by Dave Wakeman, Special to Ticket News
I’ve been on a year long pursuit of an idea which I think could have a positive impact on the way that our fans buy, engage, and feel about sports.
For the last few years, everywhere we turn we hear an on-going chorus of statistics about the health of sports business:
- The record revenues
- The ratings that were always rising
- The social media numbers
- The franchise valuations
On and on this chorus of information went. Until one day, all of those numbers and statistics kept coming in and but they started to feel false.
All we needed to do was turn on our TVs to see stadiums that were more empty than full.
We saw ratings dip and dive.
We saw desperation set in on the business side, especially the business side not focused on TV with super discounts, falsified attendance numbers, and any other seemingly logical storyline that would buy cover.
Which brings me back to this idea I have been struggling with for most of the year, which in a nutshell would harness the power of the entire sports business ecosystem to refocus on customers, marketing, and creating magical experiences.
As I’ve been having conversations around the world about the state of ticketing and the opportunities that are available to “disrupt” ticketing, a few words keep coming up over and over again like data, disruption, and distribution.
On the surface, these are all ideas that should be incredibly helpful.
Having more information about the people that are coming to our games and attending our events should be a great way to find out what they like, what they want, and what can draw them in.
Disruption is one of those words that is thrown out because anytime a business model is under stress, someone wants to actively upend it.
Distribution, in theory, is that great cudgel of ambiguity that will enable anyone to find you no matter where they are.
The challenge with these 3 ideas and many of the others of the same ilk is that they are often meaningless and often are used to hide from the really tough work that would lead to real change.
Put them in context, have you ever heard the term: “No one gets fired for hiring IBM.” Or, “We can’t go wrong by hiring the Harvard MBA.”
Same logic applies.
If everyone else is doing it, how can we be questioned.
That’s the challenge, we have all fallen in line to the point that the only decisions that are being made are the ones that could easily fall into “conventional wisdom.”
The problem with “conventional wisdom” lies in the area that without constant testing of ideas, norms, and expectations, we become lulled into complacency and slowly what is best or correct is neither and we find ourselves in a bind.
Which when you look at attendance at a lot of sports is where we are. A point where we have a lot of “conventional wisdom” in place and results that are slip sliding away at an alarming rate.
This gets me back to the concepts of disruption, data, and distribution that have become the holy grail of sports business lately.
The fact is that these ideas aren’t going to change anything at all. In fact, if we aren’t careful, they could be another noose that throws us further behind the other industries and entertainment options that we are competing against.
If we take a quick look at all 3 of these ideas, we can see the side of the conventional, but we can also see an inkling of a number of different ideas that could be much more beneficial.
Data is the word du jour.
Everyone is discussing Big Data. Small Data is a term that means the opposite of Big Data.
Doesn’t matter where you are, data is going to save.
This is the promise of the internet and the vast array of tools that we have at our disposal.
We can collect data from every interaction.
We can learn from every touch point.
We can and should get every scrap of data that exists in the universe in the context and outside of the context of our audiences and prospects…just to be safe.
The thing about this is that for most of us, we are already swimming in data from all kinds of sources.
Doesn’t matter as long as we have data.
The challenge is that we may be missing the point with all of this hot pursuit of data. Because data is great for one thing: analysis.
What data isn’t very good for is connection.
What we have seen more and more in sports business is that we are struggling more and more to generate, build, and maintain connection with our customers, our fans, and our communities over longer and longer periods of time.
This is usually explained away by the idea that “winning will solve everything.”
Unfortunately that isn’t true.
I went to the University of Alabama. No one that knows me, follows me, or comes into contact with me will be surprised by that statement.
We’ve been on one of the all-time great runs of success over the last decade with Nick Saban as coach. Which when coupled with the Bear Bryant years means that the University of Alabama is pretty synonymous with college football success.
But that doesn’t mean that Alabama hasn’t been struggling to fill seats, keep the seats full, or maintain the passion for the product on the field. In 2015, Nick Saban went on one of his better rants about the need for fans to support the team.
When you are winning at the clip of an Alabama, you aren’t wrong to expect that the support would be there.
But winning hasn’t been a salve for teams like the Nationals that are struggling in the middle of the attendance rankings year after year despite putting a championship contending team on the field every year and always being willing to spend money to improve the squad.
Or, if you look at the Pittsburgh Steelers that were called out by Roger Goodell about their fans not showing up.
The thing about the rush of never-ending data is that it is likely to lead to more and more decisions that feel like and are made in a vacuum.
Seth Godin wrote about an ice-cream shop in Canada that definitely undercharges for their ice cream, smiles and grins while serving, and opens up an opportunity for joy from patrons.
Then he turns around and discusses what might happen if the MBA types got ahold of the store with their spreadsheets and realized that they could charge $8 for an ice cream cone?
