Seizing the Fan Data Opportunity with Mike Malo

The former Spurs exec gives us his take on the future of sports marketing.

Earlier this month, Umbel brought Mike Malo, former VP of Brand and Marketing for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, on board as VP of Business Development to focus on strategic partnership with leagues and teams.

While most recently he was driving marketing for the San Antonio Spurs (who started working with Umbel earlier this year), Mike has had a storied career across marketing for multiple major sports leagues including the MLS’s Columbus Crew SC, leading the club’s rebranding efforts and the resurgence of its fan base, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, and the MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks, whose franchise he helped launch.

Ahead of his new role, we sat down with Mike to get his take on the future of sports marketing, why he’s excited about the opportunity in fan data, and how leaders can adapt to take hold of that opportunity.

Where do you see the biggest opportunities for sports teams in the next few years?

The fundamental need every sports brand has is to find, grow and sustain an engaged fan base. They need to better understand their customers’ behaviors, such as how, when and where they want to engage with the property. They need to understand loyal fan behaviors and see the value in how each fan interacts with their team.

Some fans will never be ticket buyers, and that’s okay, but teams need to realize that there’s still value in knowing how each fan wants to engage. That can be through buying merchandise, watching the game on TV or by streaming it, consuming content, following the team on social channels or participating in sponsor activations. The teams that evolve into this level of expertise on their fans will be more strategic and efficient in developing a loyal fan base and accomplishing their revenue objectives.

What are the biggest challenges sports marketers face today?

Sports marketers are spread very thin and are challenged to support multiple business unit objectives, from lead generation, ticket sales and sponsorship activation to branding, advertising, promotions and automated marketing. It’s sometimes difficult for them to proactively drive strategy and dive into consumer insights because they’re reacting to so many internal support needs. The demands to perform are high and they need partners who understand these challenges and can help them produce measurable results. They also need to be strategically relevant to their consumer segments so they can nurture, retain and grow their overall base efficiently.

How do they adapt to those dynamics?

Prioritization and collaboration is the key. Marketers have to be willing to say “no” to some of the minutia that eats up valuable time to focus on projects that really can make a significant impact on their business. They also need to work closely with other business units to understand their biggest priorities so they’re all aligned on where to invest time and resources to accomplish a collective set of objectives.

When these departments aren’t aligned, or when “everything” is a priority, it can be difficult to focus and plan for impactful projects, or take the necessary time to identify technologies and partners that can provide innovative solutions to meet their objectives.

So what do sales and marketing leaders need to do to evolve and grow their business?

Probably the most important element of the business is having a deep understanding of their customers’ needs, wants and behaviors. If sports and entertainment properties intimately know how, when and where their customers engage with their brands, they can deliver something relevant and personalized to that specific customer and get the desired result.

It may sound simple, but it’s very complex. You have to have centralized data solutions that aggregate all of these different data-producing systems, such as ticketing, CRM, automated marketing, social profiles and others, to be able to analyze it, segment it and take action on it.

Download our guide to using fan data to drive conversions

Taking action on data is the key though. A lot of teams and venues have a pretty good set of data, but probably not enough “quality” data to create specific customer segments to execute marketing tactics. So they end up executing broad tactics and casting a wide net to get modest results, when they should be creating highly targeted smaller segments and tactics relevant to their profiles and behaviors to get strong results.

Rich, quality data is the key to unlocking how fans want to engage with brands, particularly sports brands. Without that rich data, it’s hard to evolve from just casting that net and hoping that it works.

What’s exciting is that the industry is becoming more aware of these gaps in their data infrastructures and is finding solutions to become more sophisticated and targeted in its approach.

It sounds like the whole model for sports marketing is shifting.

It is. What’s going to be interesting is how resources shift from traditional sales and marketing models to using data to find fans at the right point in their customer lifecycle to become ticket customers, sponsor customers or content consumers.

Traditionally teams looked at everyone in their database, within a certain distance from their venue, to be a potential ticket customer, and everyone who purchased a ticket was a target to become a season ticket buyer.

I know that type of approach has been successful for teams for many years.  But it’s going to become more and more difficult to produce results (and manage costs) with that formula. Having a decent-sized sales team cranking out calls and emails to lists of single-game buyers and grassroots leads won’t be efficient enough to meet budget objectives.

On the marketing front, teams are investing more dollars in the digital space because their budgets are either flat or shrinking, so they’re forced to only invest in tactics that they can measure, which has prompted a significant shift away from traditional media placements.  However, marketers still need richer data sets to execute efficient tactics and achieve better results. Otherwise, they too will question the ROI of underperforming digital tactics.

After leading marketing for teams across different leagues, what led you to Umbel?

I have a passion for sports, entertainment and data, and I want to help these properties grow their business by working with them to acquire, analyze and act on rich sets of data.  I want to help them become experts on their customers so they know what will drive a desired behavior, whether that’s to purchase a ticket, participate in a sponsor activation or engage with a piece of content posted across a variety of digital platforms.

The Umbel platform is simply the best I’ve seen. Its ability to gather data from multiple sources and segment it with rich  affinity data from Facebook  within seconds still blows me away.

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