Data mining | The next step in understanding fans

  • Granular fan data could spell end of regional sponsorships
  • Sponsorship needs to be used better as a marketing tool
  • Match-day data becoming of less use to a rights-holder

UNLESS YOU have been living under the proverbial sports industry rock for the last five years, you will be well aware that a rights-holder now holds an ever-increasing volume of knowledge about its customer base.

This so-called ‘big data’ tends to be a mix of intelligence from research agencies, which are commissioned to build a global picture of a rights-holder’s active and potential following, and intelligence from digital technologies – everything from the large variety of social media platforms sports fans use to consume club content, to the footprint left by a fan’s mobile phone when used on a match day. Combining the two helps rights-holders strive for the holy grail: knowing everything feasibly possible about its fan base on an individual level.

Like with any business, this big data can be used by a sports rights-holder to improve business strategies across any number of sales and marketing initiatives in order to increase the yield from existing fans and grow the fan base in strategic markets. Increasingly it is playing a central role in the selling of sponsorship.


On a macro level, research into global following showcases a sports property’s ability to help a brand boost its brand awareness globally, or in particular regions – look no further than the impact of Manchester United’s 2012 research into its global reach, carried out by Kantar Media, which revealed the much-publicised figure of 659 million followers worldwide. On a micro-level, meanwhile, individual data can help a rights-holder segment its following to find areas of its fan base with which a partner would like to connect.

“Data is of vital importance to every area of rights-holder business now, and sponsorship – an area that has traditionally been limited by inventory and by category – should be transformed by the digital landscape we now live in,” says Ben Wells, the former head of marketing at English Premier League club Chelsea and former commercial director of English Championship club Reading.

“Why would a football club ask a luxury car brand to become a category-exclusive sponsor when 90 per cent of its fan base can’t afford one? Why not give that brand access to 10 per cent of the fan base, which it can market to digitally, and sell the rest to other brands? The days of selling category-specific regional sponsorships around the world are numbered,” he adds.

Data is also more in demand because of the professionalisation of sports sponsorship – a sector of marketing that has been traditionally used as a branding play and lagged behind others in how its effectiveness is measured. With only a finite number of companies with a budget to sign sponsorships, competition is making rights-holders become more sophisticated in showcasing their value as a marketing platform.


Certain sectors are also becoming more demanding of rights-holder data – in particular brands of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) that are reliant on speed of sale and can more directly track the success of their marketing through sales deliverables.

“Ultimately sponsorship isn’t an island. As it has got more professional, marketeers have been looking for a more sophisticated justification of deals,” says Matt Rogan, founder of Two Circles, the agency that helps sports organisations improve business strategies through a better understanding of their customer base.

“Companies have plenty of avenues to market their products – from programmatic advertising to direct B2B marketing – so the only way sponsorship can continue in its current form is if properties can sell themselves better to those same brands and activate against that story with a blend of compelling creative and great data science.”

One of Two Circles’ rights-holder partners is Southampton, which has rebuilt its database almost from scratch over the last few years and, alongside Manchester City, is one of the Premier League clubs that independent experts believe is leading the way in the data-led sponsorship approach, both in terms of pitching to brands and also creating highly-engaging, targeted activation pieces with existing partners.

“Brands are thinking about new ways to connect with customers – having a message to say they are the most refreshing drink or fastest car in the world doesn’t work anymore,” says Núria Tarré, chief marketing officer at City Football Group, the network of clubs under the Manchester City umbrella. Before joining City, Tarré was chief commercial officer of Barcelona-based airline Spanair.

“As a football club, we’re in a very privileged position because we have fans, not customers, who are passionate about their relationship with us. That makes the possibility of telling a story all the more interesting because we can – if we do it right, which is always an ongoing creative challenge – help brands tell their stories to the right people,” she adds.

Best practice

So, what should the best data-driven sponsorship proposals look like? 

On a basic level, any major rights-holder should be able to identify its total reach, its smaller actual fan base number, and overlay both with TGI (target group index) data from a research company to segment both by demographic. But the more advanced can go much further than that.

“If a rights-holder were pitching to a car manufacturer, the more advanced would say, for example, that 35 per cent of fans are going to buy cars in the next three years. But in the digital age where rights-holders can acquire single-level customer data, if 35 per cent of fans are in the market for a new car, the best are able to know what car they currently drive, the cars they would consider buying, and if they wouldn’t want to buy the potential sponsor’s main product, which of their product portfolio they’d be mostly likely to buy, if any,” Rogan says.

“Our first priority when we engage with potential partners is understanding their objectives. That’s when we go to the data and see whether there is an area of our fanbase to which we can convey their messages,” says Tarré, adding that data has played a central role in the success of many of the most recent City deals and resulting activations – including principal partner Etihad Airways’ Global City Fans campaign and SAP’s CityPulse Wall activation.

VIDEO: The unveiling of SAP’s CityPulse Wall

“It’s not about going to them and saying ‘we’ve got x amount of million followers’ and trying to impress with numbers. Reach is important, yes, and we do have big numbers, but more important is our ability to get targeted stories and messages to the right segment of the fan base,” she adds. “It’s the same principle for other areas of our marketing. We’re sending less and less e-mails and getting far better levels of engagement with fans through more targeted messages. It takes more work, but you get better results.”

