Today is opening day for Major League Baseball!
As March Madness begins drawing to an end, baseball season is just beginning. Around the country today (and here in Atlanta), millions of fans are getting ready for months of excitement, endless fun, and for some cases, heartbreak.
Sports, in general, are adept at drawing the most passionate, most loyal individuals under the banner of one brand. Fans will structure their schedules, their budgets, and their social lives around their favorite team’s playing season. So why aren’t loyalty programs more prevalent amongst various sports franchises who have such loyal fanbases?
Part of the reason is simply that the fanbase is already there. In the past, professional sports franchises excluded more traditional customer engagement strategies since their fanbases generate their own loyalty. When we think of typical loyalty programs the dominant mental image which comes to mind is the retail sector. Monetary benefits and discounts are the primary benefits. Retail loyalty programs focus on obtaining customers and nurturing a budding emotional connection. Meanwhile, professional sports teams already possess the emotional attachments from fans. Typically the reasons fans are passionate about a particular franchise is much different from the reasons they’re loyal to a retail brand.
Fan loyalty is built on a personal connection to a particular sports franchise. It’s passed down within families or by marriage or from attending a specific school. Oftentimes it’s geographically based and the value is the fan experience. Surrounding yourself with thousands of equally excited fans, watching favorite athletes live in-person, the thrill when your favorite player executes the perfect play. Think about it: when was the last time you heard someone say they are loyal to a team because that team saved them the most money?
No, loyalty among sports fans is driven by an entirely different set of values and goals. But that doesn’t mean that sports franchises shouldn’t ignore mainstream loyalty engagement tactics.
So Why Should Loyalty Programs Be Important For Sports Franchises?
Sports teams possess the most passionate and arguably loyal fans. But “fan loyalty” doesn’t always turn into “customer loyalty.” This is another case of attitudinal loyalty vs. behavioral loyalty. An individual can be a devoted fan of a specific sports franchise, but their dedication doesn’t always extend to spending money on game tickets. This is especially true now that better TVs, social media, and rapid adoption of live-streaming brings the game to the audience – instead of the audience to the game.
Sports franchises should establish their own loyalty programs to reward their existing fans and to encourage them towards ideal fan behavior – purchasing game tickets. Instead of solely trying to build their fan base, sports loyalty programs can focus on enriching the current customer experience.
Using Consumer Data
One of the top trends for future loyalty programs is the adoption of personalization. When competition for customer attention and wallet share is fiercer than ever, marketers need to personalize their consumer rewards more than ever.
While more sports franchises are beginning to adopt loyalty programs, these programs are often fragmented or isolated in their ability to utilize accumulated customer data. Retailers are proficient at developing systems for cultivating consumer data. This helps them deliver more personalized content through the most effective channels. Loyalty programs must be fully integrated into the sports franchise program in order to best utilize available fan consumer data.
Sports loyalty programs still need to develop their own individual methods for gathering customer data. Following the retail sector, which primarily focuses on digital channels, can lead to the exclusion of specific consumer segments. While digital channels are the easiest method they’re not 100% reliable. A life-long season ticket holder who is 70 years old might not possess much of a digital presence. Sports franchises might fail to reward their most loyal customers if they are not inclusive of all types of consumers.
Create The Right Rewards
One struggle sports loyalty programs have in common with retail loyalty programs is incorporating the right rewards for their customers.
Rewards for sports fans shouldn’t follow retail programs which typically give away material items as freebies. True, sports merchandise is fun to receive. Serious sports fans almost always have some kind of memorabilia on their walls. However, the true value of being a sports fan comes from the live-game experiences, which can’t be replicated in any fashion. Again, the goal of sports franchises is for their fans to purchase season tickets. Any rewards or perks for loyal sports fans should be geared towards elevating their in-person experience at a game.
The fan experience in sports is a great way to personalize rewards. Fans find more value in experiences they can’t receive or replicate anywhere else. Exclusivity is a big attractor, especially among truly dedicated fans considered VIPs. For example, exclusive access to watch pregame warm-ups or the opportunity to upgrade their seats for better live-game viewing are significant ways to add-on to the fan experience.
Above all, sports loyalty programs need to follow the foundations of any great loyalty program. It needs to reward the ideal fan behavior, make their methods for earning rewards simple to understand, and deliver coveted rewards centered around the fans.
If you’re attending Opening Day, be sure to check out if your team has a loyalty program you can join!