Just as sports fans have become experts on their favorite teams, those teams have needed to become experts on their fans.
Sports organizations should no longer simply lump their fans into two categories, die-hards and casuals. With the ability to collect and combine data about what makes fans unique in the form of brand preferences, ticketing data, demographics, and more, sports teams can now break down their audience into a myriad of segments.
“It is a fundamental need to become experts on your fans,” said Mike Malo, Umbel’s vice president of business development and a nearly 20-year veteran of several professional sports franchises, including the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, MLS’s Columbus Crew and NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. “You need the right sources of data to understand their behavior and be relevant. For a long time it was easy to send out broad messaging through traditional outlets to reach a lot of different people. But it’s different now. Not everyone is a fan of a team in the same way. There are different buckets you need to put your fans into in order to deliver what’s most relevant to them.”
Targeting a transient fan base
Malo stressed a very simple point: Teams need the right data sets to create the right emotional connection with a fan. Some fans may want to be updated with every single event, some may not come to a game for 10 years. Both are valuable—and need to be treated as such—to a team.
“That’s the goal of this whole thing,” said Chris Kaiser, director of marketing and brand strategy for the Phoenix Suns. “You’re trying to have the most relevant interactions with the fan at every level.”
Kaiser said that soon after he was hired, the team made a decision internally to be “more data-driven and strategic. We were throwing a lot of ideas against the wall. The first thing that drew me to Umbel was being able to bring in a bunch of different data sets and keep it all in one place. We could get in and use it however we wanted.”
For the Suns, that meant targeting what is largely a transient fan base. Fifty percent of the Suns season ticket sales, Kaiser said, are from people more than 90 miles away.
“I’m originally from Buffalo, and it’s a different world there,” Kaiser said. “Opponents drive a lot of our sales. Those social affinities—we have two-day-out emails, for those times when say, the Golden State Warriors are coming to town. We could’ve segmented that in the past with past purchasers, but now you have the brand affinity piece we bring in, and we can make a segment that would have someone raise their hand.”
Creating the complete fan profile
The key for teams, Malo said, is to incorporate both sets of data. “The Spurs could look at all the previous Lakers individual game buyers, but what they wouldn’t know is if that person bought it as a Lakers fan or a Spurs fan who wants to see the Lakers,” he said. “Bringing in social brand affinity data, you can take all the Spurs buyers who bought a Lakers ticket, who have an affinity for the Lakers, and now you can communicate to those two different buckets separately.”
Using Facebook likes that can be broken down into countless combinations, and pairing that with in-house data, has given the Suns the ability to target each fan as they’d want to be targeted.
“It’s an easy pitch,” Kaiser said. “Sports in general, fandom—in terms of the passion that goes into it— it’s a lot different from any other consumer product. For the most part, fans want to receive information.”
Then there are the fans who may not even attend games, who may not even live in the same town as their favorite teams. To ignore those fans, Malo said, is to ignore an important segment of the audience.
“This guy could be a content consumer or a merchandise buyer, and content consumption is a great way to gain fans,” Malo said. “Teams are trying to monetize that fan engagement through content, through sponsorships, and the first step in the process is acquiring the data.”
Enhancing team-fan relationships
The ability to separate fans into different categories that may lead to better team-fan relationships is what impresses Genya Adesso, vice president of marketing for the NHL’s Florida Panthers.
“Our next step is really understanding how do we nurture a particular demographic and see how they’re connected to our brand in a meaningful way,” Adesso said. “It’s a turnoff nowadays to just push and push. Fans feel like I’m getting hit from every angle. Our goal is to tie in a very strong content driven where we nurture these leads and market to people in a meaningful way.”
For Malo, who has seen fan engagement evolve from his days working as a marketing manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the early-2000s, this was a natural progression.
“I started the Diamondbacks loyalty program a long time ago looking at data, mainly among ticket buyers: Which were merchandise buyers, concession buyers, and the biggest indicator was ticket usage behavior,” he said. “I wanted to get as much as possible to understand who looks like someone who can be a longtime customer. We didn’t really look at the different buckets outside of that. Who could be a potential TV viewer? Or listen on the radio?”
“For me, it was an eye-opener working for the Spurs, looking at Facebook data, realizing we had three million fans in the U.S. but 2.2 million in the Philippines. That’s a big surprise. We have this huge following, how can we engage them further? What products are they willing to potentially purchase? Brand affinity through page likes is such a rich source of data.”
For teams with less-than-traditional markets—like the NHL’s Florida Panthers, who are faced with the task of attracting new fans in what is not a traditional hotbed of hockey fandom—using Umbel and collecting such data has proven extremely valuable.
“What’s also great is we can see the high performing zip codes, and some that identify well is the northeast,” said Amanda Cifu, senior marketing manager for the Panthers. “We have a lot of fans from Boston, New Jersey, New York, probably snow birds, and that’s something that stands out to us. Understanding those pockets is so important to us.”
This article has been reposted with permission from SportTechie.