Joel Carben and IdealSeat looking to revolutionize the way you buy tickets

For most baseball fans, catching a foul ball, or better yet, a home run ball, is one of the most tantalizing and elusive perks of attending a ballgame. In my life, I have attended well over 100 Major and minor league baseball games. I am still waiting to get my hands on a batted ball.

Joel Carben (@JoelCarben on Twitter) wants to change that. In fact, he wants to change everything about the way you buy tickets to a baseball game.

What started out as a project to locate the seat in Safeco Field that provided the best odds of catching a ball has turned into an app and ticketing platform that could revolutionize the way fans buy tickets to a professional sporting event. IdealSeat got its start nearly seven years ago when Carben, who spent the early part of his career tracking data for the real estate industry, began working on analyzing the performance of the water systems at Safeco for the Seattle Mariners. Given inside access to the stadium, the mathematically-inclined Carben began looking at the empty swath of seats as a math problem. With the right amount of data and number crunching, it should be possible to locate the seats with the best odds of catching a foul ball.

The only problem was that Major League Baseball had never bothered to track foul balls. In fact, very little research had ever been done in the field of foul ball analysis. Without a data set to work with, Carben did what every motivated problem solver would do — he began collecting his own data.

“On a whim, we decided to create a small mobile app for crowdsourcing foul ball locations. We collected data from every game at Safeco in 2012 and created a small, really tiny blog where we posted heat maps and game tracking. Then, something really amazing happened — fans started coming to us asking to buy tickets. They were asking us things like where are the best seats to catch a foul ball, or which seats are in the shade, or where is the best seat for me to sit with my four-year-old?”

All of those questions that Carben was facing from baseball fans across the country are inherent parts of the ballpark experience. The project quickly diverged from an exercise simply to predict where a foul ball would land. IdealSeat is now the first ticketing app of its kind — a platform that puts the power of information to work for the fans. For some, catching a foul ball would be the highlight of a lifetime. For other, more social fans, being near an area like the Eutaw Street porch in Baltimore for example, mattered most. Then, there are the families, who face an entirely different set of circumstances — proximity to a bathroom, playground, souvenir shop — when it comes to finding their ideal seat.

If you’ve ever used a ticketing website like Stub Hub or Ticketmaster, you know there is very little information surrounding the stadium itself. Those sites give you a map of the stadium, a list of available tickets, and then leave it up to you to determine which is best for you. The so-called “best available” option on most ticket buying platforms is simply the most expensive seat, closest to the field. For most fans, this is not actually the “best available” ticket, but without any data to help them make an informed decision on their own, it can be difficult to find the seat that best meets your needs.

“We recognize there is a gap in data and information, especially during the ticketing process. In 2012, we quickly scaled our operations to all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. Over the past four years, we have built a database of over one million data points.”

The result is an intuitive app that takes the guesswork out of buying tickets and allows fans to use the power of big data and analytics to find the best seat for them. For a fan seeking a family-friendly seating option, Carben and his team have plotted out specific locations of playgrounds and activity areas, family bathrooms, and kid-friendly food and merchandise amenities. An algorithm searches through the database and determines which remaining available seats for a given game best meet the family-friendly tag, and then delivers a list of available options.

Now, Carben is in the midst of a three month trip (follow the progress @IdealSeat) across the country that will stop in all 30 Major League stadiums and allow him to spread the word about IdealSeat and interact with fans, further honing and refining the algorithm at the heart of IdealSeat.

“The cool thing is that on this tour, and working so closely with the fans, is that we can take our data, and take real-time fan feedback to further dial things. It’s really allowing us to create this powerful thing where data plus fan feedback equals the ideal seat.”

The cross country trip has not been all about attending baseball games for Carben. With a small team of founders and advisors, Carben along with Spencer Fornaciari, Adam Navarrete, Kevin Fleming, and super intern Adam Gilfix are bootstrapping their startup from the ground up. That means the trip across the country has included business meetings with Major League Baseball and other heavy hitters in the ticket industry as IdealSeat looks to create partnerships that will allow the business to continue to grow.

What started as a simple math problem for a few statistically minded, self-described “math geeks” is on the verge of changing the way tickets are bought and sold. IdealSeat seeks to put the power of big data to work for fans, ultimately improving the ballpark experience. Whether you just want to catch a foul ball or find the best seats for your toddler’s first trip to the park, IdealSeat can help you do it. Big data is all around us whether we realize it or not, and IdealSeat is putting it to work. Analytics and big data have played a huge role in Major League Baseball, but now the fans can finally truly benefit from its rise thanks to IdealSeat.

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