Analytics on the Gridiron: How predictive analytics are changing the game for NFL stadium operations

Weather conditions do little to affect significant changes in the operational tempo of the NFL. With a season that runs from early September through late January, inclement weather is an accepted condition and rarely, if ever, impacts any NFL franchise’s ability to field a team.  Unlike Major League Baseball, where prolonged rain showers typically lead to game delays or postponements, in the NFL Force Majeure is seldom a viable reason to postpone regular season play. Since 1990, only 4 games have been canceled or postponed due to natural events. These included 2 hurricanes, an earthquake, and a major snow event.  The most recent of these occurred on December 26, 2010 when a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles was postponed by 2 days due to a snow emergency.  The ability to operate in unpredictable weather conditions is a minimum requirement for viability of an NFL Franchise.

In 2013 I held a series of conversations with Roy Sommerhof, Vice President of Stadium Operations for the Baltimore Ravens. The purpose of these discussions was to gain insight into how NFL franchises factor energy into their contingency planning and to understand the impact that extreme weather has on their ability to carry out the core mission of the franchise: to field a team on any given Sunday. What I learned is that extreme weather events have little negative impact on the day-to-day operations of the franchise and using predictive analytics on weather conditions strengthens the Ravens’ energy resilience.

Adapting to Unpredictability

The organization has been well suited to address a multitude of weather conditions.  In 2013, the Ravens took measures to adapt to more frequent extremes in temperatures, precipitation, and hurricane events by incorporating predictive analytic systems and weather forecasting into their daily operations. Lack of weather predictability is a rising climate trend in the US Mid Atlantic.  Most stadium operators who have been in the business for a long time can recall when winter temperatures were reliably in the mid-forties (F) and one could count on, as Mr. Sommerhoff put it, 3 “good snow falls” each year.  This predictability enabled the team to plan to have the appropriate resources mobilized at the right time and it exhibited a lack of extremes in temperatures, winds, and precipitations.  As recently as a few years ago, the Ravens would get information on weather conditions from the internet, television news networks and other mainstream outlets.  As weather conditions have become more erratic in recent years, this has posed some key challenges.  Major weather events either would not be notified quick enough or the data was not sufficiently accurate.

For the last 4 years the Ravens have incorporated real-time weather reporting and analytics, complete with multi-tiered forecasting and push notification of changes, into their daily operations.  The team receives customized reporting specific to the Ravens’ data requirements and important locations.  Reading through weather reports and analyzing robust forecast data is now a daily task.  Early storm alerts and long-range projections are examples of some of the analyses that are reviewed.

Predictive Weather Analytics Drives Energy Cost Savings

Old clips of late season NFL games are full of scenes of bundled fans, Jersey’s draped over their heavy sweatshirts, screaming from the stands with pillars of steam shooting into the air, their collective body heat violently combating a frigid winter. This is the classic image of the true autumn sport of football, and until recently enduring the bitter cold, both in the stadium and out on the field, was as much a part of the football experience as the game itself.

Exposure to weather has a strong influence on stadium infrastructure.  In environments where night time temperatures are regularly in the 30s Fahrenheit and daytime temperatures hover in the 40s, the exposure of critical infrastructure to the elements poses a risk of damage from freezing pipes and overworked systems.  To manage this risk, stadium operators energize a heat trace, a small heated coil that runs along each pipe to prevent it from freezing and cracking.  Exposed concession stands are heated with auxiliary heating units, even when a game is not underway. This prevents the occurrence of so much heat loss that stands cannot sufficiently warm up prior to an event.  Other areas around the stadium also need to be heated, such as club seats and executive boxes. Throughout most of the NFL’s history, cold weather conditions in cities like Baltimore were consistent and constant all season long, and that led to these spaces being continuously heated through the end of the football season.

The transition to using predictive weather analytics in optimizing stadium readiness has, in part, sparked a change in how stadiums run their heating systems. More accurate forecasting of unseasonably warm days has enabled stadium operators to be more methodical about when and how they run critical systems in their stadiums. Rather than operating energy intensive heating systems through the entire season, stadium staff now have the visibility to cycle equipment on and off, and they rarely need to rely on the heat trace element to prevent pipes from freezing. This has already yielded financial benefits by lowering electricity consumption and demand. High level data provided by The Ravens, during my discussions with Mr. Sommerhoff, showed that changing stadium operations through predictive analytics reduced electricity spending by 24%. The future implications of this are significant.  Other areas of savings include reduced ware on mechanical systems, and more efficient utilization of manpower. “The game has changed” said Mr. Sommerhoff.“Technology is better today, and it’s enabling us to manage our stadiums more proactively.” This, he inferred, is making the Ravens organization more competitive off-the-field.

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