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Why the sports industry needs to wake up to mobile

Sam Windridge, Head of Commercial Development UK & Ireland, has seen the changing shape of the sports industry over the past two decades. He shares his insight on what’s next for sports marketing. 

Let me start by telling you a little bit about who I am. I worked in sports marketing for many years before joining, and that’s given me a lot of insight into how the industry really works. 

Most recently, I headed up the commercial team for London Irish and wrote the commercial strategies for the stadium move from Reading to Brentford. That involved ticketing models, price plans, the migration of supporters, and also the ticketing platform tender process… ticketing is important, so bear with me.  

Prior to that, I ran Brighton Racecourse, driving attendance by adding to the customer experience and using innovative pricing to drive revenue. And before that, I spent five years at Fulham football club, working across Fulham and the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, bringing new technology to their booking and data processing systems.

But wherever I’ve worked in the sports industry, technology has always been the constant. That’s because sports clubs and venues tend to be run by small, passionate teams, but sports clubs tend to be supported by large numbers of passionate fans. The maths just doesn't add up. Over time – if you’re successful and sometimes even if you’re not – you need to do more and more with the same small team of people. You need to be nimble. That’s why technology and automation are essential.

Email is king… for now…

Over the past ten years or so, the awareness that data and digital transformation is the way forward has started to creep into the industry, but while email marketing has come on in leaps and bounds, it’s still fairly rudimentary. Poor implementations are skewing results and data is still not being properly shared across organisations. If you look at the Olympics, with the introduction of skateboarding and BMX, you can see there’s a new breed of millennial and Gen Z sports fans who don’t communicate in the same way as older fans. Traditional email communication isn’t going to cut it for them. 

We know that every fan wants to feel like they're unique, every supporter wants to feel like they're the most important person in the stadium. And they want to feel like they have a direct route to the organisation. That kind of hyper-personalisation just doesn't work unless you find a way to automate and innovate.

The problem is that, in most sports clubs and venues, you’re working day-to-day. You’re on the hamster wheel from weekend, to weekend, to weekend. With the best will in the world, if you want to innovate and you want to find new systems and new platforms, you've got a very small window to do it in. It’s not for a lack of vision, or will, or excitement, it’s purely a lack of resource and, historically of course, there’s always been this belief that it’s what happens on the pitch that drives attendance. I agree that you can’t out-market a poorly performing team, but you can deliver fantastic customer experiences and make the losses a little more palatable. 

Clubs are rarely focused on the medium term. It’s all about what’s happening next week or what’s happening in five years’ time. It’s either, ‘let’s fix the broken seats in the stadium,’ or, ‘let’s build a new stadium.’ There’s rarely anything in between and that’s why new technology sometimes falls between the cracks. Most clubs are resistant to technological change and that’s largely because if they change something and it breaks, the fans will let you know about it. Sticking with a tried and tested system won’t move things forward, but it will keep the fans off their backs, which also comes down to resource. Everyone is so stretched they feel like they can’t afford the headache of onboarding new technology.

The COVID effect

COVID has changed things. There’s been a bit of (admittedly unwelcome) breathing space for the industry and now people are starting to realise that they’re missing a piece of the tech puzzle. Right now, the whole customer service experience is bound by an inbound telephone number, or an email - ‘[email protected]’ – it’s those email inboxes that everyone dives into and tries to manage each day. That invariably means that the most complex or fraught issues get handed around the team and aren’t resolved quickly. On top of the mountain of emails, you have literally hundreds of inbound calls per day with little real process other than some passionate people who are trying to make it work with pure grit and determination. 

Additionally, you have a focus on ticket purchases that neglects a huge chunk of the supporter experience that continues up until match day and beyond. That, to me, is the really interesting part. In the last week I've spoken to three clubs that are saying the customer service system they have now might limp through the next three months, but that they need a new solution in place very soon. One ground was saying inbound calls are up 400% post-COVID and call duration is up 300%. The reason for that is pretty simple: people are asking more complex questions about how to get to the grounds and about what systems are in place post-COVID. These are the sorts of questions that are easily handled with some customer service software, or a chatbot, for example. And what about outbound communication? That can head off some of those complex questions, too.

Putting sport at the heart of the conversation

A fantastic ticketing platform will always be the bedrock, the most important piece of tech for sports clubs, but adding in payments enriches the data you can gather. And then, of course, a Customer Data Platform (CDP) is essential to make good use of that data. We saw that at the Dutch Grand Prix, where we were able to gather 10m data points, aggregate them into over 300,000 data profiles, and bring it all together to create genuine, actionable insight. 

What we're doing with chatbots and voice really brings personalisation into play and, right now, we’re looking at ticket purchases within WhatsApp. We’re taking this traditional view of marketing, where you drive people to a website to buy a ticket, and turning it on its head by bringing the tickets to the channels the customers are using day-to-day.

Sport is at the heart of a lot of conversations. A lot of conversations during the weekend and a lot of conversations in the workplace. When everyone turns up on a Monday morning and says, “Did you see the game at the weekend?”, it's a uniting, relationship-building, shared experience. Sport, probably more than any other vertical, is perfectly placed to take advantage of the concept of conversational commerce, because sport is about conversation and interaction and relationships. Bring all of that together and the opportunity to grow revenue becomes hugely exciting. 

We know that email as we know it will be dead in five years and we also know that no other ticketing platform sees the value in mobile. We’re a fiercely independent business and that means we can focus on delivering great service and providing the tools that rights holders need to bring real innovation to their ticketing. That’s where our platform really delivers. We see the value of mobile – it’s what we do – and that makes our platform future-proof, and more innovative and powerful than anything else out there.

Are you interested in learning more about what's next for Sports marketing?

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Are you interested in learning more about what's next for Sports marketing?

Speak to an expert Discover more
Sam Windridge
Sam Windridge,
Head of Commercial Development
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Sam is Head of Commercial Development for UK&I. Before joining the, Sam worked in the sports industry heading up commercial teams at London Irish, Fulham Football Club and Arena Racing Company. He is passionate about how technology and automation can enhance the fan experience.

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