For all of the technology being developed and considered for Seattle’s new NHL team — from the mobile app that will help drive the fan experience to various touches throughout a $1 billion arena — Todd Humphrey is particularly driven by his desire to avoid standing in line.
“I’m highly motivated as a Canadian and as a hockey player to get people beer and to their seat faster,” Humphrey said. “You couldn’t have a better guy thinking about this day in and day out.”
Humphrey is senior vice president of digital and fan experience for the Seattle Kraken, the NHL franchise set to begin play in 2021. While he may know a thing or two about playing to the hearts and minds of hockey fans as a former professional player himself, Humphrey also brings with him a wealth of experience leading tech businesses.
Humphrey was most recently CEO of LiquidPlanner, a Seattle-based project management company. Prior to that he co-founded and served as the chief commercial officer of League, Inc., a Toronto-based digital health insurance and employee wellness platform.
In a city that’s seen its share of startups get off the ground, launching a professional sports franchise may rank with the most intriguing.
“This is, for me, the nirvana of all startups,” Humphrey said. “As a Canadian ex-hockey player, the chance to be part of an NHL franchise being birthed from the ground up in an arena from the ground up, it’s sort of all of my best worlds combining — it’s the startup world, the technology world and the hockey world all coming together. It really is a dream job for me.”
The Kraken, along with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, will play in Climate Pledge Arena, a reimagining of Seattle’s Key Arena, where everything but the roof line is being changed to create a sports and concert venue touted as the best in North America. The peculiar moniker was a naming-rights purchase by Amazon, a first for the tech giant, whose influence will be felt in green initiatives throughout the net zero carbon building.
The team is also investing heavily in a training, operations and community-focused complex north of downtown Seattle, where 220 or so employees will be based and where three ice rinks and a bar/restaurant will attract fans.
“We’re building a really different type of sports franchise, partly because of the city we live in,” Humphrey said. “We’re a sports team becoming a technology team in a sense, and we have to be right for Seattle. That’s a thread through everything that we’re doing.”
Technology is driving much of the thinking around the fan experience and while his desire to not wait long for a fresh beer at a game gets a laugh, it’s indicative of how Humphrey and team owners Oak View Group view a seamless night on the town.
The Kraken are the first NHL franchise to develop the team mobile app in house rather than through the league. Instead of focusing heavily on content, the app will drive efficiency around such things as transportation, ticketing and transactions. The team previously announced, for example, that all season tickets and single game tickets will include fully subsidized public transit, via ORCA. The app will guide fans on best routes to take, where to park and which entrances and exits to use.
Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke has even said that he envisions drone delivery of fans 10 years from now.
Inside the arena, connectivity will be a major focus, as will a layout that moves people quickly through traditional food lines, or “marketplaces” as Humphrey calls them. It’s hard not to picture Climate Pledge Arena implementing some of the cashierless technology that Amazon built for its brick-and-mortar convenience and grocery stores.
Humphrey, who spent a year at Amazon as a business development director, said he’s a fan of the “Just Walk Out” technology and said he’d love to partner on that sort of experience for Kraken fans. Perhaps he’s getting an earful from Andy Jassy, the Amazon Web Services CEO who is part of the Kraken ownership group.
Humphrey meets with Jassy and the tech committee he leads every month or so to do a “deep dive” on where things stand with app development, the arena, connectivity and anything else they could be doing.
“Andy is one of the leaders in all of the tech space and Amazon is, in my mind, the most advanced technology company in the world,” Humphrey said. “To have them as a partner on the arena is a huge advantage for us.”
The NHL is introducing player and puck tracking technology for the 2021 season, in which data and graphics will be available for TV broadcasts to show such things as puck and player positioning, puck and player speed, shot and skating distance, time on ice, shift length and more.
“Amazon is highly data focused,” Humphrey said of the company, which already partners with the NFL on that league’s “Next Gen Stats.” “So how do we leverage that data and make it fan friendly and fan facing? Having that access point is a huge advantage for us.”
Speaking of data and metrics, and how they relate to the startup he’s helping to launch, Humphrey has some especially daunting numbers he’s focused on, including launch date. While a traditional tech startup could consider such a date “a bit squishy” and the world might not notice if it moves, the target won’t move for the Kraken. The team is staring down the opening of training camp in a new training center on July 15, exhibition games at the end of September and the regular season starting in October.
“We have a work-back schedule that has no squishiness to it, and we have to hit those,” Humphrey said. “It’s been the most stressful job I’ve ever had and we haven’t even dropped the puck yet. There’s a lot to do.”
How the COVID-19 pandemic plays into that timeline will only add to Humphrey’s stress, as he said the organization is planning to have a full building next October, but will prepare for the alternative. He said Oak View Group, which is also building a new arena for the NHL’s New York Islanders, has formed a separate division around COVID preparedness, cleanliness and safety.
Leiweke told The New York Times that OVG has “taken a leadership position on sanitization” and that both arenas “will have sophisticated filters that cleans what comes and goes. We also have to remember that when the vaccine comes, it is not the cure.”
A self-professed “arena junkie,” before the pandemic Humphrey said he always loved checking out venues in the various cities he was visiting. Asked where he would go if he could jump on a plane tomorrow, he said he’d go to Toronto and take his mom to a Maple Leafs game because he hasn’t seen her in 10 months.
With the chance to build his own history around a franchise and arena in Seattle, Humphrey recognizes the unique opportunity to do it in a city where technology isn’t a second thought and where a tech-savvy fan base will jump onboard.
“Our ability to shape the experience using technology, rather than having to go back and teach people, from day one fans are going to feel a higher level of efficiency and greater fan experience because of technology,” Humphrey said. “I don’t call it a blank canvas, I call it a fresh sheet of ice because that’s what it is in front of us.”