Phoenix Suns VP and CIO Steve Reese on the enhanced role of IT in basketball
By Charlene Oldham
As Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the Phoenix Suns, Steve Reese likens himself to the man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Fortunately, I’m just like the little bald-headed guy who gets to work behind the scenes and see all these wonderful things,” said Reese, who has spent time with the San Diego Padres, Houston Astros and Tennessee Titans as well.
But as technology evolves to facilitate everything from greeting season ticketholders by name as soon as they enter the arena to adding a crucial three points to the team’s score at the end of each game, what Reese does can seem like real magic. It also represents a sea change from how information technology (IT) employees were viewed in team sports 15 years ago, when they were relegated to replacing busted desktops and reviving fading fax machines.
“When I started back in 1990 with the Houston Oilers [which became the Titans], I believe there were about six technologists among teams,” Reese recalled. “The perspective back in 1990 was that you were a fix-it guy. It just takes a lot of effort to change that perspective.”
In those days, there wasn’t a single technologist who held an executive-level position, and technologists weren’t expected to understand the intricacies of marketing, player performance and other aspects of their team’s business. That began to change as more teams used technology to boost game analysis. In fact, technology-driven game analysis of Houston quarterback Warren Moon is part of what helped the Cleveland Browns eliminate the Oilers from the playoff race in 1990; this became the driving factor in Reese being hired as the Oilers’ first Director of Technology.
“We’ve graduated to a point where IT and technology is a valued partner with the rest of the business,” Reese said. “Frankly, I consider this point in time to be a golden age in sports technology, not only because of the awesome technology that’s out there but because IT is now being invited to get involved in every aspect of the business. And that’s been a game changer and exposed us to a whole new frontier we can begin to explore.”
Those virgin territories include using cutting-edge technological tools to enhance fans’ experiences in ways once unheard of. Strategic partners, including Qualcomm, which offers a product called Gimbal, can allow teams to track consumer movement and even send real-time messages to their smartphones. A great example of this is showcased at the Miami Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium. If you stop in front of the statue of Don Shula, fans who may want to know more about the legendary coach can have information automatically sent to their smartphones.
The possibilities go far beyond fan-tracking technology. In Phoenix, Reese’s stiffest competition comes from fans’ own big-screen televisions, conveniently located right around the corner from their fully stocked refrigerators. To level the playing field, he is considering options including installing cameras that multicast unique angles to fans in the arena and placing microphones at the scorers’ table so that people in the seats can hear officials’ live conversation during instant replay reviews.
“A huge focus of mine is to create an experience within the arena that people clearly cannot get at home,” Reese said. “In fact, I’ll go one step further. My hope is that fans at home will feel totally ripped off that they’re missing out on an awesome live experience at the arena!” Technology is making it possible, too, to analyze player performance at a minute level that makes the strategies in “Moneyball” look like “small potatoes,” according to Reese. In 2010, the National Basketball Association piloted a program called SportVU Player Tracking with some teams; the organization has since rolled out the technology, which uses a system of cameras to collect real-time data on players’ movements during games, across the league. Now technologists have access to data from their own team’s players as well as the ability to analyze other teams’ data for scouting purposes.
“SportsVU generates around 20 observations per second. The arms race now is how to use that data to make real-time adjustments. If we could get three points a game, it would make a big difference. Three points and we’re in the playoffs,” Reese said of the most recent season, when the Suns fell just short of a playoff berth by two games. The massive amounts of fresh information forced Reese to revamp much of the infrastructure at US Airways Center, where the Suns play their home games.
“We were facing a tsunami of data, and that was a real concern,” he said. “But we had to just look at everything from the ground up and kind of question everything.”
That included reexamining the roles of his own staff members, something he is accustomed to because of his days coaching middle school and high school sports. By definition, those teams change every year to some extent, and coaches have to become adept at recognizing what every player is best at on the newly formed squad. In his coaching days, that meant converting a reluctant linebacker into a center who eventually played the position for a Division I college football team. Today it might entail convincing a behind-the-scenes technology expert that she has the skills to move into project management.
“One of the tough things,” Reese said of mentoring and coaching, “is that you have to break those stereotypes in their own minds.”
He also encourages his employees to constantly improve their own knowledge, hone their communications skills and take on new technological challenges. He and his staff accomplish this through frequent one-on-one meetings within their department, collaborating with outside resource groups (including the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Crimes Unit and the Arizona Cyber Threat Response Alliance) and frequently touching base with the Suns’ IT Council, which Reese sees as a sort of an “ESL [English as a second language] class” to help ensure that everyone who works for the Suns is figuratively speaking the same language. Council meetings are a place to voice concerns, prioritize projects, understand other departments’ needs and plan for the future.
Reese supports out-of-the-box thinking by having his staff take breaks from their busy schedules to trade half-day seminars with other companies in the Phoenix area, for example. While he often swaps ideas about best practices with counterparts at the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cardinals and works closely with vendor partners like Verizon and CenturyLink, Reese’s team members also have taken field trips to food service providers and other diverse companies to share innovations that can span multiple industries.
“The tendency is always to take the path of least resistance,” he said. “But you’ve got to get outside your shell. You’ve got to force yourself to do that and see how other people get things done.”
Reese also advises his staff to take time to enjoy some of the unique perks that come with working for a professional sports team. It’s something he had nearly lost sight of at the end his lengthy stint with the Titans, when he jokes that “a moment of temporary insanity” prompted him to start a business in a field where he had no prior experience. Although that auto repair business, Christian Brothers Automotive in Brentwood, Tennessee, came within 60 days of running out of cash at one point, it is thriving today. And Reese has returned to the world of sports to apply the practical and financial lessons he learned as a small business owner to an industry that, at times, can really be all fun and games.
After all, not too many IT executives can claim they’ve had a professional football player drop by their middle school practice to give them coaching pointers. Or that their kids learned to peel and eat crawfish at the hands of 200-plus-pound NFL stars.
“You just can’t get caught up in getting stuff done and forget to enjoy the ride,” Reese said. “And in this industry, enjoying the ride is pretty darn incredible.”
Charlene Oldham is a freelance writer based in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Steve's Key PartnersCDW (SharePoint Intranet Implementation) | CenturyLink (Telecommunications) | Verizon (wireless voice/data)
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