Data Champions: How the Golden State Warriors became more than just a basketball team
Contributing Writer, Google Cloud
From an unrivaled digital fan experience to building a smart city outside their arena, it’s no wonder the Warriors are valued at $5.6 billion.
In 2014, on the eve of a dynasty that would last for a decade, the Golden State Warriors were just an organization focused on basketball.
The team played in Oakland, in what was then known as Oracle Arena, owned by the city. Stephen Curry was just beginning his transcendent turn as one of the greatest shooters in basketball history. Head Coach Steve Kerr was instituting the read-and-react offense that would fundamentally change the NBA. The entire organization employed about 100 people, all focused on the business of basketball.
At the same time, there was just as much activity going on off the court—and in some ways, it shares as much credit for the team’s overall success. The proverbial sixth man came to be embodied by the entire organization, and the technology undergirding it.
The team moved to San Francisco in 2019, opening the world-class Chase Center, surrounded by Thrive City, a lively community gathering space full of restaurants and retail shops. The team owns its G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, and multiple esports teams, the Golden Guardians, based in Los Angeles. In 2022, the organization announced and launched Golden State Entertainment, a media production company focused on making documentaries and holding events in the Bay Area.
The Warriors have not only transformed how they play, or even just how they operate, but what it means to be a sports, media, and entertainment franchise in the 21st century. They’ve gone from a historically mediocre team in an aging venue to a dynasty that will be remembered as one of the greatest teams in basketball history and an organization that has its hands in a little bit of everything. Forbes estimates the Warriors to be valued $5.6 billion, and the organization now employs nearly 500 people.
At the heart of the Warriors’ transformation has been a focus on data and analytics, spurring both the on-court product and its business operations—with an assist from Google Cloud. In doing so, the Warriors have been better able to serve their fans, whether they are watching the team at the Chase Center, or anywhere else in the world.
“It hasn’t been just a digital transformation, but a true transformation for us going from being just a basketball team in Oakland to a sports, media, and entertainment brand that has its tentacles in a lot of different areas,” said Daniel Brusilovsky, vice president of technology for the Golden State Warriors. “And by the way, we are just getting started.”
Chase Center: Building a data palace
One of the central tenets of the Warriors success—outside of Curry’s deep shot or Klay Thompson’s spot-up threes—has been a devotion to providing an excellent experience for their fans. As such, building Chase Center provided the team with the opportunity to completely define its strategy, starting from scratch with the brand new venue.
“Chase Center provided us with a reset,” said Brusilovsky. “It provided us with that clean slate to say, we don’t have to take anything legacy with us. We can start from scratch and actually design and build from the ground up.”
The wish list for the new arena was long. Foremost was creating robust network coverage. That meant wired, wireless, and a distributed antenna system (DAS) to provide a seamless connection even when the stadium was packed with fans.
“You can’t have a connected experience, which is one of the big things we said we wanted to do, without connectivity,” said Brusilovsky. “We knew that things like our mobile app were going to be the key to that fan journey.”
With a strong foundation of connectivity, the next step was building out all the digital elements that would utilize the network. That included the advent of the Warriors + Chase Center app and ChaseCenter.com, and the connected experience within the arena such as fast transactions at food and merchandise locations.
“There is so much emphasis that we’ve put around things like commerce,” said Brusilovsky. “No one likes waiting in lines, so we try to do as much as we can. Whether it's things like mobile ordering for express pickups, or kiosks where you don’t have to interact with a cashier, you can just order and pick it up.”
The crowning object of Chase Center is the arena centerhung hanging at center court. It is the largest for an indoor arena in North America. Thanks to the Warriors partnership with Google Cloud, the centerhung is central to the fan experience in how it delivers stats and data to fans in the arena in real time.
“There’s been this renaissance in the last few years in the NBA in which fans want more data about what's happening in the game,” said Brusilovsky. “That’s a part of what I’d call the connected experience as well, because everything comes down to the data and what you’re able to do to collect the data, but also share really interesting stories and insights to make that data more beneficial to your experience.”
Ingesting data to improve the fan experience
Chase Center provides the Warriors a river of data from both first- and third-party sources. Since the organization owns and operates the arena and its attending infrastructure, it can draw on a range of information connected to the audience. The mobile app is the primary vehicle for data collection and personalized fan experiences, though the organization can also draw on other bits of information. There’s location in the building via Wi-Fi, email-associated profiles and tickets, and food and beverage sales through purchase histories and credit cards.
All this information and connection allows the Warriors to do things with the mobile app that it couldn’t do previously. For instance, the organization can now authenticate fans in the arena via Wi-Fi and a user account. The app had to be used in guest mode at the old arena, meaning that the organization couldn’t capture first-party data.
There’s been this renaissance in the last few years in the NBA in which fans want more data about what's happening in the game.
“Using Firebase, we created the ability to have an authentication platform so that when you’re downloading the app for the first time, you can create an account,” Brusilovsky said. “When we open a new restaurant in Thrive City and someone has told us that, for example, sushi is their favorite food, we can send them a notification saying this new place is opening. A lot of that comes with being able to create an authenticated experience.”
Third-party data sources include the Warriors wide variety of partners such as Ticketmaster, sports retailer Fanatics, and food and beverage sales. The team’s partners help the Warriors create a well-rounded view of their fans inside and outside of the Chase Center while taking care of tasks that are not within the organization’s core competencies.
“We spent three years building that foundation with the Google Cloud team,” said Brusilovsky about building the data warehouse in Google Cloud. “We went through a year-plus of proof of concept with BigQuery to see how this would actually work before we fully transitioned to it. Working hand in hand with our team and the Google Cloud team to build all of this and understand how to do it.”
Building the fan experience of the future
Chase Center opened in 2019 and the Warriors were able to play most of the team’s 2019-20 season in the arena. But come March of 2020, Chase Center, like pretty much every other arena, bar, restaurant, and public building in the United States, closed due to the pandemic. The 2020-21 season started without fans allowed in NBA arenas, and they were only gradually allowed back in limited numbers as the season progressed and vaccines rolled out. The 2021-22 season—which just culminated in the Warriors’ fourth championship in the last eight years—was the first complete season since Chase Center opened to host fans without restrictions.
“This last year was really the first full year that we were able to put the things we designed into actual, practical use, and captured a ton of data,” said Brusilovsky. “COVID has taught us a lot about changing consumer behavior patterns and the need for us as businesses to adapt. One of the things I talk about internally is that I want technology to be the enabler, not the reason why we can’t do something.”
With a full year of data under the team’s belt, the Warriors are looking at where they can further improve the fan experience, utilizing new technologies along the way. For instance, with the Warriors’ first- and third-party data collected and organized in BigQuery, it can now start thinking of how to employ artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to the data to uncover hidden value.
“I know on the analytics team side, they are looking at how they can use AI/ML to make better pricing decisions around how we price tickets, or how do we present the right ticket offers to the right customer based on all of this historical data,” said Brusilovsky. “I know there is a lot of work between our two teams on how we take advantage of more of these technologies.”
The next step for the Warriors is to expand upon the success they’ve generated at Chase Center to the team’s legion of fans who cannot attend actual games in person. NBA commissioner Adam Silver frequently notes that 99% of the world’s basketball fans will never be able to attend a game in person. Serving those fans is near the top of the team’s priority list, exploring new uses of its digital properties, as well as budding technologies like NFTs and the metaverse. In doing so, the Warriors can lean into the organizational transformation from being just a basketball team a decade ago, into a burgeoning sports, media and entertainment company.
“The transformation hasn’t been just what you see from a physical perspective. Our entire organization has gone through a transformation,” said Brusilovsky. “Fast forward to today and we are truly a sports, media and entertainment company with basketball at the core of what we do, but it’s not the only thing that we do.”