With the enthusiastic support of ownership and top leadership, Matthew Jafarian, Executive Vice President Business Strategy for the NBA team, Miami Heat, has led the organization’s digital transformation to record-breaking success.

At the core of the machine, is the Miami HEAT mobile app. 85% of fans have entered the AmericanAirlines arena since the team went mobile-only, and 1 out of every 3 fans entered the arena using the app. The app holds the Ticketmaster record for highest mobile ticketing usage of any NBA or NHL team, boasting a 220% usage increase over the previous season. An AI-powered crowd-measuring system, new marketing automation platform, boosted venue access network and a hyper-aggressive development strategy have increased ROI significantly. The app is bringing in fan transactions of around $50,000 monthly, educating the company on its fan base and reducing operating costs: proving the value in the organization’s decision to go digital.

 

You developed mobile apps before you accepted the HEAT job. Can you tell me about the apps and mobile platforms that you built at Phunware and Simplikate?

Sure. We got into the game pretty early. We were a startup called Simplikate. At first, we were all things to all people. This was in 2008. iPhone, 3G, and the app store had just debuted. We figured we can do this. We know what we're doing. We didn't know what we were doing. No one did. We figured it out as we went. We started finding some traction in certain verticals namely luxury real estate. This was nearing the end of the boom, but there were a lot of developers that still needed to sell units.

We also got a few marquee customers in mall space and several airports. We built the DFW, MIA and FLL apps. We centered on those three verticals and developed our own platform to support them. It was a fully-baked content management system. It had user management and analytics — a pretty novel idea at the time. We sold Simplikate and the tech in 2014.

 

When you began your digital transformation at AmericanAirlines Arena for the Miami HEAT, the connectivity in the venue was a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) installation. You mentioned you added WiFi to the mix. I understand there are advantages to WiFi. Can you talk to me about what those were for your network?

Sure. Since we were going heavily mobile, we needed a denser network to support the heavier usage so we augmented with WiFi. It offers better connectivity throughout the building. User experience, fan experience was first and foremost in our minds. Fans come to the arena whether it be games or for concerts. They want to capture and share their favorite experience.

 

Some of these networks are actually doing one access point (AP) for 40 and 50 users. Are you that dense?

We are. We wanted a great experience. We actually felt we had a late mover advantage when it came to WiFi. Our first public fan-facing WiFi network was installed in 2017. That's relativity late considering how widespread connectivity is now. We implemented with the goal of a full building. This is directly from our ownership. We asked them for funds to build a high-density WiFi network. They didn't cut our budget. In fact, they said, “Go make it the best.” We had some restrictions with our building the way it's structured. We couldn't make room under the seats to install APs, so we had to install them on the catwalk. Density was especially important.

 

How did you formulate your plan to transform the HEAT’s digital business structure?

It all started with our ownership and our leadership. I've learned in my short time here that your team is only as good as your ownership. We have one of the best in, not only the NBA but in all sports. We're very fortunate that have the resources and their vision that we execute on. It's a really great fit for me because it's what I love doing. Basically, we wanted to understand our fans so we could provide them with a great experience.

 

How did you begin to think about making the initial changes? Did you choose apps you wanted to integrate before you chose your iPaaS solution and then choose the iPaaS that integrated with your apps? Or, did you start fresh with the integrations that the iPaaS already had?

No. It was the former. There were a lot of legacy apps and existing contracts that I inherited. We wanted to play nice with everything that was coming down the line. That said, we did have a pretty remarkable transition away from the old way of doing things to the new way. It's the same digital transformation that every organization is experiencing where appropriate. We moved away from on-premise to the cloud. We got rid of some of the old archaic rules, processes that slowed us down, and we became much more of an agile organization.

We didn't sit there and plan what our year was going to look like for the next three years. We make changes as we go along — data-driven decisions based on what we see happening in the marketplace. We started doing proofs of concept (POC) on what made the most sense, leveraging the HEAT brand with vendors. Having been on the other side of the table, I was fortunate enough to come on this side and say, "Listen, really appreciate your tech, want to work with you guys, but we want to try it out first. If you're willing to do a POC, we can go into a full-scale engagement together." It's been a transition, but over the last three years, that's the organization that we built.

 

What lessons did you learn with the project? Would you do anything differently?

That's a good question. Let me actually answer the second one. I don't think we would do anything differently. We knew what we were doing in the mobile space. Had a lot of experience with that? We've proven that now with objective success. My favorite thing: I was in the elevator the other day peeking at the phone of the person next to me as you do, and they were using the Miami HEAT app. It was great! I began a conversation with that person. He was emoting how excited he was and how great of an app it was. He didn't know what I do and who I am. It was a really good experience! I do think it's an objective success especially because the business results are there as well.

What have we learned? An app is never done. You have to be listening to your customers or fans constantly. Implementing their feedback into the app, then rinse and repeat over and over again. We love seeing the evolution from where we started to where we are now. It's continuing to get better.

We embrace the CI/CD agile methodology. We're also not afraid to make changes. We've implemented features; this version of the apps has only been around for a couple of seasons. We've already thrown out some features because we said, "You know what, it's a great idea that didn't work." Or, if we first went to a third-party, and we didn't like what the third-party had to offer, we actually go and build it ourselves. We have a trivia feature where during a game, trivia questions pop up on the scoreboard and folks can answer it from the app. In the first season, we integrated a third-party. It didn't quite meet our expectations. This season we built it ourselves, and we love it. We actually have different corporate partners leverage that features during the game, and it provides for great fan engagement.

 

What haven't we discussed that’s important for leaders trying to affect digital transformation in their organization to know?

The last thing I would say is it's important to get top leadership buy-in. We were able to undergo digital transformation because we had support from the top. I didn't have to convince the organization this was important. They already understood that.

It's critical to understand what the benefits would be to your organization. What business needs can be resolved by the work that you're doing, and communicating that up, down, left, right, anyway you can. Then, it's not enough to build the technology. You also have to sell yourself so that people understand what it is that you're doing and how it benefits them. That drives adoption. We look at tech adoption both from our fans and from staff in our organization, as equally important. When they realize and engage with you and say, "Hey, I really appreciate you making my job easier, or helping us make money, or save money with the technology,” then it really resonates. You can't ever forget about the impact on the business.

 

»Read next, on Emerge: