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College Sports – A Paradigm Shift is Coming through Marketing, Social Media and Technology

Christine Stoffel's picture

The world of college sports has grown over the years to be a key part of the business operation. The sports programs have grown and the dollars generated have followed suit. We all know how much technology influences us, but few understand how dramatically technological innovations are affecting our world. Technology is changing the way we are marketed to, communicated with and the way our fans, the consumers, get information, who in turn share the information through social media technologies with their friends and families. Every corner of the world is connected through technology.

In an interview with Pat Coyle of Coyle Media, he stated “Whether we're talking about college or professional sports, I see the same challenging dynamics in the sports marketing industry: Technology is changing fast; fans' experiences, expectations and behaviors are changing too; but sports properties typically lag behind both the technology and the fans, sometimes making big changes only after the technology and the fans have moved on to the next thing. I don't see this as a sustainable practice. It seems to me what's needed most is an infusion of sound business and marketing fundamentals, with a large dollop of digital thinking: Seek first to deliver value to customers, and consider technology as a means to a business end, not as an end it itself.”

Pat further commented “To do this right we need to understand which fans have the most value to our organizations, and we need to deliver more personalized value to each.”

To accomplish this, many in the industry believe college athletic programs are looking to completely revamp their organizational structures, breaking down walls between departments and putting the fan experience first.

Technology shifts control to the fan, yet most sports organizations remain more focused internally than externally. This is expected to change over time as today's younger tech savvy leaders’ rise into positions of authority. The next generation of leaders, those who grew up digital, will (hopefully) allow digital thinking to permeate organizations rather than be sequestered in digital or IT departments.

In a conversation with Chris Freet, Associate AD for Communication & Marketing, University of Miami Athletics, he stated “At Miami, the Hurricanes Ticket Office and Marketing departments believe they have reached the tipping point for digital sales. UM only dabbled in the digital realm prior to the current fiscal year. They had a presence but it was inconsistent. Now UM updates its digital marketing weekly, daily and on some days hourly. And UM has fully committed all of its hard dollars to digital and digital only. If UM is spending money on advertising they require a direct and trackable ROI metric. “

That devotion to digital aligned with the emergence of the basketball team into a Final Four contender has helped UM find a few untapped ticket buying funnels, while obtaining richer data than ever before. To the Hurricanes surprise, that has also translated into a stronger than ever surge of early online renewals in both football (for fall of 2013) and basketball (for 2013-14).

Freet stated “The next step for UM is data mining for prospective new buyers after basketball season and building a CRM system that caters to the habits and needs of their customers.”

Another indicator of how college athletics are changing and seeing the value of technology in the athletics industry, simply look at the recent evolution of position titles in college sports such as the recent promotion of Jim Null, previously the Director of IT Athletics for Ohio State University with a newly announced promotion to “CIO for Athletics Technology” at Ohio State. Another great example where collegiate sports is transitioning is looking at the role Steve Hanks is in for Arizona State University as “Associate Athletic Director of Revenue.”

The college industry’s use of technology is growing significantly and becoming dependent upon Wi-Fi, DAS, mobile apps, loyalty, CRM and new marketing/selling tools.

As we continued our research into the ticketing technology of collegiate sports we see many colleges leveraging Paciolan and the strong technology platform powered by technology partner SSB. Ticketing systems have advanced by creating better seat maps, better shopping cart experiences but a great deal of effort today, is going into the data side of the equations. Teams are implementing CRM systems and in some cases data warehouses. The college ticketing operations are starting to look more like the ticketing operations of the professional sports teams.

David Payne, Senior Technology Strategist – Athletics, University of Oklahoma comments “At OU we are actively looking at moving our CRM in a direction that will help us engage with our customers and as a tool to foster two-way communication by integrating it with Social Media. Our hope is that we can be better at proactively maintaining relationships with prospective students as well as with fans of the sports teams.”

Colleges are becoming more proactive in selling tickets by utilizing technology, CRM, analytics, fan engagement and social media to pave the road to increased revenues and a richer experience for everyone. Letting the ticket sales just roll in to the website and box office are a thing of the past for many colleges. Just as in professional sports over the last several years, there is a new movement in college athletics to proactively sell as much of the inventory as they can.

When we asked Payne about the challenges around the core infrastructure on universities and the challenges to support the wide-spread movement of the cellular/Wi-Fi demands of students and sports fans “This is the area that presents the greatest complexity and challenge. More and more devices are coming into our venues and the owners of those devices have an expectation of connectivity and service. The early movers into this market installed DAS systems to help bolster the cellular service during events. As more and more of these users are now using data as well as voice, the capacity required to support the adoption rate has grown exponentially. There is significant financial investment required to deliver the capacity required to provide a positive fan experience so we are looking at how to strategically generate additional revenue in order to offset the costs of building and maintaining a high quality, connected environment. We are looking at how what we put in the stadium can also benefit campus initiatives where the need for capacity grows with every device that is now being utilized in the classroom. The education marketplace is changing as well and we are trying to adopt technologies and revenue opportunities that touch people throughout the year as well as in the game experience.”

David Tuttle, Director of Nationals Sales for CSI Solutions Group/Goodman Networks shared Payne’s challenges by making this comment “The demand for wireless services in professional and college sporting venues has grown exponentially in the past 4-5 years. Early drivers for this wireless service were first responder radio coverage and basic cellular voice communication – both for public’s safety within the venue. With mobile applications and social media creating a nearly dependent culture of users data capacity and coverage requirements have grown tenfold. Voice capacity was the challenge for years – today it’s a secondary driver to data demands. Cellular carriers are tackling the data demands head-on with additional capacity and enhancing coverage. College and pro venues are aggressively enhancing their existing Wi-Fi and deploying new Wi-Fi systems to provide a better fan experience.”

The world around us is quickly changing and leveraging technology as a tool to connect, communicate, share information and create new revenues. The college industry is aggressively tapping into this evolving technology as a tool to fuel revenues opportunities, capture information, and develop analytics in attempts to reach a wider audience than ever before while creating an enhanced customer experience.

We have identified that, a paradigm shift in the staffing of IT, marketing, social media and sales departments is being heavily reviewed and adapted by many schools. These departments will need to be staffed with individuals who understand data and learn to target the best potential customers based on that data as this will certainly be one of the keys to success for today and the future. Any unsold seats are leaving money on the table!

This is only the beginning of the evolutionary paradigm shift in college sports with many more technological changes coming in the years ahead. There has never been a more exciting time to be in the sports and entertainment industry whether in the professional or college space. Many in the college space are championing the leadership role in servicing their customers, to create an experience that is unique to them and while embracing the technology as a means to engage and entertain the fans, creating customer loyalty for generations to come!

This article was written in collaboration by Christine Stoffel, CEO/Founder of SEAT LLC and Chris Dill, EVP of SEAT LLC. SEAT aka Sports & Entertainment Alliance in Technology.

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