Meet the NHL Exec Who Turned Her Passions for STEM and Sports Into a Career
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory, LLC and WiST Board Advisor
All in the Family
The sports gene runs in Kendall’s family. At Bucknell, her father played football and her mom was a cheerleader. Her grandmother was a basketball player as well. Growing up in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, the family never missed a Sunday Vikings game on TV (although her mom always supported her hometown Steelers by wearing gold). On Saturdays, Kendall’s dad, an orthopedist specializing in sports medicine, would pack the kids into the back of his car and take them to the local high school or college games where he was working as the team doctor. Kendall and her siblings cut their teeth on hot dogs and candy at local basketball, volleyball and tennis matches watching every dunk, spike, serve and penalty from their perch in the stands.
When she was 14, Kendall got her first sports job as a ball girl for the WNBA Minnesota Lynx, where her dad was the team doctor. “In that job, I learned that women could make a living in sports. Although women’s sports was not regularly on TV—other than the Olympics, a few tennis matches and the NCAA basketball Final Four—I saw that women could be successful as players, trainers, physicians, media personnel, or working in the front office.” On and off the court, the WNBA was about performance, teamwork and family.
A Fan in the Stands
Kendall is the first to admit, “I am a HUGE SPORTS FAN. I am the poster child for ESPN. I watch it religiously. I love all sports because I either watch them frequently or I’ve played them.” Kendall played three sports in high school—soccer, lacrosse and basketball—and continued playing basketball in college. Kendall has been a fan in the stands since her youth, through college, grad school, as a professional, and now as she raises her own family. “Being a fan is being engaged, being excited, identifying with a player, and caring about a team. It’s about pride and a shared community.”
Being a fan is one thing. Being a player is another. Being a sports business professional is something else entirely. The business side of sports is an ecosystem that serves many masters: the players, the fans, the sponsors, the rights holders and every person who tunes in, turns on or consumes sports content in any way. “Currently, fans can access augmented reality and stats apps on their mobile phones in real time to supplement their fantasy or sports betting activities. These kinds of tech enhancements are part of the expectation for today’s fan.”
Working at a professional sports team it is all too easy to watch a game and think about the business instead of the game. As Kendall puts it, “when I watch a game it is hard not to think, ‘How many seats have been sold? How can we work with that sponsor? I really like those acoustics, I wonder what back end software they use?’ At times like that I heed the words of my boss, ‘Really try to protect and hold on to being a fan. Separate your fandom from your job.’” Never forget what it is like to be a fan in the stands.
If You Want to Go Fast, Go Alone. If You Want to Go Far, Go With Others (African Proverb)
Kendall is clear that her successes are due, in great part, to mentors and colleagues who saw her value and determination and supported her efforts along the way.
“How does an African American high school woman in Minnesota become an engineering major? That does not happen without a physics teacher taking an interest, seeing potential and encouraging me to follow that path.”
“How does a dual degree major in sociology and industrial and systems engineering succeed while playing varsity basketball in college? It does not happen without a basketball coach who helped me focus and perform in the classroom.”
“How does a young consultant at Accenture, traveling Monday to Thursday every week for four years survive the grind? It does not happen without mentors teaching me how to say ‘no’”.
Kendall has the good fortune of having the sense to surround herself with colleagues and mentors who share her passion, see her value, and understand that their personal and professional investment in her is well-placed. She proves her worth by succeeding every step of the way
Q and A with Kendall Tyson
WiST: What educational and business path led you to your present position as VP Strategy and Analytics at the Seattle Kraken?
I’m a STEM kid, always good in math and science. During high school, I attended a program at Purdue University which exposed me to the different facets of engineering. There I was introduced to an industrial engineer who had interned with Disney, modeling what would become their “Fast Pass.” Fun fact: one of my favorite computer games growing up was Roller Coaster Tycoon where the goal is to build your own theme park from the ground up. This includes choosing the rides as well as running the business model. I thought if Disney is hiring Industrial Engineers, sign me up! Interesting how I went from simulating theme parks from the ground up to building a hockey team from the ground up.
I completed a six-year, dual degree program at Emory University (sociology) and Georgia Tech (industrial and systems engineering). While rigorous and varied, this curriculum presented so many insights—from how people organize and operate within social structures to how you can model different scenarios of a business’ operations and finances.
My first post college job was as a consultant at Accenture. I liked the work but after four years, I decided it was time for a career change. Attending business school is a common path for consultants, which enables you to either leap into the industry of your choice or pursue a promotion within the consulting industry. While getting my MBA at Yale School of Management, I was exposed to all sorts of possibilities. While I was originally leaning towards public service, one of my peers asked me, “What is the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning?” To which I responded, “I check the sports scores on ESPN!” And there it was: sports business was my destiny. I started with an internship at the LPGA and then secured a corporate development and strategy position at Topgolf in Seattle. Serendipity struck when my brother met the CEO of the Kraken at an open skate event. From there I was invited to pitch my version of strategy and analytics for the team to match the standards of this tech-first city. That was two years ago and I have never looked back.
