Taking it home: Why sports teams must create standout experiences beyond the game

The sports entertainment industry knows a thing or two about delivering great fan experiences. It must. Because, whether it’s the anticipation of checking the fixtures, playing manager, ribbing mates or spectating through gaps in fingers, fans spend much of their precious money and time in the support of their beloved teams.

Of course, sports teams historically enjoyed a loyalty (and levels of forgiveness) unmatched by most mainstream consumer brands. And given that points mean prizes, it’s understandable that so much cash is invested in players acquisition (average salaries in 2019 were $2.8m and $7.8m for the NHL and NBA respectively). But times and perceptions are changing, so loyalty is harder than ever to earn – and there’s an urgent need to invest in fans. More specifically, we need to improve fan experiences to take ‘the thrill of the game’, well beyond the venue.

An industry playing uphill

You’ll be more than familiar with industry prognoses predicting threats from channel diversification, new entertainment alternatives and a perpetual need for content generation. These are all valid, and considering declining gate sales and increasing costs, reasons to be fearful. (It’s worth reassuring ourselves that such trends are not unique to sports entertainment.) But within sports in particular, there are developments that are further impacting fortunes. Under strict instruction to write a blogpost (and not a white paper), I’ll keep this short, but to mention three:

  1. With readily available technology, mainstream brands are making customer-centricity a reality at great scale. This then means that sports fans are becoming accustomed to being recognised and served as *individuals* – and they expect the same from us.
  2. Thanks to the accessibility of low latency streaming, eSports, the advent of VR, and shared game experiences (such as FIFA), a new legion of fans is engaging digitally – yet has no intention of going to games.
  3. Partly due to the advent of fantasy leagues, many (millennials in particular) are demonstrating loyalty to individual players, at the expense of teams.

Long story short, the sports and entertainment community will need to work harder – much harder – to earn the loyalty it once took for granted. To make this possible, we need to understand what fans want – wherever they are – and prove we are really listening to them.

“If sports teams want to stop losing money at the gates, they need to better understand what triggers the passion of fans and integrate them into the brand experience. Teams can only do that if they truly know their fans.”

Chris Bondarenko

Data is our star player. And it’s sitting on the bench!

It’s somewhat ironic that an industry so brilliant at interrogating the minutia within game data – from player vitals to in-play stats – struggles to harness its own fan data. There are reasons for this, from legacy, channel-specific tech, to a lack of ability to take swift action on fan insights. And thankfully, such shackles are usually surmountable.

Therefore, the sports industry must act fast: its ability to deliver outstanding and unique fan experiences (especially ‘beyond the stadium’) depends on how teams can decipher and activate the relevant fan data.  After all, just twenty-two percent of the NBA revenue was generated by ticket sales in 2018, according to Statista. This should be seen as an opportunity, rather than threat; Will Leitch at the New York Magazine remarks: “Teams don’t really care any more about bringing fans to the stadium — at least not as much as they used to — because they no longer need people in the seats to make money”

So, at a time when physical tickets are generally declining in popularity (or rather, they are harder to sell), an understanding of fan intent will be the key to unlocking a treasure trove of new opportunities.  With this in mind, connected insights (across all touchpoints) will fuel informed, tailored conversations that build brand trust, drive sales, and crucially, foster fan engagement.

“While teams recognize the value in using fanalytics to boost fan experiences, most are bad at using data and measurement to execute on customer insights”

Connecting customer journeys across all touchpoints goes well beyond the game itself

Fish where the fish are

With more data than ever before (an F1 car alone generates over three Terabytes of data in each race), solutions can appear complicated. Equally, the number of touchpoints – and associated technology – is expanding, meaning that our understanding of the full customer journey (and ability to deliver holistic, responsive experiences) can sometimes feel a little opaque. 

To understand and untap fan intent, we must go where the fans go. 

This means connecting and visualizing their journeys, beyond the games, throughout the year – and across every single touchpoint. And listening ‘everywhere’: across digital (think website, viewing owned content or email) and ‘real world’ (from call centre to merch, F&B kiosk or ‘Smart’ stadium). Forrester coins the term “Fanalytics”, explaining “Sports teams face major challenges in serving their fickle fan bases. While teams recognize the value in using fanalytics to boost fan experiences, most are bad at using data and measurement to execute on customer insights…There is ample opportunity…to improve customer experience, engagement, and fan loyalty for your team”. [Score Big with Fanalytics, by Brandon Purcell and Emily Miller]. My thoughts exactly. Once we really know where our fans are and what they seek, we can engage them in fitting, unique and more thoughtful ways, building loyalty and engagement.  

At the Cavs, we have evolved from simply asking ‘who is sitting where?’ to ‘how are our fans engaging with us from afar?’ It’s reframing our entire understanding of fan experience.”

Mike Conley, SVP, Chief Information Officer – Cleveland Cavaliers

Delivering experiences, beyond the game

Having understood natural fan behaviour across channels, our orchestration of relevant, omnichannel journeys is the cornerstone to delivering great experiences. Done right, this provides the means to match fan intentions with business offerings in real time, creating powerful mutual value. Of course, by perpetually improving our individualized, value-adding experiences, higher engagement follows, empowering us to sell additional tickets or merch at the opportune time or place – without being perceived as pushy. And naturally, this then has a direct correlation with lifetime value of fans.

Dallas Mavericks’ boss Mark Cuban describes the importance of this holistic approach: “We in the sports business don’t sell the game…we are in the business of giving you a chance to create shared experiences”. And the numbers speak for themselves – in 2019, the Mavs increased revenue by $54m (to $287m) and operational income by $78m YOY

This is a bigger trend: global attention around “Customer Experience” has rocketed since 2004.
Source: Google Trends

The potential for engaging customers in relevant ways is vast. For example, at the Cleveland Cavaliers, fans were mobilized to determine the highly anticipated ‘third jersey’, sharing and socializing their choices across various channels. This simple mechanic would be the springboard for incredible new insight, enabling the Cav’s to connect every fan’s preferences with their historic behavior. By inferring intent through ONE, the team could then understand – and act on – individual affinity. Shortly afterwards, a unique personalized jersey was offered based on this intelligence, leading to a 300%+ increase in jersey sales. But critically, the insight stemming from the activity (powering the Cavs’ evolving fan profiles) will be a long-term game-changer.

The clock is ticking

Given the unmatched loyalty that teams enjoy from their fans relative to other sectors, it’s understandable that the industry hasn’t rushed to provide personalized, engaging experiences at scale. (Frankly, it hasn’t needed to.)

But fans can no longer be relied on, and many teams are realizing that it’s time to up the ante. Speaking recently to the Head of Fan Experience of one of the UK’s English Premier League soccer clubs, I got the sense that being ‘fan-focused’ was a fundamental philosophy borne in the marketing department, that has come to imbue their entire business.

If all of this seems too far-fetched given your existing technology and culture, do not reach for the Rage Room just yet. At Thunderhead, we’ve seen potent results with ONE within a matter of a few weeks. Proving a case is often a necessary step to earn the trust of the wider business. This could simply be a matter of connecting your two most active channels – and listening for a while. Sports teams are often surprised at how much actionable insight can be gleaned from understanding how fans traverse across two channels and from this, how it’s possible to infer a useful understanding of intent. Even unsexy, seemingly minor levels of personalization (such as suppressing specific fans from a campaign) can make an enormous difference – and provide confidence to the rest of the business that you’re onto something big. 

Times are changing and sports fans are creating their own unique experiences. I have a feeling that things are about to get exciting…

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