Room for improvement

Experts agree there is large room for improvement in this area, with a disparity between the level of detail presented by rights-holders. For top-level rights-holders, this is partly down to the growth of broadcast revenues, a stream that has prevented them from having to sell sponsorships in a more sophisticated way. For smaller rights-holders, it is a case of resource and investment: do they have the budget to invest in a research department that can support the commercial team? Many – arguably most – do not.

Progress is also hampered by the large number of brands still attracted by reach and, with their media agencies, judging sponsorship success by views and engagement rather than a more sophisticated ROI model.

According to Ben Cronin, global lead of network client solutions at brand advisory Publicis Media Sport & Entertainment, many major rights-holders still don’t know enough about their fan base – or if they do, they aren’t always able to present it in an effective way.

“The ‘big’ follower number – [Manchester] United’s 659 million – doesn’t mean anything to a sponsor if a club doesn’t know how to reach them,” he says. “Yes, brands want to see overall reach numbers, but segmented into levels of ‘fanship’. And they want to know what specific pieces of content and engagement activity work for the club in reaching its fans, which a sponsor can use to its advantage.

“There’s a huge gap in this area. Sponsors do want to know reach, and that can be enough for some if they are simply using the partnership as an alternative to a media buy, but the ones wanting to connect more deeply and gain more value need more.”

Sports like Formula One are a good example of this: a TV-distributed product, underpinned by hosting fees, individually-promoted events with little central marketing, and a limited number of people coming to a limited number of annual races in person. Bernie Ecclestone’s tenure running the sport has also seen it come late to the digital party and therefore late to generate data that can help them, both centrally and at a team level, segment the fan base and create value propositions for potential brand partners.

Forget about Saturday

Many rights-holders are also placing too much value on match-day fan data – information that doesn’t hold a great deal of relevance to many sponsorship discussions. It’s not about how many burgers fans eat before a match or whether they buy replica shirts after a game, the majority of sponsors want to know what car they drive and how many children they have.

“The biggest trend in last 18 months for us is that rights-holders have started to understand that match day is the thin end of the wedge,” Rogan adds. “The early movers in this space are the ones for whom innovation and data is driven out of marketing teams, rather than the match-day, retail or even sponsorship sales teams.”

Cronin adds: “It’s difficult for many rights-holders, particularly the smaller ones, to satisfy the demands of many potential sponsors unless they give over their whole dataset and ask the brand to tell them what they’d want from a partnership. I’ve not come across a rights-holder that’s prepared to do that yet, but it would be a strong position to take if they were confident in their data and audience.”

For Wells, there is also a lack of understanding from many rights-holders about exactly what value they can derive from sponsorship as a marketing tool.

“Many rights-holders’ [sales proposition] to brands is still about space on the perimeter boards, hospitality, and how many tweets and mailshots they can send for a sponsor,” he says. “They’re sales organisations and think that selling out on Saturday is the be-all and end-all. You never move the business forward like that, particularly when you have a database of millions and a stadium with a 50,000 capacity.”

Wells adds that when rights-holders know their audience on a granular level, they know exactly what they want and when they want it, so they can react to that rather than trying to force a product down a customer’s throat regardless of whether they want it or not.

“They need to start building a loyal audience that will buy products and don’t need to be sold to,” he says.

Tarré adds: “We believe it’s important not to just collect data for data’s sake. Filling a database is only useful if you have a reason for doing it. Fans also need to benefit from sharing their data with you otherwise they won’t do it. Our approach is not to think about getting data on our fans to sell them things; it is about using data to better engage with them, and find out what their behaviours are and what matters to them.”

The future

For rights-holders getting their data houses in order, there will be a shift towards cutting databases in any number of different ways to find valuable segments that themselves identify potential sponsors partners.

“It’s quite simple and it’s about matching datasets,” Rogan says. “You take a rights-holder dataset of say six million and a brand dataset of say two million and see who’s a fan of the rights-holder and isn’t a customer of a brand, and who is a customer of a brand, and isn’t yet a fan of the rights-holder. And if there is a significant number sitting on both datasets, is there a valuable loyalty and reward play?”

Rights-holders who have cottoned on to the greater value that data can provide them with in forging sponsor partnerships are also starting to employ marketers, or data analysts, in more senior positions in the commercial teams. So, expect your typical salespeople at major rights-holders to look different going forward.

EXTRA: Etihad’s Airways’ Global City Fans campaign

Manchester City partner Etihad wanted to showcase its aviation capabilities, which are related directly to the routes it flies, through its partnership with Manchester City. The airline took all of its global routes, which number over a hundred in total, and matched them with areas where Manchester City has relatively large and engaged fan bases.

Data insights revealed that the most engaged fan communities lived in the UK (Manchester), India (Mumbai), South Korea (Seoul), South Africa (Johannesburg), Australia (Melbourne), Jakarta (Indonesia), UAE (Abu Dhabi) and USA, (LA and New York).

A player/ambassador was sent to each of these places to interview fans about their relationship with the club in order to create engaging content and reinforce Etihad’s position as a travel provider.

RELATED ARTICLE: Click here to read more about the CityPulse Wall activation

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