Down but not out: How Boston's pro sports teams can still win in a pandemic

New England and Boston professional sports executives from the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, Cannons and Revolution reveal how to adapt when the speed of play changes, the fan experience is digital and your winning record is on the line.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

  The Boston Cannons are the 2020 Major League Lacrosse champions.

The habit of focusing on the fundamentals is the hallmark of many professional coaches. From Red Auerbach to Bill Belichick, to Terry Francona, great leaders know that winning teams execute the basics consistently and under pressure. 

What happens when organizations who play to win for a living unite to conquer a common competitor: COVID-19? Salesforce, Karen Mangia and I hosted senior leaders from five Boston professional sports teams to discover how they're adapting their playbooks to succeed at the future of engagement and experience built on a scalable enterprise architecture. 

In addition to the panel, I had the opportunity to have fireside chat with Rob Hale, CEO of Granite Telecommunications and an owner of the Boston Celtics and the Boston Cannons, about life, leadership and business lessons that matter most in today's times of uncertainty and disruption. Rob Hale and his company Granite Telecommunications made nearly $300 million in charitable donations over the past few years. See how Hale and his team exemplify the belief that businesses can be the greatest platform for change.

Our Starting Line-Up.

Our Boston pro team executive panel was moderated by Karen Mangia, vice president, customer and market insights, at Salesforce.The easy banter in the virtual green room suggests a camaraderie that extends beyond enabling some of the greatest moments in sports. The signed memorabilia, sports trivia, and Super Bowl Rings shared pale in comparison to what's really on display. Genius.


Karen Mangia, vice president, customer and market insights, at Salesforce

The Genius Huddle includes:

Fred Kirsch, Vice President, Content, Kraft Sports & Entertainment. He joined the New England Patriots in 1995 to start the team's weekly newspaper and has been evolving their content strategy ever since. The Patriots were the first team to have a made-for-the-internet nightly video stream and have the longest continuously running podcast in the world, now titled Patriots Unfiltered. Today, the Patriots lead the NFL on social media with over 14 million followers on their various platforms. I have worked with Fred and his team and I consider him as one of the true digital pioneers in sports. 


Fred Kirsch, Vice President, Content, Kraft Sports & Entertainment

Brian Shield, CIO of Boston Red Sox. He leads the technology team on all phases of the Red Sox IT strategy from creating a compelling digital fan experience at Fenway Park to enabling an effective front office and baseball operations environment.  Shield co-founded BostonCIO and is the national chair of InspireCIO. Prior to the Red Sox, Shield served as the EVP and CIO of The Weather Channel. Shield leads an extraordinary IT team of digital trailblazers. I regularly collaborate with Shield and his team and with every opportunity, I walk away learning something new. Shield has assembled a group of forward looking IT professionals with strong technical and business acumen. 


Brian Shield, CIO of Boston Red Sox

Jay Wessland, CTO and Vice President of Operations, Boston Celtics. He joined the Celtics in 1990 as a consultant and member of the Game Night staff and has been a fixture at the office and courtside ever since. He is responsible for strategy, implementation, and management of Technology, Operations, and Facilities and has transformed the Celtics Technical Infrastructure numerous times. I believe Wessland could be the hardest working and most hands-on CIO that I know. I frequently attend Celtics home games and I always see Wessland in the middle of the action. He is often at court-side working with the coaching staff, media and other major stakeholders who depend on his expertise and support. Wessland is a digital pioneer and a data and analytics-driven CIO. 


Jay Wessland, CTO and Vice President of Operations, Boston Celtics

Brian Bilello, President of the New England Revolution. He oversees all aspects of the club's operations, including its business activities and soccer operations. He also serves as the President of Boston Soccer 2026, leading the campaign to bring the FIFA World Cup™ to Boston. He joined Kraft Sports & Entertainment in 2003 and served the Revolution, the New England Patriots, Boston Uprising, and Gillette Stadium in various operational and strategic roles.


Brian Bilello, President of the New England Revolution

Ian Frenette, President of the Boston Cannons. He joined the Cannons as President in 2015, after 6 seasons with the Boston Celtics as Vice President of Corporate Partnerships. During his five seasons with the Cannons, Ian has built the Boston Major League Lacrosse (MLL) franchise into a 365-day a year professional lacrosse business and a premier brand in lacrosse. On July 27, 2020 the Cannons won the 2020 Major League Lacrosse Championship, their second in franchise history. Personally, I believe Frenette is a rising star senior executive with incredible vision for how the Cannons can engage their loyal fans across all channels. I have had the privilege to collaborate with Frenette on a number of projects and I find him to be an extraordinary business leader. 


Ian Frenette, President of the Boston Cannons

Their thoughts about the future range from aspirational to actionable. Discover what they've learned as they collectively called an audible on their next plays. The video of our sports fireside chat and panel is below -- the sports panel discussion begins at 38:40. The panel discussion is a must watch with incredible insights from five senior pro sports business executives. We have capture three main takeaways from our discussions. 

