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Aston Villa looking to turn fan engagement into commercial revenue with new loyalty card scheme

Fortress' new loyalty card scheme uses Barclays' Pingit platform to combine payment and club membership into a single card

  • Fan engagement specialist Fortress teams up with UK bank to turn membership cards and season ticket into universal payment and rewards platform
  • Scheme aims to create direct link between clubs’ fan engagement efforts and commercial programmes
  • Data on spending can help conversations with sponsors and add value to matchday fan experience 

Data-led fan engagement platform Fortress and UK-based bank Barclays have jointly launched a new membership scheme for sports teams, which aims to deepen the connection between a club and its fans and open up whole new commercial revenue opportunities in the process.

The idea builds on Fortress’s current offering, Fortress ONE – an RFID-enabled card which combines stadium access for season ticket holders with a fan loyalty programme – by integrating Barclays’ mobile payments system, Pingit. Fans can do their regular, everyday spending on the same card they use for stadium access on match days, earning reward points to win “money can’t buy” experiences and other rewards in the process. The rewards available will be set by the clubs themselves and range from things like club store discounts and opportunities to buy replica kits before wider release, all the way to the chance to meet players and watch training sessions.

“It’s really a natural development of what we’ve been offering for around 16 years to sports clubs in the UK,” says Duncan Martin, development consultant at Fortress. “The RFID technology in our cards that gets people entry to the stadiums is the same as the banks use for payments. It was just a case of being in a position to link that, to be able to use the same card for payments. The idea sounds quite simple, but the value-add for clubs is going to be enormous.” 

Fortress and Barclays membership scheme offers stadium access and everyday payments in the same card

So far, Premier League football outfit Aston Villa and Premiership rugby side Harlequins are in active talks to join the scheme and expect to do so later this season. Martin says that two further Premier League clubs are close to signing and will be announced in the coming weeks, with a full launch set to take place in time for the start of the 2020-21 season. 

Adam Lowe, head of marketing at Villa, says that the club’s involvement in the scheme goes back to early 2018, when it was still playing in the second-tier Championship and looking for ways it could maximise the value of its membership scheme which at the time, Lowe says, “wasn’t working for 1) getting to know our fans better and 2) actually rewarding their loyalty.” 

The scheme offered by Fortress and Barclays achieves both of those things. Firstly, by offering a wider range of benefits and rewards to fans, clubs will hope to be able to engage fans more deeply and on a more regular basis. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, clubs will gain access to data about how, when and where their fans are spending money, transforming the conversations clubs will have with retail sponsors and opening up whole new commercial revenue opportunities. 

Engagement opportunities

Fortress ONE is already used by over 120 major sports teams around the world, and the company has significant evidence that its services can provide a boost to fan engagement rates. Its partnerships across the National Football League and Major League Baseball in the US have led to a 50 per cent increase in retention to loyalty programmes, and a 25 per cent increase in concessions spend using e-cash connected to its membership cards, which offer restricted network payments so that fans can exclusively use their cards at concessions stands within their team’s stadium.

Aston Villa has been working with Fortress on its existing membership scheme, under which it has offered similar in-stadium payment capabilities, seeing some success in encouraging greater spend on matchdays, with members and season-ticket holders given preferential pricing and the chance to earn reward points. But the Barclays partnership is transformative because of how it promises to integrate directly into fans’ day-to-day lives. 

“For a club like Aston Villa, they might have a match on 25 or 30 days in a year when fans can spend in the stadium,” Martin explains. “But with the new scheme, you’re walking around with it for 365 days a year, and on all those days you’re still a fan of the club, and you still want to stay engaged with the club. So at the beginning, we’re not asking fans to change their behaviour at all. Just do your regular spend on the card and you’ll get rewards back for yourself, but also the knowledge that you’re helping the club.”

Lowe agrees, noting that “rewarding fans for things they would automatically do with the club anyway” is a major first step in encouraging supporters to use the programme. Promoting the kinds of rewards that are on offer – in Villa’s case, these will range from “something as simple as a pin badge they can’t get anywhere else, all the way to coming pitchside to watch the team warm up and having a meet-and-greet with [manager] Dean Smith” – and making sure they are appealing to fans will be key to the long-term goal of encouraging new fan behaviours that will ultimately help to open new revenue streams. 

“So, just as an example, you may want to drive your fans to come and spend money between 12pm and 1pm, when they’re normally at the local pubs,” says Adam Herson, business development director at Barclays. “Could clubs use this programme to incentivise fans to different behaviours? What if the club was to offer double or triple points for spending on beer between 12 and one o’clock? You have to make sure the rewards are good enough, but we think we can make a difference to fans’ behaviour in thay way.

