Major League Data

A photo by Tim Gouw.

From the perfect spot to catch a foul ball to the closest proximity to the tastiest eats, IdealSeat gives fans the power to find the best seats for the sports experience they want.

Top of ninth: With a decisive thwap! Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run shot that propelled his teammate Kris Bryant over home plate and the Cubs to a triumphant Game 6 win in the 2016 World Series. Rizzo’s homer sailed over the right field wall, sealing a victory that sent the Cubs to Game 7 where they won their first MLB championship in 108 years…

…and a Seattle-based startup could have told fans exactly where to sit for the best shot at catching it.

IdealSeat, a Galvanize member company, has created the largest database of stray Major League balls in existence. With that data—and their proprietary machine learning special sauce—they’ve figured out how to predict where fouls and homers are most likely to land in the stands, so when fans go to purchase tickets, they have the option of paying for the probability of catching an historic ball like Rizzo’s Game 6 shot to right field.

The idea for IdealSeat came to co-founder Joel Carben at a Seattle Mariners game in 2011, as he watched an elated fan catch a foul ball and saw that fan’s joy spread to the twenty or so people sitting around him.

“I thought That’s a marketable experience,” Carben recalls. He brought three of his friends together for a Mariners-Royals game the following day, and they noted every foul ball, the time of the game they were hit and by which players, and where in the stadium the balls landed. With this initial data jotted on piece of paper, IdealSeat was born.

idealSeat Team

For the next two years, Carben happily bootstrapped a five-person data collection company, gathering and distilling millions of data points from stadiums across the country. To pull off their ambitious project, they enlisted an army of about 80 fans to collect reliable data in exchange for what they wanted most—tickets. For Carben, a self-described “math guy,” IdealSeat gave him an avenue to marry his passions for machine learning, data and baseball, his favorite sport. (Baseball is Carben’s #1 in no small part because it has the most numbers and stats.)

In 2014, IdealSeat caught the eye of Seattle angel investor Gary Rubens. With his help, the following year Carben and his team launched an immediately popular mobile-first ticketing app powered by their wealth of fan-experience data. Naturally, it went live on opening day of the MLB season.

Their “fan intelligence platform” took Carben’s original foul ball model a step further, giving ticket buyers even more information to help them judiciously select their, ahem, ideal seats. Someone with sensitive skin, for example, might like to use the service to buy seats in the shade. A casual fan looking for a social experience might want to buy seats with proximity to a margarita vendor. Out-of-town fans might like sit in sections populated by away team supporters.

Before IdealSeat, “There was a real pain point around the ticketing and fan experience,” Carben says. “When you buy a ticket to a sporting event, you’re not just paying for the opportunity to watch your favorite team. You’re buying an experience. But it was really difficult to get the experience you wanted.”

Carben points to the ticket-buying challenges encountered by his friend Jessica, which helped inspire the beyond-the-foul-ball iteration of his original concept: A mom and Bay Area techie (read: she’s tech-savvy, but pressed for time), Jessica wanted to bring her kids and their friends to a Giants game. She spent about six hours over three days researching which seats to buy. The tykes would need to be near a restroom, of course. They’d be better off in the shade. And they would inevitably need snacks, so being close to a kid-friendly food stall would extremely helpful. She went to Yelp, Google images and fan review websites. Today, thanks to IdealSeat, Jessica can set a couple of filters when she goes to purchase tickets and get exactly what she wants in under five minutes.

It turns out—no surprise here—fans like being able to buy exactly what they want. They’ll pay handsomely for the service, too, on average 40% over the fixed ticket value. IdealSeat’s mobile app garnered more than 150,000 engagements in its inaugural year; to date, the company has collected more than 1 million data points around the MLB fan experience since its inception.

Big ticketing retailers took note: so much so that in 2016, IdealSeat pivoted from selling data-enriched tickets directly to fans to a business-to-business model. Major ticketers now pay IdealSeat for its data, and overlay it onto their ticket offerings, which allows fans to buy the seats they want from the outlets they’re already using.

This win-win-win grew IdealSeat’s revenue tenfold in 2016 alone. The company’s platform is now is being actively used for MLB, NFL, NCAA Football, and NCAA Basketball games. Next up: expanding to NBA basketball, MLS, NASCAR, music and live entertainment.

In addition to working with leagues and teams directly, IdealSeat is aiming for 100 percent primary and secondary ticket market penetration. Once they hit that, they’ll move on to marketing the pre- and post-game experience: where out-of-town fans might like to stay, where to get a pre-game meal and post-game beer, even the optimal lot to park in for an easy exit or the best tailgate.

While most of us will never know the exhilaration of hitting a major league home run, thanks to IdealSeat, we can better our chances at catching one—and we can maximize our personal fan experience in the process.


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