WiST: The Seattle Kraken is the 31st NHL team, which begins play in the 2021-22 season. It will play out of Climate Pledge Arena, sponsored by Amazon. You are one of the very few people who have the opportunity to be part of a professional sports team from its inception. How does the Kraken management prepare for this launch?
From day one, we have operated with several core principles that have guided our brand, operations, sales, sponsorship, and engagement with all of our stakeholders. I will speak to three that really resonate with me.
1. Fans First. Our decisions start and end with what is best for the fans. Like any successful sports organization, departments have their own metrics and mandates—ticket sales, fan engagement, hockey operations, building operations, corporate partnerships—and the coordination of each department’s goals must meet our Fans First objective.
2. PNW Proud. We are OF the Pacific Northwest (PNW) and FOR the PNW. There are blueprints of how to build a hockey team from the ground up across North America and the world. However, Seattle is unique, and we are building a blueprint for THIS town. Seattle includes the best tech and tech-minded people, several of whom will attend games and concerts in our arena. Climate Pledge Arena can’t have mediocre technology; it requires the very best to satisfy our fans’ expectations. We are Seattle’s team and we are PNW proud.
3. Our organization reflects our diverse fan base. The PNW is made up of people of all different cultures and backgrounds and we need to manifest that. We heavily invest in diversity across all aspects of the organization. This diversity facilitates broader viewpoints and ultimately drives much of our success to date.
For me, being part of an organization that actively embraces these principles is the definition of authenticity and credibility. I am humbled by the enormous challenge of keeping on task and keeping true to our core principles while we build a business and a team that exceeds expectations.
WiST: Sports has (finally) entered into the 21st century where technology is used to drive better player outcomes, enhance the fan experience, and deliver actionable insights on relevant data. In your role, how do you make technology work for you and the organization?
While you hear much about innovations in sports tech, most of it is aligned to the “front end” or what stakeholders can experience themselves: player performance wearables, apps for fan engagement, augmented reality, mobile ticketing, sports betting and smart arenas. These tools are essential to improve player performance, enhance the in-arena experience and generate remote engagement through accessible content and multi-screen co-viewing.
Where we have not seen as much innovation is on the “back end.” In the sports vertical, there is no seamless suite of tech systems to support, coalesce and analyze the extraordinary data sets these front-end tools produce. Thus, data is often housed in separate data silos based on the technology that collected the information. There has been a recent rise in the use of data warehouses that brings together ticketing, CRM, sponsorship, email marketing and finance data to provide a single source of truth.
Much of what I do is navigate and align these various data sources to combine them into a single source of truth so that we can manage, optimize, and monetize our data. It’s definitely a challenge!
WiST: You are very cause minded – social engagement and community building. Can you share some of your most meaningful experiences and why it matters so much to you?
At Accenture, one of my projects was to revamp how the Commonwealth of Kentucky administered its food, medical and cash assistance programs statewide. Over the course of two years, I traveled throughout the Commonwealth seeing firsthand how unique communities were impacted by uniform policy changes (like the one we were tasked with facilitating). It was life changing. I had so many takeaways, personal and professional.
I was accustomed to top down leadership, where the leader frames a project and those under that leader implement the plan and do the work. However, as the boots-on-the-ground person, I saw that people who lived in these communities, who did the work day in and day out, ultimately had a far better perspective about what policy was beneficial versus detrimental to their community. I learned the importance of framing projects to include the staff’s perspective. I learned to listen to those who do the work day-to-day so that recommendations are actually effective and implementable.
As I’ve thought about strategic questions here in Washington, I’ve tried to take a similar approach by listening to our fans and staff. This matters to me because I believe that sports should be accessible to everyone and one size does not fit all.
WiST: What fun facts should we know about you?
I’m an African American woman who likes math, data, country music and snowboarding. I do not fit a stereotype. Never have, never will.
I am super organized and methodical. When deciding what to major in at Emory, I literally read the entire course curriculum book, starred each course I was interested in taking, then calculated which major had the most stars. The most stars fell under sociology, hence, my major.
While interning at the LPGA, I took golf lessons, which was a good thing because when I was about eight, I was hitting golf balls in our backyard until I hooked the ball and it crashed through our windowpane.
All of my experiences to date have helped define who I am and where I fit into the world that I operate in now. I know who I am as a friend, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a mom. It all comes together. I hope I am a woman in full.
A special thanks to Kendall for sharing her story with the WiST community and for recently joining the Women in Sports Tech Board of Directors. Always moving forward! Inspiration comes in all forms.
Join the WIST community at www.womeninsportstech.org
Check out The Seattle Kraken at https://www.nhl.com/kraken