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Sports marketing | Turning fans into customers

Tim Crow looks at why the key driver in sports marketing is still an inconvenient truth.

I still remember the first time I saw and heard the line ‘Turning Fans Into Customers’.

It was back in 2002 at Old Trafford, in a presentation by Manchester United CEO Peter Kenyon to Manchester United’s sponsors, one of which, Wilkinson Sword, I was advising. United were on a sponsorship tear, buoyed by their colonisation of the Premier League title, a star-studded team headlined by David Beckham, and the new global army of fans this had created. But United were earning 90 per cent of their income from the 10 per cent of their fans based in the UK, whereas the new global army was now 90 per cent of their fan base – a huge number, and a huge marketing opportunity.

Hence ‘Turning Fans Into Customers’, and a discussion about fanbases, and data. Which subsequently led to some brilliant international, data-driven campaigns by the sponsors involved. My client Wilkinson Sword, for example, launched Manchester United razors in 22 markets worldwide, including in Japan where they sold 1.6 million in the first week.

Fanbases, data. Fans, customers. Peter’s ‘Turning Fans Into Customers’ remark struck me as particularly prescient at the time, and that impression has only grown over the years, because it heralded what is now arguably the key driver in sports marketing: using data, and fanbases, to turn fans into customers, enabled by an always-on, digitally connected world.

But at the heart of this strategy is an inconvenient truth. The vast majority of fans are completely unaware of the extent to which their behaviours and purchases are being captured, analysed, and used to market to them – that they are, in this context, treated like customers. So when things go wrong, and the curtain lifts on Oz, the reaction is always the same.

Like the visceral reaction of Liverpool fans in 2016 when, just after a controversial increase in Anfield ticket prices, Fenway Sports Group’s claim on its website to be ‘Transforming Fans Into Customers’ was outed – and quickly replaced by ‘Transforming Consumers Into Fans’ (which was even worse, because that’s the kind of thing that businesses that no-one gives a stuff about say).

But this isn’t about clumsy taglines or even clumsier ticket price increases. It’s about fans’ data and what sport does with it.

Nothing bad is happening. There is nothing wrong or illegal about using fans’ data to build sophisticated CRM systems that profile a fan base. The problem is that fans don’t realise the extent to which this has been going on.

And then along comes GDPR. Which means that if you want to stay on the right side of legal, you have to remind them that it has been going on, by getting their consent to keep on doing it. Ticklish.

Now call me old-fashioned, but I’m assuming that everyone does want to stay on the right side of legal, and as such is on the case. You wouldn’t know it, though, would you? It’s all been very much on the QT. After all, why lift the curtain more than is absolutely necessary?

But there has been one stand-out exception: Manchester United’s ‘Stay United’ campaign. OK, so United haven’t treated GDPR like a star player signing or a kit launch, and wherever the money went, it sure wasn’t on the creative. But it has earned more attention than the rest of UK sport’s GDPR efforts combined, and left nobody in any doubt about how seriously United take it or about what they do with the data.

It probably won’t win any awards, but it should. And then the inconvenient truth can go back behind the curtain. For now.

Tim Crow is the former CEO of Synergy. Follow him on Twitter @shaymantim 

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