Technology is not the Only Way to Market Sports – Remember the Basics

If you listen to the radio, watch TV, use the internet, or actually listen to your friends who are sports fans ramble on about their favorite teams, you would be hard pressed to not hear something about teams spending millions of dollars on this or millions of dollars on that.  In fact, last week’s article touched on the new trend in sports: using technology to enhance the fan experience and increase revenue.  But as millions of dollars are invested in new technology – that will inevitably become obsolete just like the “latest model computer” you bought not too long ago – teams face the threats that an unstable economy will herald and when revenue suffers, among the first orders of the day is the directive to cut technology budgets.  Also, as we learned last week, your competition will eventually catch up to you even if you are a nautical mile or two ahead of them because one’s rivals all ride the same tide of big-ticket technology you do.  So, if there are reductions in the technology budget, how in the world do we differentiate ourselves?

Over the past 20 years or so, we have seen the cathode ray tube television (CRT TV) come and go along with Betamax, VHS, Laser Discs, and the arguably formidable computers of yesteryear. But a runner who falls down in the middle of a great track meet before thousands of onlookers and is hoisted up by his father who comes down from the stands and finally crosses the finish line and feels both the pain of defeat and the true love only a good father has for his son is irreplaceable in the definition of sports and the collective unconscious of all who witnessed or heard of the event.  Such beautiful raw emotion is innate in sport and properties must serve it on a silver platter to their fans by not losing sight of a sport’s emotional capital as they implement a complex technology strategy (among other seemingly more glamorous initiatives.)  While adding mammoth-sized television screens to a stadium in Texas and turning a corporate suite in the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field into a small sports bar and recreation room help enhance the fan experience at the respective venues, nothing comes close to replicating or rivaling the opportunity a fan may have to meet the athletes or even touch the field where the team’s greatest players won and lost.  That never becomes obsolete.

I watched a game from a corporate suite only a month ago and not once worried about running out food or drink or even the weather.  In spite of the top-quality hospitality and amenities (HD TVs, Wi-Fi, etc.), I was most thrilled at the prospect of watching the players warm-up down on the field and actually touching the grass.  My point is that while technology and preferences in technology change over time, the actual sport itself is the greatest attractor and always will be even as different innovations in media and broadcasting see their relative “fifteen minutes” of relevance expire as the new fad enters the fore.  So, as sports marketers embrace technology – and it is necessary to do so because of all of its benefits – they cannot forget the basics.  In the April 12-18 edition of The Sports Business Journal, Professor and Associate Director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton and Associates, Bill Sutton, identified three of the most basic marketing techniques that the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Developmental League implemented to near-perfection in their inaugural season to make the fan experience absolutely unforgettable.

Sutton presented “Reciprocity,” “Active Participation,” and “Organizational Approach and Access” as three of the elements that comprise his definition of “emotional capital.”  In the context of emotional capital, reciprocity means that the property and its athletes truly and effectively recognize and show their appreciation for their fans.  Sutton cites the Notre Dame football team’s tradition of saluting its fans at the end of a game by walking over to the student section and raising their helmets high in the air.  The Red Claws players had their pictures taken with fans and even hugged and high-fived fans who arrived at the Maine Mall to enjoy the one-on-one experience with the players.  Teams do not set enough time aside to have their players actually interact with fans at autograph sessions and other related events.  Properties need to show their fans that they actually care about them.  When families are shelling out between $100 and $200 to enjoy a day at the ballpark just to spend some time together, share in the excitement of watching their favorite team take the field, and detach from the pressures of an unstable economy and the stress of school and work, properties need to show fans that they appreciate being the preferred choice.

Second, “active participation” refers to how fans can experience the team itself and how they can connect with the brand.  This includes access to tickets, merchandise, memorabilia, apparel, and “mascot, dancer, and player appearances for non-game related activities” among others, according to Sutton.  He also adds that the fact that the Red Claws consistently sold out their games and the team recognizes its fans as “Crustacean Nation” goes a long way to proving that the team is doing a good job of encouraging their fans to participate in the game experience itself.  I saw evidence of active participation at a Chicago Fire game I attended.  At one end of the field, the team had two “cheerleaders” who constantly banged on a set of hand drums and led the most rabid fan section’s chants throughout the entire game.  Even though they lost, nearly everyone in attendance (particularly those seated in that very loud section) were visibly excited upon exit.  The atmosphere at a Chicago Fire game is absolutely wonderful from a fan’s perspective.  That is a fine example of a team successfully implementing a plan to amplify active participation.

Finally, Sutton mentions “organizational approach and access.”  This point touches on the notion of “seeing a fan as a customer” in more detail.  According to Sutton, this approach was “pioneered by people like Walt Disney and Bill Veeck.”  As a former employee of the Walt Disney Company, I can attest to the fact that to this day the company still values this ideal and includes it in its core philosophy.  Essentially, marketers and the property’s brass must implement tactics in their overall strategy that will help their fans feel more welcome at their events.  I have always held that a salesperson’s job is not to sell the product, it is simply to have the customer feel welcome in the venue, talk easily and honestly about the goods/services offered, address any concerns the customer may have during their visit, and just enjoy being there.  This transfers to the customer who is there to interact with the product which, by the way, will practically sell itself.  The customer service team just facilitates the interaction with knowledge and grace.  Sutton affirms this by stating that “emotional capital translates [how you feel about something] into action and those actions into dollars.”

All in all, if sports marketers bear the importance of emotional capital in mind as they develop their technology strategy and general marketing strategy, they avoid losing sight of what we are in business for: delivering truly unforgettable experiences to our fans.  “Reciprocity,” “active participation,” and “organizational approach and access” are three basic tenets that – if observed – ensure that your strategy does not overlook the easier stuff while you coordinate a master plan geared at delivering a truly amazing and unforgettable experience that is sharpened by the finest state-of-the-art technology to your fans.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

You may have been wondering “what’s the deal with the ‘work in progress’ status reports I’m reading lately prior to the article actually being published?”  Well, it’s been a tough quarter and more than once I have “fallen asleep at the controls” as I type the article out.  It takes me a few hours to deliver a well-researched article with relevant information that is free of serious spelling and grammatical errors.  I usually type them on Monday evenings, so it is not hard to start dozing off while typing at the computer after a two-and-a-half hour statistics class that lasts until 9:30 PM and a one hour commute home on the train.  Essentially, if you are taking the time to read my work, I want to make sure you get the most out of your experience.  As always, thank you for your support.  The quarter will be over in mid-June… thank goodness.

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