TORONTO – While the Raptors and Maple Leafs plan championship runs, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is looking at the bigger picture.
MLSE is thinking national and global.
“Our largest fan base is not in (Scotiabank Arena) every night. It’s across Canada,” said Humza Teherany, MLSE’s chief technology and digital officer.
And the world. The Raptors app has already gone global, with fans stretching from Australia to the United Kingdom.
“The beauty of mobile and analytics is we actually know where they are – which city they’re in, what country they’re in, what they’re clicking,” Teherany said.
“We take all that data back to then determine what’s our next move,” he added.
Teherany says there are some four million Raptors fans on a Chinese social network called Weibo, with three million of those active. Imagine what might happen if Raptors president Masai Ujiri were to unearth a Chinese guard?
“That’s definitely not in my areas of expertise here. I will leave that to the experts for sure,” Teherany said somewhat hastily of the player personnel question.
It helps that the Raptors and Leafs are winning.
“I picked a good time to come,” Teherany, who came on board in June, said with a smile.
A trim, young-looking 40, Teherany is responsible for digital strategy, technology, IT, mobile apps, data science and innovation. He also oversees the MLSE esports arm.
His world is one of mega-trends, disruptive models, augmented reality and gamification.
Essentially the goal is to leverage technology – improve the fan experience, widen the global audience, tap into related markets and ultimately help drive revenue.
For Teherany, the world is his oyster. His team does the work. All you have to do is click a button.
“We don’t really care that you’re not in Toronto,” he said. “You could be in Montreal or you could be in Halifax and you could engage with us in very similar ways.”
While fans may only see the product on the floor or ice, Teherany’s vision is far wider.
“The sports experience is not just about the sports experience.”
For those going to the game, it includes how do they get here and what do they want when they arrive. For those following the team remotely, “it’s sports plus whatever’s on your phone.”
Joining forces with a global hip-hop megastar doesn’t hurt, with the Drake-inspired jersey doing well at its November launch.
A partnership deal with Uber also has just been signed.
The Raptors have a deal with McDonald’s in Ontario that offers a free medium fries the day after the team scores 12 three-pointers or more in a game. McDonald’s benefits because you have to be on their app to get the deal.
If the team scores 100 points in a game, Pizza Pizza offers a free slice if you buy one the day after. But you need the Raptors app.
(There was some blowback given you didn’t have to buy a slice to get a free one under the previous deal, which only required your physical ticket).
Starting with the lower bowl at Scotiabank Arena this season, Raptors and Leafs fans can use their app to order food, drink and even a jersey from their seat. It is being expanded to the upper bowl in early 2019.
A similar service is planned down the line for Toronto FC and Argos games at BMO Field.
As technology improves, Teherany envisions “some really interesting things” coming on broadcasts with what currently takes two screens eventually blending into one.
Teherany has a background in telecom, hospitality and retail. He has spent his career “really working on how technology can change businesses and how it can make companies more competitive in the marketplace.”
And he has set the bar high at MLSE.
“Part of the reason I came here is to build out the best digital and sports experience in the world,” he said.
Prior to MLSE, he assembled a technology and digital strategy company called Compass Digital Labs for Compass Group North America, a food and support services company that had some $25 billion in revenue in 2018.
The mandate of his 250-person digital lab there was the same as it is at MLSE: How do you take a traditional company into the digital age and use that technology to grow it?
At MLSE, where he has close to 100 people taking part in his efforts, Teherany talks of building an innovation culture.
“Which means failure is OK,” he said. “We’re going to screw some things up. And that’s perfectly fine as long as we know how to recover.”
An early priority was redesigning and ramping up its mobile apps, moving away from print-at-home ticketing and increasing services offered. The Raptors now boast the No. 1 mobile user base in the NBA, according to Teherany.
And MLSE is priming the pump.
An “Easter egg” or hidden feature planted in the Raptors app helped drive engagement, with 4,000 people finding it within a couple of hours.
“We had 1.1 million actions in our Raptors app in two hours during that period of time,” said Teherany.
MLSE has partnered with Ryerson University on “The Future of Sport Lab,” an incubator for sport and entertainment innovation and research. The program, which features an 11-person advisory panel plus a larger mentor group, includes applied research and support for start-ups.
A recent forum drew esports, analytics and fan engagement companies – “and everything in between,” Teherany said.
The immediate plan is to pick five or six pitches and help shepherd the idea into reality.
“When you look at how many of these companies are doing amazing things in Canada _ and in Toronto _ I think FSL (the sport lab) gives us a good opportunity to be part of that journey but also actually help to create really good Canadian success stories and also drive meaningful innovation for us.”
The burgeoning world of esports is a “disruptive” model – “something that has popped its head into sports.”
“That’s another business model being dropped into sports organizations and going ‘Hey, you have to pay attention to that,”’ Teherany explained.
MLSE has embraced esports with Raptors GC (Gaming Club) a founding franchise in the NBA 2K League. Philip Balke is Toronto FC’s pro esports gamer. The Maple Leafs and WorldGaming Network are looking for the best “NHL 19” gamer in Leafs Nation in the ongoing Leafs Gaming League.
Leafs Gaming Day at Real Sports Bar & Grill drew some 300 people in person _ and 100,000 online on Twitch.
Teherany, who also worked at Allstream and Bell Canada, is president of the CIO Association of Canada, which represents IT executives and chief information officers.
Born in London, England, he came to Canada with his family when he was three.