Interview with Jessica Gelman, SSAC Co-founder

This week on the blog, we’re taking you behind the scenes for an exclusive interview with SSAC Co-founder, Jessica Gelman. In addition to co-chairing the conference for the last 12 years, Gelman is the CEO of Kraft Analytics Group (KAGR), a technology and services company focused on data management, advanced analytics and strategic consulting in the sports and entertainment space. Read below to find out what she’s most excited about for #SSAC18, and what #TalkDataToMe means to her! 


Can you tell us about the genesis of KAGR and the impetus for its founding? What is the company’s main objective?

Our main goal is help organizations become data-driven in their decision-making.  This was a critical focus on the approach we applied at the Kraft Sports & Entertainment Group when I was overseeing customer-facing business lines likes ticketing, retail, marketing, and strategy.  We created a technology and platform so that data and analytics is easily available to those making decisions.  There was not a good solution for us, so we built one.  We were solving on a pain that we had. 

As you might imagine, because of our roots in the industry, we are experts on all the critical data integrations on the marketing and operations sides of sports business, Just as important, we bring the information to the end user through data visualizations and our analytics are integrated into the KAGR platform.  Organizations should be spending time analyzing the data, not pulling and cleaning it.  Then, we provide strategic support in applying data to drive the business. Today we have clients in 4 of the 5 professional US sports leagues who are using our platform or engaging with us. 

How did you get your start with the Krafts?

I firmly believe in finding situations where you can learn, and the Krafts are visionaries who are incredibly entrepreneurial.  I bought into and believe in their vision of managing a sports franchise like any other business.  Fortunately, during my second year at Harvard Business School, they were looking for a team to do a business case analysis.  A few of my friends were selected, and after our presentation I was offered a role.  Over time, the Krafts charged me with pushing analytics and thinking about the business that way. 

We realized profound and significant results from using analytics to drive the Patriots, Revolution, and Gillette Stadium businesses.  Ultimately, there was so much interest in what we were doing, we decided to create KAGR to support other organizations and drive the adoption of analytics across the industry.

Describe the switch from athletics to sports analytics – what inspired or motivated you to begin focusing on sports with a data and analytics focus?

As an athlete, I was always very analytical in my approach and a student of the game.  Additionally, while studying psychology at Harvard, my research was experimentally and statistically based around performance in pressure situations.  Overall, I always gravitated toward this type of approach as an athlete.

Simultaneously, as a fan, some of my favorite childhood memories were attending games with my family.  Having the chance to create experiences for others was very compelling.  When I entered the industry in 2002, customer data was just becoming available, but we recognized an opportunity to better engage Patriots fans with targeted, behavior-based marketing. 

With time, we applied those concepts beyond marketing to the day-to-day of business operations, including revenue optimization, inventory management, pricing, etc.  The key became data management and technology investment.  This allowed us to more easily do the analysis we needed to develop better fan communication and, ultimately, prioritize areas of focus to improve the customer experience.

Within the last decade, almost all business analytics departments within sports have adopted practices like retention modeling and dynamic/variable pricing. What do you see as being on the forefront or cutting edge of business analytics in the sports world? What are the new practices and techniques that will become ubiquitous in 10 years?

First, I wouldn’t say “all” organizations have business analytics departments and there are varying levels of sophistication even for those who do.  It is certainly not ubiquitous.  We are still in the very early days, not only in sports, but in term of the data available and the technology to harness it. 

With KAGR, we are focused on trying to support the entire industry moving forward.  In order to be able to do machine learning and AI, we need to move beyond the current state.  Once we get there, which I suspect will happen in the next 3-4 years as organizations realize that investing in data is an imperative, we’ll see quantum leaps. 

What will be the challenges that analytics departments face in the coming years?

As with any business strategy and investment, it is getting buy-in both from decision-makers, as well as peers who will be using the information.  Right now, there is good analysis work being done, but in many cases, it is not necessarily done on the most pressing issues.  To which I mean, the application of the analysis to solve problems is lacking.  The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has played a big role in educating people about what can be done.  Technology and data are growing at an astounding rate, which creates an opportunity.  Without question, as former Sloan conference attendees and students who were involved in the conference take on more meaningful roles leading organizations, I envision increased acceptance and impact.

Can you tell us about how the conference got started? What was the principle motivation for forming the conference?

Daryl and I started the conference because we loved teaching the class at MIT Sloan.  When he became the GM of the Rockets and moved to Houston, it wasn’t realistic to continue teaching the class.  Our motivation was to continue to increase awareness about the value of analytics, while having an excuse to bring like-minded people together.  Obviously, and selfishly, it was also a great excuse to create something with one of my closest friends. 

How do you see SSAC changing in the coming years? What is one thing you hope to see at the conference in five years?

A few things would be great to see.  First, we would love to have a panel of all former MIT Sloan student leads who are leading and driving change in the sports and entertainment industry. 

Second, a major growth area has been our focus on educational platforms at the conference (e.g. workshops and Competitive Advantage talks).  Our hope and expectation is that we can continue to extend those elements and more intimately involve professors from local universities to teach sessions each day.

Third, we would like to see more competitions like the hackathon. Of course, we would love to have some international championships happen around the conference where we kick off for a week of activities in Boston.  Perhaps we’ll be involved in hosting the Overwatch or League of Legends Championship in Boston right after the conference. 

Last, SSAC is unique as a conference in that we draw globally, as well as having significant presence from all 5 major US professional sports leagues. Ideally, we would strive to have more collaboration across leagues in the US & internationally at the conference.  We can provide those forums. 

What panel or speaker are you most excited for this year?

No favorite child here.  I am partial to the business panels and content (CAs).     

What does the conference theme—“Talk Data to Me”—mean to you?

It means embracing an analytic approach to solving problems.  Of course, have your opinions and theories, but support those beliefs with data.  That, and Mark Cuban wore a shirt to Sloan years ago that said “Talk Nerdy to Me”, so, it’s a natural evolution.