A new partnership between the Miami Dolphins and travel app Uber has the potential to change the way people travel to sports events. Ben Cronin reports.
Uber is the archetypal disruptive technology firm, overturning business models that arguably haven’t changed since someone first struck upon the idea of fitting a car with a taximeter and offering it out for hire.
The online transportation company might not be universally popular, especially with traditional taxi drivers, but by the immutable laws of market economics it is an unqualified success, managing to provide a service that is often easier and cheaper than its competitors.
If a new sponsorship deal between the tech firm and NFL team the Miami Dolphins is anything to go by, this arch innovator might also be about to shake up and disrupt the sports industry too.
In late August it was announced that the ridesharing company was partnering with the Dolphins to provide a dedicated drop-off and pick-up zone for fans wanting to use its service to get to and from the team’s remodelled Hard Rock Stadium.
At the same time, the team’s president and CEO, Tom Garfinkel, also announced Uber Tailgate – a service that would ensure that some of those fans arriving in Uber rides rather than their own cars would still be able to participate in car park tailgate parties, the pre-match staple of the US sports scene. Under the terms of the partnership 20 Uber Tailgate spots would be made available to fans arriving in an Uber car, each complete with a grill, charcoal, table, chairs and a tent.
Although it is customary for most sports properties to talk up the synergies with their sponsors, this is one deal where the claims seem to stand up to closer scrutiny.
Speaking shortly after the announcement, Garfinkel tells SportBusiness International that he thinks the deal will be mutually beneficial. He explains how a lunch meeting with Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick allowed him to appreciate how the transportation company’s data and insights would help the Dolphins to streamline and improve the match-day experience for fans.
“There’s an actual revenue component to it and then there’s sponsorship elements, but I’d call it more of a collaborative partnership in terms of transportation,” he says. “I think one of the challenges we have is competing with 60-inch, high-definition television and one of the primary objections to attending [Dolphins] games is the amount of time it takes to get in and out of the parking lots and traffic, particularly after the game. Previously, if a fan wanted to take an Uber car, they would dial it up and order one through the app and then they’d be on the phone with the driver asking where they were, because Uber cars couldn’t get into the lot. Now there’s a dedicated Uber lot with 200 spaces, so if you order an Uber after the game, the driver will text you the spot number, then you just walk over.”
As part of the deal, the Uber logo will appear on permanent signage located at every exit point of the Hard Rock Stadium, on two nearby streets and in the Uber Zone located in the stadium car park. Uber logos will also appear in-game on the LED ribbon, on the video boards and concourse TVs. But in return, the Dolphins will enjoy almost as much cross promotion. On match days the team’s logo will appear on the Uber app when users open it in the South Florida region, encouraging more fans to take an Uber ride to see a Dolphins game.
Another happy consequence of the partnership is that people who have taken an Uber to the game will also be able to consume alcohol – preferably purchased from the stadium. “It certainly makes it safer for people if they want to have a drink and attend the event, because they’re not driving home,” Garfinkel says.
Garfinkel argues that the pre-game Uber Tailgate experience will make things better for the fans, as well as create new commercial opportunities. The 20 Uber Tailgate spots will be available to book for roughly $300 (€267) the Thursday before each home game, at which point the fan will receive a promo code that entitles them to an Uber ride to the game. There will also be a general store located near the tailgating area, where fans will be able to buy food and drinks.
“I’ve seen friends that go to the games in the past and set up these elaborate tailgates and they’ve had 60 to 70 people at their tailgate spot. Then when the game started, everyone would go into the game, but they’d sit there spending the next hour breaking everything down. Now they can enjoy the game,” he says.
Garfinkel will not reveal whether the team will share revenues generated by the tailgate with Uber. However, he does say that fans can share the cost of a tailgate experience and that they are as free to bring their own food as they would be if they arrived in their own cars.
“It’s an open area; it’s not a closed-off area. They can invite all of their friends from another lot if they want to,” he says. “Some people, when they tailgate, like to marinate their favourite rib recipe overnight, so they could call an Uber and bring that with them in a Tupperware dish to the tailgate that’s already set up. Then when they go into the game, they leave it at the tailgate spot. It’s no different than if they were driving their car.”
It is easy to imagine that the tailgate element of the partnership allows the Dolphins to take back a little bit of control over a part of the match-day experience from which it receives scant commercial returns. The upside of the deal for Uber appears to be that it puts the firm at the heart of a passionate community and that it positions the company as a provider of streamlined transport solutions.
For the partnership to improve the traffic situation around the stadium, though, Uber’s general manager for the Florida region, Kasra Moshkani, admits that fans will have to share rides to the stadium by using the UberPOOL option on its app.
“It’s essentially a product that leverages the notion that a lot of people go from a similar origination point to a similar destination point at around the same time and if those few people can share a ride, then the cost is significantly reduced,” he says.
The other question is how Uber’s dynamic pricing model will respond to surges in demand as thousands of Dolphins fans leave a game.
“What this partnership actually does and what the Uber zone actually does is it helps to mitigate against that,” Moshkani says. “With the formalisation of the partnership, we now have the ability to let drivers know exactly where they should go to pick up and where they should drop off. It makes the process very efficient.
“With that efficiency it becomes an attractive opportunity for the driver partners and so they want to physically plan around going to those games to get that business. Therefore, the number of individuals providing rides should go up, so the dynamic pricing shouldn’t go so high.”
If the experience proves to be as smooth as hoped, Moshkani thinks it will speed up the process whereby Uber starts to enjoy a more prominent position in people’s lives.
He says: “What we see is people start to adopt Uber and where it starts with them taking Uber to a restaurant they begin to ask: What if they were to take this to work every day?”
Thanks to that lunch meeting with Kalanick, Garfinkel seems to anticipate the same thing.
“The younger generation, according to some of the statistics I’ve seen, are just abandoning their cars to take Uber in urban environments. I think there are 25-year-olds in Miami that have sold their cars and decided to take Ubers everywhere,” he says. “I think transportation is going to change and we wanted to be prepared for what the ingress of fans is going to be like five years down the road and not just like it is today.”
The only bump in the road might be Uber’s unpopularity with certain groups and how the regular taxi drivers of the Miami region respond to its favoured position with the team. When it is put to Garfinkel that French Ligue 1 football club Lyon had to reconsider a partnership with the ride-sharing firm after the taxi drivers of the city protested against it, he strikes a placatory tone.
“I’ve noticed Uber have had those discussions here locally for a couple of years around that issue and hopefully they’ve worked that all out,” he says. “We have cab lanes, we have Uber, so this isn’t mutually exclusive. The goal for me is to make it as easy for fans to get in and out of the games as they can, and I’m not going to create exclusivities that are going to prevent us from being able to do that.”