That’s the challenge with data.
It empowers our worst type of thinking.
It emboldens us to make the decisions on pricing, experience, and connection that are born out by data.
It doesn’t encourage us to approach the decisions like humans that are trying to connect with other humans.
And, if we are being honest, how many of us have questioned the idea of selling out completely to Budweiser because the numbers make sense. Or, charging $12 for a large Bud Light?
How would our approach to our customers and fans change if we instead took the opposite approach to the use of data?
What if we decided that we wanted to offer up reasonably priced food and beverage choices like at the Mercedes Benz stadium in Atlanta? Then figure out if it worked by understanding what happened because of the decision?
Or, instead of going standard stadium fair, what would happen if we decided to try and delight fans with local options and a sense of location like the Dolphins and Marlins have done in Miami?
The data may say one thing, but what would your human side tell you?
Data doesn’t typically help with delight. But maybe it isn’t supposed to.
Having sat through countless ticketing presentations and data dumps over the past year, I have heard every spin on the idea that distribution is going to save ticket sales that I think I have the heart for.
Here’s the gist of them in the tl;dr form:
“Distribution will save us all!”
Unfortunately, that isn’t really true. Or, it hasn’t seemed to play out in a way that is actually being super successful right now.
The idea that just having tickets just show up in more places and that will help drive more sales is built off of the same logic that seems to be driving the never ending crush of banner ads, retargeting, and other “best” practices that have been proven to make consumers less and less likely to convert their attention into purchases.
The fact is that distribution is pretty all encompassing as it is.
We don’t really have a challenge in having tickets show up almost anywhere.
With all of the digital tools that the primary and secondary markets have access to, the idea that someone isn’t going to find the place to buy tickets is not really believable at this point.
What I get the sense of is that when we here “distribution” that what we really mean to say is “attention.”
Which are really two different ideas.
I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of different people at ticketing companies on both sides of the business and one of the big issues that they come back with is that people don’t go to more events or shows because of “awareness.”
The way that “awareness” is talked about to me is that people don’t realize that a show, a game, or an event is happening.
I’ve been on the end of that because I didn’t know Tom Petty was playing the 9:30 Club and I was pissed! Who wouldn’t want to see Tom Petty at a 1,500 person venue?
If you drill into this a little bit, you realize that distribution and awareness have a missing link that should act as the connective tissue for most marketing and advertising, specificity.
What almost all of us are struggling with is the specificity. The idea that we can get our product or service or whatever in front of the people that want it at the time they are willing to commit to buying.
Distribution won’t help with specificity.
Not at all.
It will only help with the idea of more means more.
This is important because it is easy to become convinced that we can just do more advertising, more pay-per-click, more banners, more whatever.
The thing is that this stuff is less and less effective and really hurts your ability to differentiate yourself from any of the other 5,000 ads that the average American sees in any given day.
So I don’t think the answer is more distribution. That’s a simple, size matters argument that is both easy and lazy.
I think that the answer to the distribution issue and the attention issue lies in a better ability to control and use the means of community and connection with your audience.
Which isn’t a distribution issue, but one of marketing. One of branding. One of community building.
The point here being that instead of flat out distribution, we need to instead focus on the actual work of building communities, building strong brands, and consistent marketing that is proactive and not passive or reactive.
In my travels this year, I had a chance to learn about a company called Tickets 4 Less in Kansas. What is amazing about them is that they are in the secondary market, in an incredibly competitive environment and that they are bucking the trend in the secondary market because they are able to make 30-40% of their sales through their own website.
This is at a time when more and more, secondary market sales happen primarily on StubHub, SeatGeek, Ticketmaster, or one of the other big sites.
You don’t do this with passive or reflexive actions.
You do this by actively cultivating an audience. You do it by consistently and specifically delivering your marketing message.
Compare that to any number of digital marketing efforts from teams, leagues, and sellers: you’ll see a difference.
The communications are inconsistent.
The communications are built around no value added.
The messages aren’t at all focused or targeted towards any of my specific data points.
These are all missed opportunities because the thing is with specificity you help deliver a much better likelihood that your buyer won’t be price sensitive.
By knowing and communicating to your customers with specificity, you differentiate yourself. You build trust and you get the opportunity to make yourself unique.
I’ve got another friend, a broker in Texas that told me specifically, he doesn’t want his audience to be everyone. He wants just specific customers because he is off the price driven customer carousel and can develop meaningful relationships, connections, and provide service that differentiates him from others.
So when I hear distribution thrown out as the gospel, I am really pretty sure that there is something much harder that distribution is being substituted for.
That’s connection and commitment.
The ultimate buzzword of late is disruption.
Every industry seems to have an example of disruption.
In cars, we have Tesla.
In retail, Amazon.
