make sure that’s right for the people coming in here,” Guido said to CNBC. “To have the data, to have the technology, to have the platform at our fingertips, to be able to react in real-time, and even more importantly proactively communicate to our fans, it’s made all the difference in the world.”
In the command center numbers consistently flash across multiple screens and an app called HappyOrNot also collects real-time feedback from fans about all aspects of their experience, from the concession stands to the restrooms, as well as other areas of the stadium that are involved with the fan experience. When issues arise, the system triggers a signal to the command suite and the team can dispatch resources to quickly reduce any negative impact that could affect the game-day experience.
The 49ers analytics dashboard has not gone unnoticed throughout the league. Guido has said that the Atlanta Falcons, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, and the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders, all teams with new stadiums, have expressed a desire to utilize the Executive Huddle software.
“It is a work in progress that we keep refining,” says Steven Chan, director of business intelligence and analytics for the 49ers. “We plan to eventually use machine learning and predictive analysis,” he said, adding that the team aggregates data based on trends, not individual data.” Chan has worked for industry giants Facebook and Google. He knows innovative technology and is able to distinguish what should rise to the top.
As the 49ers commence the biggest game of their new stadium’s history and a chance to move one step closer to their previous glory, it is a franchise that has been doing significant work off the field on the technology front. Their on the field efforts appear to be catching up and a sixth Super Bowl championship for the team could be the cards.