Sports clubs need to grow their fan base, fill their grounds and sell more merchandise, food and drink. As David Reed discovers, regardless of the type of sport, using customer data and CRM systems is beginning to create a level playing field for clubs to compete against other leisure options.
Northants Cricket only has 55 playing days in the year, so rain is a problem. The Original Bowling Company finds its centres empty if the sun shine, so it prays for rain (see case study on p14). That contrast explains why sports clubs face very different challenges when it comes to managing their customers. In both of those examples, business used to come from visitors who were effectively anonymous - buying admission, food and drink without any need to provide personal information.
Cricket as a whole has been behind the curve in CRM and data terms. All that is starting to change as a result of the England and Wales Cricket Board introducing a consultant to all 18 counties to help kick-start a change. As Lena Hall, head of marketing for Northants Cricket, points out, building knowledge of its fans is critical. “From sport-wide research, we know that 77 per cent of people only visit once a year and 12 per cent come twice a year. Their average age is 57 - so we need to make cricket exciting to juniors,” she told a conference organised by Green4 Solutions in June.
That will not be an easy task. “We have members who pay by cheque through the post and won’t give out even a landline number,” said Hall. Among spectators of twenty20 cricket, just 8.6 per cent have provided permissoned data. There are other problems, too - 62 per cent of tickets for t20 matches are still sold within two weeks of the fixture.
“Any sign of rain affects people buying and attending. We need clear weather or it makes people wait and buy their ticket on the gate,” she said. There is a growing body of visitors on a family day out, something the sport is looking to build on. “We need to focus on making it into an event because 31 per cent are there as a family,” said Hall. Price has helped, with t20 matches costing just £50 for two adults and two under-16s.
“We have identified the lack of data capture processes, particularly around ticket s,” said Hall, “so we are looking to develop our system in order to increase our use of email and reduce our use of print, because that is very hard to measure.” Problems on the existing database were also notable - Northants Cricket apparentl y had 27 Mickey Mouses among its 40,000 gross names. When netted down, it actually had 25,000 usable contacts.
Hall noted that one of the problems was that “there was no data ownership in the business. The board didn’t get the concept. So we had to develop a strategy and a set of objectives.” A new CRM system from Green4 was implemented which supports segmentation and personalised trigger campaigns.
The objective is to make the club customer-led and data-focused. By improving engagement levels through its marketing, the intention is to drive both match-day and non-match revenues. “We need to create demand so people commit to buying a ticket, we retain those customers and understand when they return,” said Hall. A major renovation of the ground has helped through the creation of new revenue streams, from enlarged dining rooms to executive boxes. “CRM is now the hub of the business,” she said.
There is a similar story at Bristol City FC. “We have shaped the business to embrace CRM,” commercial director Kevin Smith told the same conference. But he admitted that the club is only one-third of the way through its journey. A core part of its strategy is to “create sales people” at every level of the business by providing them with enabling tools via the CRM system u sing the same solution as Northants Cricket.
“Everybody needs to understand what we are trying to do and that we have got to increase sales through increasing the number of fans, sales and revenue,” said Smith. The club undertook a data review into its existing database. “We had been told it held 400,000 records with email and mobile phone numbers, but that was not true. So we had to make difficult decisions, such as deleting records, which was a concern because the number of duplicates had an impact on our net number.”
Like many sports organisations, Bristol City was running a standalone ticketing system, an access control system and separate engines for email and SMS broadcasting. “We decided that we needed to build a CRM system - but nobody understood what that meant. The football club couldn’t even spell CRM. Another problem was that we had people who we could email and text or not and fans who we didn’t know who they were,” said Smith.
Football clubs have focused on aligning their ticketing and access control systems so they can provide a return to the Football League of their crowd numbers. Accounts also handled corporate sales and sponsors via a separate system, while merchandise sales from the club shop and website were also on their own system. In addition, the club had 50,000 members of its online community to consider. “We had silos and individual groups of people using systems as and when they needed,” admitted Smith.
A plan was drawn up that would connect those silos and allow the club to develop a loyalty programme. It was also an objective to resolve the fact that every department was using data, but nobody owned it. “We had to get buy-in from the start by everybody. We also needed a culture of cross- and up-selling,” he said.
“It is simple to say you want to change behaviour, it is very challenging to do it,” noted Smith. But the goal was a significant one - Bristol City plays to 12,000 fans in a stadium with a 20,000 capacity. If every function could be aligned, those extra 8,000 seats might get filled. Promotions are starting to be used, such as giving 40 fans who had gone to every away game a free ticket to the match against Charlton Athletic. (Smith joked that this reward was of questionable value as Bristol City lost 4-1.)
Communication with staff was vital to ensure they viewed the new system as an enabler and understood what it would allow them to do. “Data is the boring bit. We had spreadsheets, databases, documents and we just had to bite the bullet. So we took six data interns on rolling contracts for six months. Some of that work was spectacularly dull, like data cleansing, whereas other aspects are more interesting, such as when you get to use it,” he said.
Improving data quality was a key goal, with staff clearly told why it mattered for them to ask fans for their email or mobile phone number. During the data cleanse, it emerged that the existing database was supposed to have an email address for 98 per cent of fans and a mobile number for 42 per cent. “That can’t be true,” said Smith. Internal league tables were created to help incentivise different functions to undertake data capture and validation.
“Don’t be afraid of CRM. But since we’ve moved it into every department, we don’t use the term anymore,” he adds. The club is now starting to see a return on its investment, including through corporate sales and sponsorship. Previously, it had never undertaken any B2B marketing.
The whole programme is expected to take two years, with food and drink the next target to identify fans at point of sale and encourage them to arrive earlier and enjoy hospitality in the ground. While football clubs are rarely affected by the weather, they still face similar issues of limited match days. Maximising revenue opportunities is therefore critical, which is what CRM and customer data is all about, come rain or shine.