In the White House, we have Donald Trump who built a whole campaign about disrupting the status quo.
The thing about this buzz word and the idea that underlies it is that it is pretty meaningless unless there is something specific attached to it.
That begs the question: When sports and sports business says disruption, what does it really mean?
For many, I am sure it is a catch all term that is meant to convey the idea that they are willing to try anything.
As a decided fan of FDR’s approach to tackling “The Great Depression” when he said the following:
I’m all for trying things, seeing what happens, and moving on quickly to the next idea if success isn’t forthcoming.
In the case of “disruption” that idea should be embraced and utilized.
The challenge comes for many of us by being trapped by conventional wisdom. The same sort of conventional wisdom that manifests in our love affair with data, no matter what and has led to a seemingly endless amount of me-too practices that even when they don’t work are still offered up as the one and only solution because that’s what everyone knows.
When I talk about disruption and change in the areas of sports business, I fall back onto the idea that what is really meant by disruption has become a catch-all for ideas that aren’t really sound, don’t really have a theoretical backbone in the context of sports business, and enables people to offer up the idea that “disruption” means that no one could possibly know what to do with any certainty.
In reality, uncertainty is a fact of life in all businesses. It is the need to try and create a sense of certainty that has driven a sameness in sports business that has weakened brands, forced too many sales teams to have identical structures and procedures, and driven a sense of dullness into too many live event experiences at a point when consumers are telling us loudly and clearly that they will spend money on experiences.
True innovation and disruption in sports can’t and won’t be easy, but nothing of the sort really is.
But when I hear disruption and sports business offered up, I’m often concerned that disruption is being used as a way to nibble around the edges when the truth is that a really disruptive force in sports would look incredibly different than what is being offered.
Think about the buying process.
We know that for the most part season tickets as we have come to term them are dead. Most of the STHs are now brokers and that selling to brokers is a risk mitigation strategy because it helps guarantee revenue.
Yet, most of the sales processes that we have in place are developed almost with disregard of that fact.
We still have 100 cold calls a day as a meaningful metric.
We still focus too much of our energy on experiences and values that are meaningful to us, but which may not be meaningful to our potential buyers.
The thing is that a truly disruptive buying process would you a holistic communication strategy to engage potential buyers.
Instead of cookie cutter packages, season tickets, or discount “subscriptions,” we would focus our attention on driving sales earlier in the process. Because as any of us know, buyers are waiting longer and longer to buy at which point any number of factors can shut down your ability to make a sale.
Disruption in the sales process might mean that buying tickets early gets you access to something special at the stadium. Maybe reverse the discounts and discount earlier for buying earlier.
Disruption might put more of an emphasis on using your newsletters and email lists as active selling opportunities, not passive where we provide a link to upcoming games.
This list could go on and on.
There’s no limit to your potential creativity.
Another area where disruption should be a constant thought is in the in-game experience.
We fall back on the thought that our real competition is between our venue and the couch.
That’s not necessarily true.
Our competition is between us and every other entertainment option in the world.
The Internet has opened that door where we aren’t just fighting for someone to get off the couch, we are fighting for their attention…period.
This means that if we are truly being disruptive, we need to create an environment where we can earn our customers’ attention.
You aren’t going to do that by having disengaged ticket takers, ushers, and concession workers.
What could we do to create a festival environment when people came to our games?
How can we compete with local restaurants and bars?
How do we answer the question that drives all buying decisions? “What’s the best value for my time and money?”
I think a truly disruptive in-stadium experience begins from the time a person starts thinking about going to the game until they are leaving and beyond.
In DC, we have this phenomenon of Metro closing pretty early for a major city and the Nationals having to broadcast a message warning fans that they might be stranded if they don’t leave on time.
How’s that going to make you feel?
Its not an easy challenge to overcome, but would it be worthwhile to come up with a solution?
What about the experience you want your fans to encounter when they arrive at the ballpark?
Do you want the entrance to be pleasant? Is it worth it to you and your customers to encourage friendliness and caring in their interactions with the fans and customers?
The same goes for the food & beverage experience. The merchandise experience.
On and on and on.
Disruption of the in-game experience would require an entire reimagining of the experience and likely would have less emphasis on clubs, and amenities, and more on the connection, community, and humanity of going to a game.
We could sit here and go through every particular aspect of the sports experience in person, on TV, and throughout every touch point.
The key with all of them would be how do we put more humanity back into the process, more connection, and more specificity.
Really, when you look at the industry as a whole, it isn’t so much about data, disruption, or distribution at all. It is really about people, pure and simple. Not how we can dissect them more, but how we can connect with them more.
What say you?
BTW, if you like this stuff and the stuff I usually post, I do a Sunday email that talks all about value, connection, and humans. You can get that for free by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org