Risk Management

On the Front Lines of Sports Intelligence

Three-year-old PwC unit assesses and helps mitigate all manner of risks for professional sports teams.
David McCannMay 6, 2016
On the Front Lines of Sports Intelligence

Does your company have, or might it consider, any kind of sponsorship or other financial involvement with a major league sports team or athletes? If so, you likely want to investigate ways to protect that investment.

One option is provided through a specialized service of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The professional services firm’s sports intelligence group is an offshoot of its global intelligence group, which consists of 400 people around the world — mostly former government intelligence officers or law enforcement professionals — that provide intelligence services to private-sector organizations.

The group analyzes available data to assess threat levels and recommend policies and protocols to mitigate all manner of potential risks, such as those related to new product introductions, the hiring of key employees, financial scandals, facility security, cyber attacks, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters.

Glenn Ware

Glenn Ware, PwC

A few years ago, with various scandals and threats related to athletes and professional sports teams persistently making news, the group decided to adapt its analyses so as to help teams reduce their risks. That effort resulted in the sports intelligence group, which over the past three years has handled dozens of such engagements, says Glenn Ware, a principal of the firm and leader of the global intelligence group.

The sports group’s highest-profile service involves vetting potential draft picks, largely for professional football and basketball. Other clients include hockey and American soccer teams.

“If a company was bringing in a new CFO, it could hire the [Global] intelligence group to find out if there were any risks related to a prospective candidate, and we would execute a set of procedures to do that,” Ware says. “We just contextualize those procedures for the sports industry, which is interested in different risk issues.”

Don’t confuse what the sports group does with “background checks.”

“We don’t use that word,” says Ware. “A background check is a low-value commodity that you can buy online for $49.95. We do entire player profiles.”

For example, a player exists inside of his ecosystem, which includes first-tier, second-tier, and third-tier relationships. As is the case for any person, relationships are big influencers on that player’s behavior. The sports intelligence group seeks to find out: What is the nature of those relationships? What are those people like? Are they good friends and mentors, or do they present risks to the player? Are they themselves criminal actors? Have they been involved in problems?

“By looking at a player’s ecosystem, the team can see if the player has wider negative influences than just his own misconduct,” Ware says.

Another aspect of the profile is based on social media content. What do a player’s tweets and other social media posts say about him?

“We have powerful data aggregation tools that dramatically categorize and break down social media content,” says Ware. Is a particular player, say, abusive toward women? Does he glamorize the misuse of drugs? And what are the other people in the player’s ecosystem saying about him? What kind of other content are they putting out about him? Are there photos of the player at big frat parties engaged in illicit activities?

Such information, collected and crunched, yields a profile that may be highly predictive of distractions the player will be subject to that could affect his or her performance, teammates’ performance, or the team’s financial, reputational, or other interests, according to Ware.

At the outset of each engagement, members of Ware’s group meet with the client to determine what kinds of information hold interest. After three years, though, the group rarely now hears something it hasn’t heard before, Ware says.

The group will also evaluate players that teams are thinking of trading for, but there’s less that’s unknown about a player who has already been in the league. Similarly, the group does little of this kind of work for Major League Baseball teams, because players’ behavior in the minor leagues makes them known quantities before they are brought up.

But vetting players is only a fraction of what the sports intelligence group does.

Soccer Fire

“The blocking and tackling of risk mitigation in sports is much bigger than player risk profiles,” says Ware. Consider the stadium, for example. Does it have adequate safety measures, programs, procedures, and protocols in place to ensure a good fan experience and to mitigate risks should anything go wrong?

“In America, generally we go to these events, not just in sports facilities but any major facilities, without any fear,” Ware says. “But it’s not a matter of turning on the stadium lights and opening the doors. There is a thick layer of local, state, and federal authorities, as well as corporate security, working day and night to operate what you might call a carefully orchestrated ballet, and we work alongside them sometimes. Would-be threat actors are looking for slip-ups in the ballet, for the gaps.”

So the sports intelligence group might come in with an adversarial mindset to probe the facility’s vulnerabilities. Often, the assistance is needed not for the full scope of security risk, but because the facility owner knows there are gaps in its program. “There may be shortcomings in egress protocols,” Ware says, “or the vendors running metal detector systems at the gates may not be certified under the U.S. Safety Act,” which sets a Department of Homeland Security standard for physical security.

There is practically no limit to the variety of potential risks for a team or the owner of a big sports facility. For example, the PwC group might be called upon to help mitigate the risk that animal-rights activists could disrupt a game by protesting a team’s use of natural leather in its shoes, or that stadium workers could call a strike over compensation issues.

The group also is available for last-minute assignments. The sponsor of a marathon scheduled for the upcoming weekend might call, saying it’s not comfortable with the level of threat indicated by social media analytics and wants more finely tailored analytics for the event.

“People express themselves dramatically on social media, so you can use that to mitigate risk — as well as to find opportunity,” says Ware.

What the sports intelligence group does not do is provide physical security. “We’re not a security company or a body-guard company,” says Ware. “We look at programs, policies, and procedures in order to provide threat analysis.”

Photo: SXPL, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0. The image is unchanged from the original.

Editor’s Note: The photo depicts a fire started by fans at a soccer game in Greece in 2012. The PwC sports intelligence group does not cover soccer outside the United States.