Fan Loyalty Programs in Sports Need to Evolve

May 11, 2016 Mike Evenson

Last week during a routine business trip, I stayed at a Marriott hotel and noticed that they left me a door hanger. This wouldn’t typically be unusual, but what made me look twice was the offer attached to it. It explained that if I passed on having housekeeping clean my room that night, I would automatically earn 500 Marriott points. Considering that it usually takes at least 25,000 points to earn a free stay at even the most basic Marriott, this offer wasn’t surprising for its payoff, but it did force me to consider how loyalty programs need to evolve in sports the same way they have with other major brands.
Loyalty is a sticky concept that a lot of sports teams can take advantage of. A lot of organizations are focused on selling the season ticket, but they can’t forget the passionate community that’s much broader than just those people who can afford to give up the time and money to see the games in person. I used to love going to live football games, but now that I’m older I can’t afford to give up the time needed to watch them play every weekend (not to mention I live hundreds of miles away from my team). That doesn’t mean my loyalty for the team has diminished. Loyalty programs are a way to engage with people without forcing them into the typical—and misrepresented—pinnacle of buying a season ticket, and if done right these programs allow you to learn more about your fans.

Real Time Data Influences Decision Making

Think about Marriott. What happens when I hang their sign on my door? Immediately they’re able to say “we’ve got 24 hangers, so we can cut the hard cost of one housekeeper that night.” They win. I win. All good. But then you have to ask if they’re recording that information in a database to know that I’m the type of person who would take them up on this offer. Now my customer profile says that not only am I someone who is interested in growing how many points I have, but also that I’m willing to compromise a little bit on my hotel experience. Maybe this means that next time I check into a Marriott, I get two towels instead of three. Or maybe they’ll suggest that I take a room with two twin sized beds instead of a single king sized bed, knowing that I’ll take advantage in the hopes of racking up another 500 points. All of these small moves add up to a big operational savings for Marriott. More importantly, however, does Marriott start to build a more robust view of who I am as a member, just because I’m hanging something on my door?

There's No Hard Cost In Creating Value With Data

When you think about building the right CRM profile, there’s a lot of ways you can do it: You can ask for data, you can trade for data, you can buy that data. What would it mean for your sports organization to have data about my favorite sport, the ages and names of my kids, my shirt size, or my annual household income? Would it be worth giving up a midweek ticket to a non-conference basketball game that you’re not going to sell anyway? By giving up nothing in exchange for data that will help you build a profile of your customer, you can then market to them more appropriately. Now that you know I have two kids aged 7 and 4, you’re going to understand that selling me a season ticket isn’t realistic since I’m not in the life stage to be spending 8 Saturdays every fall watching a game live, but you can market things to me that are more appropriate for the customer profile you’ve built.


Look For Data Beyond Your Arena

How you build this profile by offering rewards is up to each individual organization. It could be as simple as having someone engage with your team on social media or giving up information to get points in return. That's the environment that sports teams have already created: Give up to get. In a lot of ways, that’s how fundraising works in college athletics. You give up money, you get to sit closer, you get to buy away game tickets first. But data itself can start to serve as a currency. You’re starting to see sports teams do it, but I would caution that you should look outside of just your venue because you’re leaving out 90% of your fans. Expanding your view on when to engage with fans and how to engage with them will ultimately result in generating revenue.

Want some advice? Start looking at these successful loyalty schemes run by big brands and watch how they are evolving their programs. Companies like Nike, Starbucks, and Frank + Oak have been at the forefront of taking advantage of customer loyalty to build robust profiles of their clients. While decreasing hard costs is definitely a great outcome, using loyalty to build a more robust customer profile is an effective way for your team to sell smarter in the long run. I’m sure I’ll learn that the next time I check into a Marriott.


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