The most valuable infrastructure is trust

Trust is a core value for all of the teams represented, and core to trust is safety. Demonstrating your commitment to trust as an authentic value requires investing in physical infrastructure as well as technology infrastructure. And the Patriots discovered pre-season photography sessions were a prime opportunity to underscore their investment in player safety.

"We literally built new hallways and put doors where there weren't doors" Kirsch describes. "The journey through the building on any given day is now a safe passage. We also set up plexiglass booths for photographers with holes for their lenses. Instead of just marching players through studios (as we had done in the past), we knew we had to rethink this. The feedback from the players after that was so positive. They came in not knowing how we were going to keep them safe, and then they got to experience our strategy in person."

The Celtics added wearable devices to track medical data from each player, including temperature, blood pressure, and pulse.  "We've been using wearables for player performance data for quite some time," Wesseland explains. "We asked ourselves 'what can we glean from medical data? ' And what we discovered is that Player Performance Data + Medical Data = Predictability."

Before jumping to data as the solution, Wessel offers a word of advice. "Start with infrastructure," he coaches. "Make sure your infrastructure is ready. Don't start trying to get data -- then build in infrastructure. Start with infrastructure and then start feeding data into that infrastructure."

Scoring big with fan engagement is this season's coveted victory

"Our biggest concern," reveals Bilello," is that we don't want our fans to take a year off and not have us in their lives. It's not about making money this year, it's about keeping fans engaged."

When seasons are abbreviated, players are on the bench and viewership is virtual, how do you keep fans engaged and enthusiastic? "It's all about content -- putting out content that's fun and personalized," Bilello says. "And data about fans to measure their engagement is vital. We look at where and how their engagement changes. We ask ourselves, 'How much data can we get about fan engagement?' and then make decisions about how to engage our fans in a way that's personalized."

Frenette concurs. "Historically, we are a live product. Most of our fans want to see our games live and in person. And what we realized with the transition is we needed to create as much content as possible. We had to transition the majority of our corporate partners into digital content. Create more personal time with players in front of the camera. And create more snackable packets (quick, easy to consume content) from inside our playing bubble. And then we had to leverage our plays to push out that content through their channels as well. We achieved 200% of our content goal for the season and did it in two weeks."

Experience is also a key differentiator, especially for emerging fans. "We have a Kids Nation loyalty and rewards programs," Shields states. "And we try to be very proactive in partnership with Major League Baseball to create compelling Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) experiences."

Meeting fans where they are right now -- primarily their living rooms -- means rapidly experimenting with new experiences. Then studying the data to detect which experiences are creating engagement.

Always be a student of the game

Whether you're trying to build a dynasty or dominate your industry, the pros offer advice about what it takes to win across seasons and circumstances.

  • Patriots: Differentiate between influence and ownership. "Have social media platforms is both a blessing and a challenge," Kirsch says. "The blessing is 14 million followers on social media. Wow! That's a lot of influence we can have out there. The challenge is those aren't our platform. We don't own them. We don't control them. And if (one of them) goes away, the followers go away, too. I never want to forget our owned and operated platforms -- our own apps and podcasts. Those are things that, regardless of what happens with those other platforms, we can sustain."
  • Red Sox: Future proof your organization. "Have foundational building blocks in place that have long term value and can future proof you," Shields says. "We are moving to a touchless environment in our stadium of the future (design). Digital ticketing is part of it and so is a cashless model. Internet of Things (IOT) will help us manage crowds when they do return."
  • Celtics: Learn to pivot. "We are pivoting every second," Wessland says. "We are working this fan-less mode. We've built entire organizations that deal with data and broadcasts. Our biggest and best customers are the ones that come in the arena and sit in our seats. We're working really hard to pivot (those) organizations to deal with fans remotely. We have real fans virtually being placed into seats court-side….It takes a lot to get fans from their living room on the computer into the seats you're seeing on TV."
  • Revolution: Maximize value. "We have really high value touchpoints and assets like field visits, player meet and greets, and autograph sessions," says Bilello. "How do we  apply those assets in a way now that maximizes value for us and for our fan base? How do use limited assets in a high impact way to create the most value for us and for our fans?"
  • Cannons: Deepen engagement. "We are in the infancy stages," Frenette says. "We are investing to learn more about our social media follows and bring in more data about how they consume us. We want to know who is engaging and from where in the world they are engaging."

Kirsch leaves us with a call to action, "Always know who sits in your seats." Even if that seat is currently at home.

Here is our conversation with Rob Hale, CEO of Granite and co-owner of the Boston Celtics and owner of Boston Cannons. 

This article was co-authored by Karen Mangia, vice president, customer and market insights, at Salesforce

Karen engages customers globally to discover new ways of creating success and growth together. From Executive Advisory Boards to strategic consulting engagements, her insights are central to Go-to-Market strategy, product development, marketing, and branding. In addition, Karen influences industry thought leadership in her role as Chair of the Customer Experience Council for The Conference Board. Formerly responsible for Insight Innovation at Cisco Systems, she led a global team with oversight into Customer Satisfaction and Experience, Diversity Business Practices, and Global Offset and Countertrade. Karen is also the author of Success With Less and a TEDx speaker.

Editorial standards