Samir Mahir: The transformative power of business analytics

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Samir Mahir, Chief information officer, Tennis Australia

Samir Mahir,
Chief information officer, Tennis Australia

The sports data revolution started, arguably, in baseball with Sabermetrics. But it’s certainly worked its way into football, basketball and elsewhere. Have tennis fans caught the bug?

We’ve been dealing with and compiling data at the Australian Open for a long time, but it’s the new technologies that are really enhancing what we can do. We’re extrapolating a lot of information with real-time video analysis and tennis match analysis for players, coaches and fans. One online tool allows fans to compare current matches to eight years of previous Grand Slam tournaments—more than 41 million separate data points. For players and coaches, we offer detailed match data paired to point-by-point video for post-game analysis. So data is vital to what we do. This year we also added the Social Leaderboard, which processes blog posts, tweets and online sentiment to rank players by online popularity and buzz. On the leaderboard you can see right away the effect of what fans are saying online. Our editorial team uses that information to promote or demote content during an event.

Is real-time analysis a big part of the work you do?

Our ability to analyze data in real time has absolutely transformed how we interact and engage with fans and how fans watch and interact with our sport. Just look at our Web traffic. We had 15.5 million unique users during this year’s tournament. That’s compared to about 14 million last year. We also had almost one million downloads of our iPhone app. That’s quite impressive considering how much competition there is for people’s attention these days. And that increased traffic has benefited our bottom line in the form of increased online advertising revenue, so we’ve been really pleased.

Have you thought about pointing that analytics engine at Tennis Australia itself?

It’s definitely affecting the rest of our organization and, to be honest, that’s changing my role as CIO. We’re taking our experience in managing all this data for matches to decide how best to exploit our internal data. And I’d like to stress that we’re talking about business analytics not just data analytics. It’s not just data for data’s sake. We want to take tools that we’re already using during the tournament and apply them to, say, finance or marketing.

How do you do that?

A good example is in finance. Our chief financial officer is very interested in how business analytics can give us more consistency in our budgetary forecasting and our expense tracking. Finance has already seen the benefits of IT for many decades so they quickly appreciated that these new analytics technologies could cut their reporting cycle in half and actually provide them with close to real-time information on the organization. That’s a really big deal for them. In fact, it’s actually opened up some very interesting conversations about how they can better use the financial data that they already have.

Are you working with other departments, too?

Sure. We’re looking into how we can use analytics with marketing. It’s no longer enough to simply capture people’s names and e- mail addresses and send newsletters. Our desire is clear. We want more people to play tennis. Our specific goal is to reach 4 million participants in Australia by 2016. We capture tons of unstructured data and right now there’s no way to tell which event or tournament a fan might be most interested in attending. The good news is that we’re discussing objectives and goals for next year with our marketing colleagues on this particular project. Separately, we’re looking into how we can best use analytics in human resources. We’re planning to heavily invest in more integrated human resources systems so they can do their jobs better.

What have you learned from these interactions?

It’s very simple, really: you’ve got to spend time with colleagues and learn what other people in the business do or you can’t serve them well and you can’t contribute to the organization. I guess I’d say that I’ve learned the value of communicating complex ideas simply. That goes both ways, of course. Our close collaboration has pushed other departments to communicate a lot more simply and clearly with us, too. And we, as technologists, have become more business savvy and useful to the organization. You mostly just have to be honest about what you can and can’t do for your colleagues and you need to maintain an ongoing conversation and relationship.

Sort of like playing doubles tennis?

I use that analogy with my team. The most successful doubles teams talk a lot between points—before they start serving and when they’re volleying and approaching the net. It’s the same with us. It’s a doubles match and you’ve got to have a close communication to make it work and win. That not only takes preparation beforehand, but also during the match. And at match point, when things get really hard, that’s when you’ve got to raise your game, play even harder and always keep talking.

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