How Pro Teams Fill Seats and Engage Fans (Sports Tech)
When I say sports tech and sports marketing, the very first thing that pops into your heads is ticket sales, right?
It’s only natural to think filling seats is the number one priority for professional sports marketers like our guest panelists at last week’s New Economy New Rules event. And while ticket sales may be the key objective, it’s not exactly priority number one — that’s reserved for fan engagement.
It’s fan engagement that drives seemingly every marketing activity with the Indiana Pacers, the Indianapolis Colts and the new North American Soccer League team Indy Eleven. Based on the discussion led by Barnes & Thornburg attorney Brian McGinnis, fan engagement is the engine of ticket sales. To focus on selling tickets is to miss the point of professional sports, they explained.
“Getting fans excited about the sport, fan engagement is my primary objective, that’s what motivates fans to come to games,” said Rob Laycock, vice president of marketing at Pacers Sports & Entertainment.
“We support all marketing departments and use social media and mobile to create that next level fan and that ultimately promotes ticket sales,” said Dan Plumlee, director of interactive media with The Indianapolis Colts
“We focus on engaging the fans and making sure they are passionate about their team,” said Tom Dunmore, senior vice president of marketing and operations at Indy Eleven Professional Soccer. “Tribalism is the key to sports. We all know that it’s about everybody caring more about their team than anything else — at least for the 90 minutes we have them on the pitch. It’s a way to escape from the rest of your life, so it about carrying that passion through to every interaction.”
Social Media Engagement
Social media engagement is critical to what they do at Indy Eleven. They don’t spend a lot on advertising because they simply don’t have those kinds of resources yet, but what they have been able to accomplish with basically just social media and a highly motivated president is remarkable.
“Social is critical to us and huge in growth of the team before we were even born really,” Dunmore said. “We had hundreds engaging on social before launch and when we did launch the team we we tapped into that following and they grew with us. They were part of building our identity from launch, part of naming and choosing colors.
“In fact, our president, Peter Wilt, he ran our Twitter account himself for the first six months. Peter answered questions himself and was very interactive with it and open and built trust with community and made fans feel part of it.
— Jessica Willits (@robotiquechic) March 6, 2015
Indy Eleven focused on a very grassroots, one-to-one approach while building the team out of necessity, but according to Plumlee and Laycock of the Colts and Pacers, they strive for that same kind of flat organization and direct access to the teams. Dan said the days of ignoring social are gone and that even the metrics from social are vital to what the Colts do today. “Whatever you are going to be part of, no matter how fancy you get, if you are not going back to the very basic level and engaging with the fan base on social, everything else will fall apart,” Dan said. The Colts marketing staff meets with players at training camp and identifies social leaders, and then they tries to grab those personalities and get them involved in things like promotional videos so that they really take off through cross-promotion. The Colts do a lot of Twitter Q&A-style “Twitter Takeover” promotions where fans get to engage directly with the players on social media. “Andrew Luck is not on social media at all but he did a Twiter Q&A last year and fans really engaged,” Dan said. “He knew he was kind of lending out who he is without joining social, but knew he was helping us out and he was happy to do that. Andrew Luck still has a flip phone. Post game victories, all the guys are on their smartphone and Tweeting and Facebooking and Andrew is on his flip phone texting!”
Players are key to generating fan engagement on social media. Laycock explained that some of the players have larger social media followings than the teams themsleves — like Paul George, for example — and if he shares something like a story, it can get significantly more traffic than if the team did it alone.
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Big Data Drivers
Big data is really important to the Colts organization. Dan told a story about how they would go about selling 300 individual tickets left for a certain game. They would dive into different data sets where they have assigned points systems based on fan engagement so that they could come up with a list of fans who are way more likely to buy individual tickets than season ticket holders or lesser engaged fans. With the Colts, data drives everything from the open rates of email headlines and content sent to female fans to the in-stadium fan experience and cultivating the next generation of ticket holders.
Rob said the Pacers put a high priority on data, but that they have so much data that it can be overwhelming. He said right now they are implementing new platforms to take full advantage of big data even more so than they currently are. “Ticketmaster used to be very closed off, but now there are finding ways to integrate and that allows marketing automation,”Rob said. “For example, if you know Roy Hibbert is their favorite player, they get a discount on his jersey with ticket purchase.”
Rob also said that he is starting to see data visualization companies come to the forefront because executives want a dashboard, a one page document like tableau that connects to data warehouses and apps that are real time updates on sales reports, how may tickets sold, what revenue is, where fans are in the building.
Dan agreed that data for internal clients is just as important as using it for marketing. He said they have to present different data sets to different audiences internally.
“No matter what you do, people are going to be on their phones during the game, so we put a heavy focus on integrating our own activities into the second screen experience,” Dan said.
The Colts are trying things like Tweeting from your seat for food ordering, looking at restroom wait times, and incorporating sponsors into second screen experiences. HHGregg created a game with Colts mascot Blue, and the Colts promoted it and even conducted an in-game competition where they announced the winner at second half and the winners collected prizes on site. The are also doing interesting things with second screen angles and replays from your in-stadium seat.
In a “life imitates art” kind of situation, the NBA is doing some interesting things with player tracking technology that kind of makes it look like the video game has become real. Every NBA arena has five or six cameras that track every player movement 25 times per second that gives the coaching staff some amazing data feeds and analytics. Who knows what this will lead to, but there are definitely some awesome possibilities for the in-stadium experience.
Competing Against Each Other
“The Colts always does things on Twitter like ‘Way to win PACERS’ and other supporting things like that. They are definitely not seen as cometition internally,” Dan said. “Together we all rise, we are great as a city and we take care of our fans, by cross promoting simple ‘nice win’ messages you get a good section of fans who follow both or several sports and you get good will and turn others into fans.
According to Tom, IndyEleven established good relationships with other pro sports teams early on and they were amazed at the support from The Colts and the Fever and the Pacers.
“Everybody is competing for entertainment dollars just like the multiplex, but we have sold out our soccer games the same nights as sold out Pacers and Indians games,” Tom said. I think this community is more than big enough to support us all. In the long term vision, the more downtown is vibrant and the more people talk about living in Indy as a cool thing to do is huge for all of us! We should have top-level soccer and hockey and other sports and build Indy as the best place to work, live and play. We are all taking that long view perspective that we have a better quality community than other places and we can all benefit from each other and collaborate, and it helps that Andrew Luck is a soccer fan!”
CAPTION for Top Photo: (left to right) Rob Laycock, Vice President of Marketing at Pacers Sports & Entertainment; Dan Plumlee, Director of Interactive Media with The Indianapolis Colts; and Tom Dunmore, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Operations at Indy Eleven Professional Soccer were the featured panelists for New Economy New Rules in March.
— Tim Pulliam (@pulliatn) March 6, 2015