For the Love of the Game
A Lifelong Fan
Horton’s love for baseball started in the mid-1980s, when as a child he went to games near his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. “My mom traveled a lot for work and it was nice when she had a conference in a town with a baseball team, like Atlanta or Cincinnati,” he says. “My dad would take time off from work to go along and take my sister and I to a game.”
Horton majored in statistics as an undergrad at the Haslam College of Business and later earned a master’s in applied statistics from Cornell University. He worked in various marketing analytics roles until 2007, when an opportunity opened up at MLB’s lead office in New York. “Being able to apply analytics to something I’m very interested in makes this less like a job and more like something fun to do,” he says. “When I’m going that extra mile to figure out a problem, the motivation is always there.”
In 2000, MLB owners voted unanimously to unify and amplify the baseball digital experience for fans of every team. Rather than having 30 teams develop and maintain their own websites, MLB created an independent tech startup to build and manage the user experience. “On the analytics side, it means anything that happens online is securely captured and will be shared back to the club,” Horton says. “That takes a lot of weight off the clubs and allows most of the analytics to be done at a league level. It’s a unique structure.”
Because of that unified digital foundation, MLB’s business analytics activities have grown, becoming richer and more sophisticated over the past two decades. Horton’s role holds the challenge of tailoring his projects to many different audiences. “We’re owned equally by each team, and we’re here to help the clubs in any way they’d like,” he says. For some, that might be email marketing, while for others it’s optimizing sales campaigns. The wide spectrum of projects can be both daunting and exciting as each club does business differently within the scope of their unique markets. “Selling a baseball ticket in New York is completely different from selling one in Wisconsin,” he says.
Facilitating communications between a diversity of team leaders is challenging, but it’s an opportunity for Horton to apply his interpersonal skills. “He’s really good at interfacing between all those different teams and departments in a positive way,” says Josh Hamilton, a data scientist at MLB. “His reputation shows that people like working with him and keep coming back.”
Quantifying Fan-Team Relationships
One thing every MLB team has is a fan base. Because the MLB online portal provides a wide breadth of data—from people visiting websites, buying merchandise, and watching streaming games—Horton and his team have the ability to study what he calls team avidity. “We look at rich first-party data to help us understand each fan’s relationship with their favorite team,” he says. “Do they have one team they’re heavily following, or two teams quite closely?”
One recent project seeks to define a universal measurement for fan avidity. Horton and his colleagues are seeking to quantify the fan-team relationship and come up with a ranking of strong, medium, or weak. “That’s a useful measure for a number of reasons, like in determining who would be interested in specific products,” he says, “or in deciding how often or in what ways to communicate with each subset of fans.”
Another analytics application looks at game night promotions such as bobble heads and other memorabilia. By analyzing the data around when certain groups of fans come to games, Horton and his team have developed recommendations to help clubs optimize their promotion schedules. “We can tell them which games we think will draw in the most fans for a particular type of promotion,” he says. “It’s another piece of useful information.”
Horton and his team of data scientists have also worked to develop engagement initiatives for the MLB.TV product, which allows viewers to watch out-of-market games. “Say you’re living in Knoxville and you’re a big Seattle Mariners fan,” he explains. “You could watch those games on this product, and it works on supported mobile, connected devices, and smart TVs.” Horton created a viewing guide based on how often each user watches and how strong their relationship is with particular teams. “Some viewers are huge fans of baseball and will consume content from multiple teams, while others follow just one team closely,” he says. “Our goal is to streamline the experience for fans and show them only what they want to see.”
Serving Fans through Sports Analytics
Horton’s work at MLB is part of a broader trend known as sports analytics. A group of Haslam students created a sports analytics club several years ago to foster interest in the discipline and facilitate analytics projects with the UT Athletics program. While most people envision player statistics when they hear the term, Horton emphasizes that applying analytics to the other fan experience side of the equation is just as important for the future of sports.
Over the past 10 years, he has watched the MLB’s annual internal analytics conference grow from a dozen attendees to several hundred. “It’s taken some time for the bleed-over to happen from the player development side,” he says. “They were using statistics to make big decisions with players, and then they asked, ‘What if we took that same approach to how we serve our fans?’”
Keeping fans engaged can be a difficult task, but when sports analysts evaluate data and take a precise approach to marketing, they get good results. “There’s no season that has more games in it than baseball and we’ve found that our fans touch the game daily, but those interactions are so different,” says Horton. “We use analytics to figure out how best to communicate with them. Some fans prefer a push message on their phone, while others would rather get an email.”
This year, Horton was invited to speak on team avidity at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. “It was an honor for me and my team, and great to get the word out at this event that baseball is using analytics to enhance their business game,” he says.
Don Vu, who managed Horton for a decade while serving as vice president of data analytics at MLB, has enjoyed watching Horton’s professional growth. “He’s risen to the top, becoming a leader and a mentor to his team and in the industry as a whole,” Vu says. “When you’re trying to wrangle 30 clubs, there’s a lot of consensus building and soft skills involved. He’s done an excellent job of collaborating with others and making sure everyone has a voice.”