Business

Bain alumni bring business savvy to sports

Boston consulting firm has developed a deep well of modern, business-savvy talent in demand by both US and foreign professional sports teams and organizations

Boston Celtics co-owners Steve Pagliuca (left), and Wyc Grousbeck. Pagliuca, a former partner at Bain & Co. and current managing director of Bain Capital, said data analysis is at the heart of how the Celtics make key decisions.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2014
Boston Celtics co-owners Steve Pagliuca (left), and Wyc Grousbeck. Pagliuca, a former partner at Bain & Co. and current managing director of Bain Capital, said data analysis is at the heart of how the Celtics make key decisions.

A seat in the right field box for the Red Sox’s home opener costs $75 at face value. A day later the same seat will cost $35, and three days after that it will go for $50.

Though it can feel like Fenway Park ticket prices are set by a roulette wheel behind the Green Monster, every markup and discount is actually the result of a shrewd market analysis that seems pulled from the board room of some blue-chip business consulting firm.

In fact, that’s exactly where the method came from.

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Tim Zue, the Sox’s vice president of business development and the man behind their dynamic pricing model, began his career at Bain & Co., the Boston consulting firm where Mitt Romney worked before launching the spinoff private equity firm Bain Capital.

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In recent years, Bain has become something of a farm system for major sports clubs and leagues looking to add business savvy. At least nine professional teams in the United States employ Bain alumni in prominent positions, as do the central offices of the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and United States Olympic Committee, according to a tally the firm supplied at the Globe’s request.

Foreign sports organizations with former Bain consultants at or near the top include the Brazilian Rugby Union and Hong Kong Jockey Club.

“Bain and other companies like Bain do a great job of teaching people how to use data to test hypotheses and inform decisions,” Zue said. “It’s a skill set that’s served me incredibly well.”

In a striking departure from tradition, a person like Zue — who quit baseball in Little League because he couldn’t hit a curveball — has become the prototype of the modern sports executive. Thorough, objective, and a bit nerdy, today’s front office all-star is often someone who can run a linear regression faster than a player runs wind sprints.

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The applications are wide-ranging. Zue has used Bain-style number crunching to evaluate — and ultimately support — some of the biggest business decisions by the Red Sox’s parent company, such as buying the Liverpool Football Club, forming a NASCAR team, and representing basketball star LeBron James in his off-court marketing deals. (Red Sox principal owner John Henry also owns The Boston Globe.)

The crossover between Bain and professional sports is less surprising when you consider that Bain’s college recruiting unit operates much like a professional team’s scouting department. Chris Bierly, the partner who has overseen undergraduate hiring for 23 years, visits 39 campuses every year to hunt for talent and evaluates more than 10,000 applicants for about 250 positions.

“For every person we make an offer to, we project how we think they’re going to perform and why — we write a 500-word essay about each of them,” Bierly said. “Then we see how they actually do and use those projections for future hiring. We’re drafting teams here.”

In some cases, a stint at Bain can be more valuable on a resume than impressive sports credentials. Amy Brooks, the NBA’s executive vice president for team marketing and business operations, went to the Final Four as a player at Stanford, then worked as a Bain consultant.

Which mattered more when Heidi Ueberroth, the league’s former global marketing head, hired Brooks in 2005?

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“I remember Heidi telling me pointedly that the top thing she liked about my background was my Bain experience,” Brooks said. “Of course my basketball background was a fit, but in terms of how I was differentiated, I was going to bring a more data-driven approach to the league.”

‘Passion is what drives you to work hard, but then you use analytics to make the right decisions.’

Jonathan Kraft, New England Patriots president 

In Boston the “Bain mafia,” as Revolution president Brian Bilello calls it, forms a web within the city’s highly successful pro teams. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft spent his first two years out of Williams College at Bain, where he sat next to Andrew Wasynczuk, who later became the Patriots’ chief operating officer. Wasynczuk hired Bilello. Bilello and Zue were fraternity brothers at MIT.

Each said his time at Bain has helped him separate emotion from logic when making difficult choices, such as signing or releasing popular players.

“Passion is what drives you to work hard, but then you use analytics to make the right decisions,” Kraft said. “If you let your emotions drive your decision making, you might get lucky once in a while, but in the long run you’re going to make more mistakes.”

For towel-waving fans, a calculated approach to sports can be frustrating at times — witness the uproar when the Patriots and Red Sox held the budget line in recent contract negotiations with Darrelle Revis and Jon Lester, respectively, allowing them to sign with other teams for more money.

Moreover, the experience of watching a game can feel like buying a product, with everything from the jersey styles to the hot dog bun sizes strategically optimized for consumer appeal.

The former Bain consultants in Boston sports say applying a businesslike mind-set to team operations has contributed to the city’s glut of championship banners. And what could be more true to the spirit of competition than doing whatever it takes to gain an edge?

“Owners are always thinking about how they can create greater revenue streams, greater performance, greater fan loyalty,” said Wasynczuk, now a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.

“Having thoughtful, data-driven approaches to help answer those questions is highly valuable.”

Data analysis is at the heart of how the Boston Celtics make key decisions, said co-owner Steve Pagliuca, a former partner at Bain & Co. and current managing director of Bain Capital. He noted fellow owner Wyc Grousbeck comes from a similar background in venture capital and said if a guest were to observe a Celtics meeting and a Bain meeting — focusing on the methods and ignoring the subjects — it might be hard to tell the difference.

“The core of the Bain & Co. business was going out and talking to customers, vetting competitors, and looking under every rock for all the facts you can get to make an informed decision,” Pagliuca said. “That’s what Wyc and myself have brought to the Celtics.”

Bain tactics are so ingrained in some sports executives that they rely on them even when the stakes are low.

Bilello and Zue — onetime fraternity brothers — play fantasy football in the same league, and for the last two years, Bilello’s player performance projections have been better than Zue’s.

“When you talk to Tim, ask how he does in that league,” said a grinning Bilello, pausing an interview to boast. “I’m back-to-back champion.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com.