The incoming Seattle NHL team's new senior vice president of digital and fan engagement wants fans watching what's happening on the ice. That means using technology to get them in KeyArena quicker, limit their time in concessions lines and keep them statistically informed — without them being glued to their phones throughout.
Inside the NHL
One thing Todd Humphrey won’t be doing as the incoming Seattle NHL team’s new digital and fan engagement honcho is prodding KeyArena patrons into glancing at their smartphones.
At least, not while a game’s going on.
Beyond standing in long concession and bathroom lines at sporting events, the biggest pet peeve for Humphrey, 50, a professional hockey player-turned-technology entrepreneur, are the fans distracted by their phones. Humphrey’s new job, as an NHL Seattle senior vice-president, is to help sell the hockey product locally — not prevent fans from actually watching it.
“A lot of teams in different venues have tried to incorporate technology,’’ Humphrey said. “You’ve seen it in pieces of hardware, in screens that they’ve put on seats. I think that we want to have technology be an enabler of a great experience. Technology doesn’t need to be the front page. What it needs to do is it has to enable.’’
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Sounds fairly straightforward. But with the NHL poised for an explosion of new player-and-puck-tracking statistics next season, resisting the urge to flood patrons with in-game data could prove challenging.
Humphrey will also explore ways to “educate fans’’ less-versed in the NHL about some of hockey’s finer points. Whether that’s by delivering some of the new tracking data to phones during stoppages in play — so as not to interfere with fans’ game-watching — remains to be worked out.
Earlier this month, he took in a Blackhawks game at United Center in Chicago and came away impressed by how the team engaged fans without overwhelming them.
“The Blackhawks have been in the league a long, long time, and so they’ve tried a lot of things over the years,’’ he said. “I had a good conversation with them. And really just watched what the fans were doing. What I didn’t see — and that I was impressed with — was people looking at their phones. They had a lot of stuff up on their video boards. There was stuff available during the game, but people were really engaged in the game.’’
Humphrey said the biggest tech development he’s seen the past decade at sporting events is mobile ticketing, which simplified the arena entry process and enabled fans to pass their seats to others at the touch of a button if they can’t make a game. With that in mind, he’ll look at additional ways to simplify fan experiences at a reopened KeyArena so they spend more time doing what they paid for — watching what’s happening on the ice.
“Everything that you’re going to do in this arena is enabled by some form of technology,’’ he said. “Whether it’s your tickets that are mobile, or ordering food and beverage, buying merchandise. We’d love to understand where people spend the most time.’’
And figure out ways of reducing it — especially if it’s keeping them away from the on-ice action.
Humphrey will look at limiting “pain points’’ like the dreaded concession and bathroom lines as well as helping fans breeze through security and find their seat locations quicker. He noted the Blackhawks deploy mobile ordering at some concessions stands where fans can punch a screen and place orders ahead of time to reduce line waits.
The new Seattle team won’t take the ice for another 32 months. That buys Humphrey time to build a staff and keep abreast of emerging new technology that might help reach his goals better than anything he’s currently aware of.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — a conglomerate in Humphrey’s hometown of Toronto that owns the NHL Maple Leafs, NBA Raptors and MLS Toronto FC — employs roughly 100 people in its digital offices. Humphrey said the lone NHL team here won’t employ that big a staff, though he did suggest “dozens and dozens’’ will eventually be hired.
As for emerging technology, the NHL is looking at deploying facial recognition technology at arenas to identify potential security threats. Many arenas and stadiums nationwide — including T-Mobile Park and CenturyLink Field — use biometric technology on a limited basis to identify fans entering the premises.
While security is one aspect of facial recognition, so is improving the fan experience. When the Golden 1 Center was built in Sacramento three years ago, tech-savvy NBA Kings owner Vivek Ranadive explored using facial recognition to eliminate the need for any type of entry tickets.
The idea would see fans “opt in’’ to an application that would enable them to be recognized by software as they approach the arena and gain automatic entry without having to pull a ticket or phone out of their pocket.
“The arena should recognize you,’’ Ranadive told The Sacramento Bee.
One offshoot of such recognition would be to tailor custom-made experiences for fans once inside an arena. Those could involve having food and beverages waiting for fans as they approach a concessions counter — and automatically paid for with preloaded credit card information — based simply by being recognized by the software.
The Kings already use facial recognition technology for security purposes outside team locker rooms. Applying it for broader, nonsecurity reasons has yet to be implemented, but Humphrey isn’t ruling it out at KeyArena once the technology improves.
“We’re sitting in the epicenter of technology here,’’ Humphrey said. “You’ve got Silicon Valley and you’ve got Seattle. There’s so much new technology coming out of big companies and small. … So, over the next number of months and certainly once we open, we’ll have looked at every piece of technology that can make the experience better.
“Facial technology — if we can get there to where people don’t have to be fudging around their pockets for their tickets or their phone, that could be amazing.’’
For now, he’ll focus on making sure those phones, once out of fans’ pockets, help enhance the game experience rather than becoming it.