AWS Public Sector Blog

Univ. of Pittsburgh Athletics use AWS to unlock data insights for every step of the fan journey

This is a guest post written by the leaders from the University of Pittsburgh’s Athletic Department.

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The University of Pittsburgh Athletics Department has always embraced innovation. Their football team was the first to put numbers on their jerseys and to travel by plane. In 1914, they fielded a women’s varsity basketball team, six years before women had the right to vote.

“We want to know how Pitt can become an entity that competes, wins, and succeeds by acting differently,” says Ryan Varley, senior associate athletic director of finance and strategy.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Pitt wanted to know more about its fans, they looked for an innovative solution and turned to Amazon Web Services (AWS). By focusing on fan behavior and seeking out trends in ticket sales, the department hoped to answer questions surrounding team loyalty and how they could stay competitive. Today, with more than 800,000 resolved fan identities—on target for 1 million by the end of 2024—the department has a powerful tool for engaging and selling across the entire fan journey. This post provides an overview of the solution Pitt Athletics built for its fanbase.

Unifying data sources to gain a more complete picture of football fans

Pitt knew they wanted to start with a project focused on enhancing fan engagement. Richard Turnquist, assistant athletic director of data and analytics, was interested in how the department could use analytics to drive the department’s budget and financial goals.

“We were looking for a centralized strategy at the business level for marketing to fans strategically,” says Turnquist. “We wanted to think about each fan’s total engagement within the athletics department.”

Turnquist’s vision was to deliver customized messages to every fan in Pitt’s database. To do this, he knew he needed to create profiles for each fan, giving his sales team insight into customer behavior at every touchpoint. Getting that complete picture would require consolidating data streams from disparate sources, including ticketing, fundraising, merchandise sales, and campus data. As Pitt explored how to deliver on their vision, AWS emerged as a natural ally.

“They were the right partner because they share a desire to be innovative in whatever they do, and that mirrors our aspirations as a university,” says Varley.

Using AWS Lambda and AWS Glue, Pitt built out constituent profiles with ingested data stored in centralized warehouses in Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) buckets.

Predictive modeling results in more powerful messaging

In the past, the Pitt marketing team could only see how many tickets a fan had purchased per season. With their new solution, the team knows when someone sitting in the most affordable stadium seats has also purchased, for example, $1,000 of Pitt merchandise. This deeper knowledge creates a more accurate picture of what Pitt fans are doing and allows the department to create customized offers that motivate fan engagement.

For example, the department just launched a new season-ticket-retention scoring method that allows them to see ticketholder churn and which fans are most likely to return each season. They’ll also be able to calculate the tendency of a supporter to become a major gift donor. Through customer segmentation models and the incorporation of real-time customer data, the university is now positioned to use analytics in day-to-day business decisions as well as for long-term departmental planning.

Thanks to the new, more complete fan profiles, Pitt Athletics has exceeded ticketing goals by a considerable margin, paving the way for additional data innovation and customized sales and marketing processes. The new business insights have allowed them to transition their sales roles in-house, saving money even after bringing on additional analytics talent.

Varley and Turnquist see this as the start of their commitment to investing in data, with a focus on major analytical domains such as revenue generation, administration, sports science, and sports analytics. With the goal of further amplifying Pitt’s strong national brand, they hope to create analytics efficiencies and achieve what teams with twice the budget can do.

Making a long-term commitment to data analytics

While Pitt Athletics has made incredible gains quickly, they see this investment in data technology as a long-term commitment.

“Athletics is an ‘immediacy’ type of business, but this customized approach takes time. That’s why some schools will opt for an off-the-shelf solution,” says Varley. “But ‘off-the-shelf’ doesn’t allow for the full scope and breadth of the capabilities Pitt has—and it’s a lot more expensive in the long run.”

The two credit the support they received from the AWS training and development teams, as well as the buy-in from their executive team, in helping to make the data shift happen.

“The work continues!” says Varley. “This project is the foundation for what we expect to be a broader application of analytics both off and on the field.”

To learn more about what’s possible with the cloud for higher education, visit AWS Cloud for Higher Education.

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Ryan Varley

Ryan Varley

Ryan Varley joined the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Department in October 2007 as an undergraduate student intern and currently serves as the senior associate athletic director, finance and strategy. Varley oversees the athletic department’s day-to-day business operations, financial planning and budgeting efforts, revenue generation strategies, and travel management, analytics, and information technology functions.

Richard Turnquist

Richard Turnquist

Richard Turnquist is the University of Pittsburgh's assistant athletic director of data and analytics. He oversees and manages the Panthers Data and Analytics program, an in-house, cross-campus unit supporting data and analytics efforts. Turnquist designed and developed the program’s framework and works in conjunction with Pitt leadership to align business needs and strategies with analytical tools, resources, and initiatives.