Jonathan Kraft laid out a compelling case for why Gillette Stadium should be at full capacity for the start of the Patriots season later this summer.
“Once vaccines have been available in a community for a long enough period of time where anyone who’s wanted one could’ve gotten it and reached two weeks past their second shot, just to take the outlying point, then I don’t know why you shouldn’t be at full capacity,” said the president of the Kraft Group at one of several “life-after COVID-19” virtual panel discussions at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference held Thursday and Friday. “It’s sort of intellectually dishonest to say we’re going to be at a quarter percent of capacity even though theoretically you have herd immunity in the local population. At some point you have to get back to living your lives.”
The state of Massachusetts re-opened its sports venues to 12 percent capacity last month, with the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox all hoping that the percentage will rise sooner than later as overall state-wide COVID-19 figures trend in the right direction. There likely will not be enough time for the NBA and NHL to see full capacity before their seasons end, but with the Red Sox playing through September, Fenway Park could see full capacity this season.
“As President Biden said, April 19, (the vaccine’s) available to everybody in America,” said Kraft. “Clearly, there’s a backlog so let’s say anybody who really wants it will have it by June 1 or June 15 -- we’re still months out from the start of the NFL season (in August).”
In the meantime, demand from fans for in-person attendance prior to herd immunity may see a drop-off, according to Jessica Gelman, co-founder of the conference and CEO of Kraft Analytics Group.
“What we’re seeing, and this is very early data, but for teams that have had 15-plus games, initially there’s huge pent up demand and people want to go back, then there’s this inflection point at 15 games where we’re starting to see less sell-through on the tickets,” said Gelman on a different panel. “I think the focus is going to be marketing to these fans and getting the older fans more comfortable. But I do think there will be a slow return in many cases and it’s going to be very incumbent upon the teams for that great communication and clarity of communication.”
Kraft said he doesn’t expect to see any pandemic-induced changes to the NFL become permanent. One casualty, though, is that scouting restrictions will result in fewer lightning-in-a-bottle type of talent discoveries.
“There are definitely people who probably could have had NFL careers in a normal year that will never have that opportunity,” said Kraft.
As for developments in artificial intelligence that could lead to changes in football team-building, Kraft does not believe any are on the near-term horizon.
But the Patriots are all set in the Dept. of Natural Intelligence, said Kraft.
”I think it’s how comfortable the ultimate decision-maker on the football side is with that over their own sort of AI in their brain and when you have somebody like (Patriots coach) Bill (Belichick), you know, you’re really lucky because he has a pretty good brain on that front,” said Kraft.
Two recurring subjects related to the “Show Me the Data” conference theme were sports betting and NFT’s (non-fungible tokens, unique digital assets that rely on blockchain technology), which have supplanted SPAC’s (special purpose acquisition companies) as the hottest niche in the 2021 sports business ecosystem. Currently, the NFT space is led by collectible applications, whether it’s NBA Top Shot or CryptoPunks. This current phase is a place-holder phase, said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, one that will be replaced by much grander, game-changing commercial opportunities.
“In my mind, the whole collectible world with NFT’s is just proof of concept for the applications that are going to come that disrupt traditional business applications,” said Cuban. “This is just us learning how to use NFT’s, what tokenization is and that will inspire people to find new applications. Those will truly be disruptive and where the real weight of NFT’s will take place.
“There will be the eBay, there will be the Amazon, there will be some really huge players that come out of this but it’s not obvious necessarily who they are.”
Jason Robins, founder and CEO of Boston-based DraftKings, has positioned his company to be a leader in the legalized sports betting industry, which still features a patchwork collection of states where it’s been legalized.
Even when the pro sports leagues came to a halt last spring and summer, when networks and companies like DraftKings had to create action and interest in sports like table tennis and curling, DraftKings saw its newly minted public company status result in an impressive stock run-up.
Robins offered thoughts on what happened.
“Things need to happen with state legalization but the path is clear, the trends seem clear and the growth that those trends follow will be strong in the (sports betting) industry,” said Robins. He noted that the sports shutdown offered a rare cooling off moment for stock buyers usually focused on the next earnings results.
“When all the pandemic shutdowns started everyone had to throw all the short term out the window, nobody knew how to make sense of next quarter’s earnings, they didn’t mean anything in terms of long-term,” said Robins. “For the first time in my memory, the market actually thought a little longer term, and started to have the discussion, ‘let’s put aside what next quarter will look like, what types of industries, what type of companies look like they’ll be in a good spot on the other side of this thing when we start to get back to some sense of normalcy,’ beginning, in our case, what happens when sports return.”
That and perhaps an acceleration of legislation from states eager to supplement tax revenues should help fuel growth in the industry, said Robins.
Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca pointed out that the data a company like DraftKings needs is ultimately not so different than what a team needs to attract and grow a fanbase.
“When we purchased the Celtics, (the previous owners) had the names and addresses of season ticket holders, but they weren’t on email, they weren’t connected -- we saw that as a major opportunity to become connected,” said Pagliuca. “We did not know there will be Snapchat and Facebook and all the services out there like Twitter. Technology has moved so much in the last 20 years and it has really increased fan engagement, so fans can be fans virtually all the time. And that trend is going to continue. The watchwords are digital and fan engagement, and that’s all going to go up in the next 10 years.”