The In-Stadium Fan Experience in MLS

A session summary from SXSW, March 2015


Summary

Fan experiences must be authentic: give them support and freedom, don’t try to contrive or control
Experiment with technology to solve real problems: don’t be scared to try things, give them a shot and evaluate afterwards
Create two-way dialog with fans at all levels of the organisation: fan feedback is critical to success and knowing that you are listening will strengthen their loyalty


On the panel for this session were Adrian Hanauer and Merritt Paulson (owners from the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers respectively), Robb Heineman (CEO of Sporting Club/Sporting Innovations) and Max Bretos (Anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter).

Adrian opened with a remark about the Sounders success in creating a passionate fan-base (both clubs have waitlists for season tickets), which he believes is due to the “authenticity of our experiences and fan base”. The fans take ownership and the organisation hasn’t tried to control the environment. They believe that this has created a “real supporter environment” for the team.

Some of the exciting things that fans started and the club encouraged:
March to the match is a supporter driven 2-mile walk to the stadium on game day. It started with a few fans walking the same route but now has between 2,000–6,000 fans which has required “some more co-ordination”. The march features a local marching band, flares and singing.
The Cauldrons are a dedicated fan base that are very well organised and have about 20 factions. They sell their own merchandise, organise bus tours to attend away games. The club has supported this by offering “free road tickets” to encourage them to keep it up.
Make-a-wish: A young cancer patient was granted a wish to meet players from the club. The club made an event out of it and invited fans (3,000 showed up) and fans encouraged the boy with custom chants.

Treat fans as part of the brand, not just fans of the brand.

The Sounders have been able to identify that their fans are “young, hip and tech friendly”. They made a conscious decision to attract the “cool kids” and let that create a desirable atmosphere for others to follow. They have been very careful to make sure that entertainment does not appear to be “from the suits”, and support fans where they can (e.g. setting aside storage for banners).

Both clubs have been able to enable strong communications between fans and the organisation to create an open dialog and a lot of direct feedback. One has created a “council of advisors” that they engage with on various matters — sometimes to help the fans and sometimes to help the club.

As an owner, it’s critical to know the level of fan engagement on core social platforms, on a daily basis.

The two owners discussed several ways in which fans have developed their own club identity, including:
March to the match is a supporter driven 2-mile walk to the stadium on game day. It started with a few fans walking the same route but now has between 2,000–6,000 fans which has required “some more co-ordination”. The march features a local marching band, flares and singing.
The Cauldrons are a dedicated fan base that are very well organised and have about 20 factions. They sell their own merchandise, organise bus tours to attend away games. The club has supported this by offering “free road tickets” to encourage them to keep it up.
Make-a-wish: A young cancer patient was granted a wish to meet players from the club. The club made an event out of it and invited fans (3,000 showed up) and encouraged the boy with custom chants.

Technology has given the club a much better understanding of fan behaviours. They have been using trials before make commitments and eventually invested in their own stadium Wi-Fi rollout (delivering approximately 1TB of data in the first game). They now know who is in the venue and what they’re doing. They capture about 50–60 fields of data on fans, including what they buy and where they sit. The demographic of MLS fans is typically much younger than that of the NFL (29 y.o. vs ~50 y.o.) and the average age watching the MLB World Series on TV is 59 y.o.

The session ended with the panel discussing some of their technological improvements:

  • Moving from paper to card season tickets: saving the club about 100k annually
  • Cutting edge point-of-sale systems: providing alternative payment options and integrated with CRM system for data capture
  • Fan social engagement: fan billboards, booths to take photos, fan voting on the billboard
  • Ask-me-anything: Using long flights to allow fans to ask questions of staff and athletes over social channels