The Future of Sports Marketing: Play Locally, Think Globally, Drive Loyalty

The Internet has turned every business into a global business, and professional sports teams and leagues are no exception. British soccer powerhouse Manchester United claims more than 650 million fans globally.

Yet very few of these fans ever attend a game.

Not every franchise has the extensive reach of Man U, but sports organizations are waking up to the fact that engagement with their fans extends well beyond live events.  As a result, they are exploring new ways to tap into the passion of their customer base to create deeper loyalty that drives growth on a global scale. Extending and enhancing fan engagement globally requires a deep understanding of fans. But sports teams and leagues have typically collected very little information about their fans beyond transactional data from ticket and merchandise sales. This lack of information has made it difficult to deliver targeted communications to fans outside of a team’s home base. That’s beginning to change as leagues and teams invest more resources in mining customer insights through four key channels.

  • Fantasy sports. There’s real money in fantasy sports, which has grown into a billion-dollar industry. More than 36 million people in the United States and Canada spent an average of 8.7 hours a week playing fantasy sports in 2013, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The time fantasy players spend managing their National Football League (NFL) teams throughout the week – when they make roster changes, propose trades, and research players – leads to a halo effect. It drives engagement with other NFL properties, such as the league’s Web site, club sites, TV programs, and game broadcasts. Fantasy league members generally view about seven times more content, including text, video, and data, on NFL.com than nonmembers.
  • Web and mobile content. Fan bases aren’t just becoming more global, they’re also becoming more mobile. Approximately 70% of the traffic to NFL.com comes from mobile devices, up from 10% just a few years ago, according to NFL Media. The NBA’s stats.NBA.com Web site, which houses player and team statistics from the league’s 67-year history, has helped double time spent on NBA.com while generating more than 9.5 billion page views last season – an all-time record for the site. The site has also emerged as part of what NBA officials see as a burgeoning second-screen experience for fans watching NBA games on TV.
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  • Social media. Fans love to talk about sports, which is why social media is fertile ground for franchises that want to increase engagement with their global fan bases. As part of its sponsorship of UK soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, Under Armour Inc. ran a social media contest that attracted entries from fans in more than 50 countries. Liverpool FC, another club in the English Premier League, maintains 17 local-language Twitter accounts. More than 475 million fans follow the NBA through social media, including 70 million in China alone. By analyzing what fans are saying in real time, sports organizations are also getting better at reacting quickly to emerging trends. Some teams have set up war rooms to monitor fan sentiment and weigh in when appropriate.
  • Loyalty programs. Fan loyalty is a trait that many sports teams take for granted. But as ticket prices rise and more options vie for fans’ attention, teams are investing in more-formal loyalty programs to deliver targeted offers, access to unique fan experiences, and other rewards to passionate fans. Trying to address the implications of an intimidating atmosphere during its home soccer matches, one club in England’s Football League created an engagement program as part of a broader initiative to bring back lapsed fans and new generations of supporters to its matches. Swiping a season ticket card when entering the stadium would tip off fan experience personnel to acknowledge fan milestones, such as a child’s birthday. “A family receptionist would greet them and offer a surprise like a seat upgrade, a free gift, or a chance to meet a player,” says Mark Bradley, founder of The Fan Experience Company, a consultancy that worked with the club. Sales of family season ticket plans increased from fewer than 500 in 2009 to more than 7,500 in 2012.
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As franchises such as Man U and others have shown, sports teams can no longer rely on steadily rising ticket prices and broadcasting rights alone to thrive. They must begin reaching out to a growing global sports fan base.

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About the author:

Rob O’Regan is founder and principal of 822 Media, an editorial and content marketing consultancy.

Mark Lehew is global head of SAP’s Sports & Entertainment industry.

Tags:

Future of Marketing, sports marketing, future fan experience, customer experience