NEW YORK—George Steinbrenner once said about home run legend Reggie Jackson: “He puts fannies in the seats.”

Most sports teams don’t have to do a lot of marketing to get fans into their stadiums and arenas—their superstars do it for them. And if they don’t have superstars in a given season, well, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, “we’re all rooting for laundry.”


Specifically, laundry sporting brand names, player names, brand colors and logos, as well as memorabilia with brand logos. Even bad sports teams have corporate sponsors that pay for luxury suites to woo preferred clients and prospective clients.

“We didn’t have a problem filling the arena even during the years our team was bad,” noted Kenny Lauer, director of digital and marketing for the Golden State Warriors, during a panel discussion at the 2015 CRM Evolution digital marketing conference held here.

There isn’t a consumer brand out there that wouldn’t give anything for that kind of loyalty. So what can your average brand do to instill the kind of passion and lifelong allegiance that sports brands generate?

Here are strategies the sports marketers themselves, even with such rabid customer engagement, are using to sell more merchandise, connect with new generations of fans, sell more food and drinks, and even help connect fans with team sponsors.

Tell Stories with Your Content

Every team has its legends, its heroes, its glorious past. For my team it was Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle (Mickey Mantle!!), but I bet your team has a bit of history as well. And what successful teams do is create stories out of that history.

“At the end of the day, we’re content generators,” says Fiona Green, director and cofounder of sports consulting firm Winners FDD Ltd. “Find what’s unique about your product or service that you can turn into content that might allow you to tap into somebody’s passion. Find some part of your industry that some people might be passionate about, no matter how geeky it is, and try to work that up, generate content, and take people with you in the same way that the teams and clubs are able to take fans with them on a longer journey.”

Make Marketing a Team Sport at Your Company

Employee loyalty and enthusiasm are very important to creating passionate advocates for your brand, says James Cudney, senior vice president of IT systems and administration at Madison Square Garden.

Customer relationship marketing “isn’t about just one department within a company being responsible for it. It’s every employee’s responsibility. It’s not just marketing or your CRM or ticketing or your products area.”

As an example, he says it’s important to train employees on how to use social media and to get them to participate in a way that generates new forms of data that can be used in conjunction with transactional data. That way, their interactions on social media can generate new data sets about the relevant interests of their online connections.

Don’t Be Afraid to Use All Available Data

The basis of marketing for most clubs and leagues is their transactional data, most of it stored in conventional CRM applications.

But new forms of data, such as insights drawn from social media activity, accrete new types of information—not just about season ticket holders and other known aficionados, but also about people who might not be in your CRM system, like friends who are given tickets by season ticket holders, or people who live too far away to ever come to a game.

“CRM is traditionally about ticket data and ticket sales,” says Amie Becton Ray, director of database marketing and strategy at the NHL. “Very recently a lot of us have started to realize that all this other [social] data is very useful and it’s not really that scary to put in. A lot of people are hesitant to add data to their ticket sales data because it’s their gold, but you just have to start small, add the next most valuable piece, then the next one after that.”

Use Data to Improve the Customer Experience in Clever Ways

Sports teams can combine data from different sources to create unforgettable fan experiences. For example, one team combined data from traditional customer experience systems with data from social and analytics to present a fan with a piece of memorabilia signed by her father’s favorite player in time for his birthday.

You as a marketer outside sports might not think you can top that, but maybe you can. Maybe an article of clothing, or a trip to Jamaica, or an accessory for a customer’s favorite make and model car would do the trick. It’s a matter of experimenting with new tools and thinking creatively.

For example, the Golden State Warriors (of which Oracle is a sponsor) webcasts some practices over Google Hangouts to allow fans to participate in practices. “We use social to somewhat democratize our engagement,” Lauer says.

Social media might seem like opening the floodgates to fan interaction, drowning the opportunities for personalized contact.

But organizations of all types must monitor and moderate their social channels, and interact with customers selectively. “Just because you can’t reply to all of them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reply to one of them,” Green says.

Lauer expects to see new opportunities to engage with fans using augmented reality, virtual reality games, and what’s known as quantified self, the combination of wearable computing and analytics.

Sports, he says, “is going to be a place to watch how data can impact business” in the next two to three years.


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