“Once fans are out using these cards in the real world on a widespread basis, it really offers new commercial opportunities for clubs,” he adds. All data will, of course, be aggregated and anonymised, but Fortress and Barclays believe that the insights gained into fan spending behaviour will help clubs improve their offerings for both supporters and sponsors.

For the fans, this could be about changing the matchday experience based on trends the club observes in spending. “If you look at this from a broader perspective, we can look at the data to notice that our fans are spending more money on, for instance, street food,” Lowe says. “Based on those kinds of observations, we can look at the catering proposition within Villa Park and change it to better suit what our fans want. And it becomes a completely data-led approach based on what we’re seeing our fans do away from the stadium, it just helps us build our proposition to better suit our fans.” 

Commercial opportunities

Herson says he hopes that the scheme can help to draw a “more direct correlation” between a club’s fan engagement efforts and its commercial programme. Fans using the cards for day-to-day spending is “good hygeine”, he says, but the real value for clubs, and what will turn the scheme from pure fan engagement into a real revenue-generator, “is in encouraging that spend to happen with partners and affiliates” of the scheme. 

Fans will earn bonus reward points for spending with brands who are either sponsors of the clubs or who have partnered with Barclays and Fortress for the scheme. The latter group will include “pub chains, petrol stations, quick service restaurants, hotels, etc”, although clubs will have the option to “turn off” rewards from a particular brand if it clashes with one of their existing commercial sponsors. “We hope to bring in more and more of those affiliated partners,” says Lowe. “We’ll always look at brands the data our fans are interested in. But it has to be data-led.”

Not only will clubs take a cut of every pound spent by a fan with an affiliate partner of the scheme, they will also gain access to data about how many fans, and how much money, the club has helped to direct towards that particular retailer, giving it added leverage in negotiations. 

Lowe gives the example of car park operator Q-Park, an affiliate of the scheme. “Most of the examples are retail ones, but this is an example of where we can really widen the scope of the scheme and find ways that it fits into the fans’ existing journey,” he says. “If fans are travelling to an away game and they’re looking for parking, they’ll know that they can park in a Q-Park and earn extra points. That adds to the fan experience, but it also means we can take that to conversations we’re having with Q-Park about the value we’re offering to them, because we’ll have direct data showing how many Villa fans we directed toward their car parks.” 

The programme hopes to boost club revenues by encouraging fans to spend in the stadium

The data can also open the door for new commercial partnerships. “If we see our fans specifically spending in one coffee shop brand, for instance, and we’ve got a pot of highly-engaged Villa fans who are also highly engaged with that brand, it becomes a very easy conversation, it’s a win for both us and the brand,” says Lowe. “Then there’s a second strand to that which is how it then benefits the fans every day of the year, not just on a match days; it gives us the opportunity for us to work with that coffee brand and create deals for our fans that will improve their day-to-day life.”

Meaningful membership for all fans

The cards will go to season ticket holders and club members initially, but will eventually be available to anyone, and Villa is already considering ways it can make the scheme valuable for its international fanbase. This is likely to include more digital rewards than physical ones. 

Clubs will often boast of having “however many million fans around the world” largely based on social media figures, says Martin, but when asked how they are engaging with or giving anything back to those fans, “usually they can’t answer that, because they’re not doing those things. For the wider fanbase, you need to give them something that’s not tied to tickets and that’s going to make them proud to join the scheme, because it’s actually giving them something back and getting them engaged with the club.”

Lowe agrees, arguing that membership schemes at football clubs have long been a “missed opportunity” because of their focus – largely out of necessity – on those who were either regularly attending games, or were planning to: in other words, they were engaging fans who were already engaged.

“Now that we’re back in the Premier League, we’re doing a big piece of work around our international fanbase and how we can communicate with them,” says Lowe. “Schemes like this are one way we think we can do that because we’re not asking for any extra input from the fans at all. They get the cards, do their spend, and they’re helping to support the club and maybe earn a reward for themselves.”

Herson stresses the importance of creating reasons for all fans to become club members, “especially the bigger clubs where fewer of their fans are local, so they need more ways to meaningfully engage with their fans who are more remote and find ways to turn them from a big number that sounds good into ways to actually generate commercial income”. In an age where clubs increasingly sign localised partnerships with brands in far-flung territories, the card scheme could eventually lead to sponsorship deals with regional retailers, he speculates. 

“That’s really at the heart of this,” says Herson. “If you look at Major League Baseball teams, commercial revenue is 70 per cent of their income. For European football teams it’s less than 50 per cent. That disparity is partly to do with how well clubs engage their fans and turn that engagement into revenue potential. We think there’s a lot of headroom for UK clubs to grow; we want to give the clubs new commercial income streams that they might not have at the moment by tapping into the value of that fan engagement.” 

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