The goal in professional soccer is to revolutionize the customer experience

Professional teams are using a combination of technologies in order to engage with their customers in real-time, while improving the customer experience and business outcomes.

Digital-first behavior is here to stay as customers develop new habits that will last for the long term. As digital engagement grows, customers expect companies to digitize their operations for multichannel, high-touch interactions. According to Salesforce research, 88% of customers expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to the pandemic. The demand for a digital-first customer experience is across all industries. 

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Research also shows that the customer experience matters as much as the product. Four-fifths of customers place the same emphasis on flawless engagement as they do on product quality. For business buyers, the percentage is 85%. Extraordinary experiences help companies earn more than sales -- they build relationships. Fifty-three percent of customers say they feel an emotional connection to the brands they buy from the most. Professional sports is an industry where the customer experience is key to sustainable growth and vitality. To better understand how professional sports franchises are leveraging technology to improve the customer experience, I connected with David Weisbard, lead solutions engineer at Salesforce, who has led digital transformation projects at several professional sports teams. 

According to Weisbard, it's no secret that the world is rapidly becoming more mobile, more personal, and more social. Younger generations are not only more likely to engage with brands on their mobile devices, they expect to. One industry that is really starting to double down on this trend is sports and live entertainment. The coronavirus pandemic severely hamstrung professional sports leagues and franchises. Estimates show that the NFL missed revenue targets by billions of dollars due to the pandemic. When seasons were abruptly canceled, the more enterprising franchises used this abundance of downtime to plan and build for a more successful future, when things became more normal again. Teams could spend more time looking inwardly to find answers to some of the following questions:

  • How can we use technology to enhance the fan experience, not just on game day in the stadium, but remotely for our fans scattered across the world?
  • How can we make our team more accessible, interactive, and community driven?
  • How can we bridge the gap between casual and diehard fans?
  • Can technology help us safely bring people back together after being isolated for so long?
  • How can we use data driven analytics to continuously enhance the fan experience and improve top line performance?

Improving the fan experience starts with mobile, social and data analytics 

Long before the words COVID and pandemic were common vernacular, pro franchises had made great progress in developing mobile applications. Going back just a few years, many of these applications primarily served two purposes: to inform fans, and to reduce gameday friction. Fans could easily access club history, player rosters, season statistics, starting lineups, and more. It was at this point that casual fans could use their phones to access the same impressive information that fanatics had long memorized. Additionally, these apps were designed to help reduce many of the logistical challenges that fans faced while attending a live event. Attendees could easily plan in advance: where to park, make last minute ticket purchases, access a map with directions to your section, and avoid long lines for snacks with mobile concession ordering. Barriers to enjoying a live event had been lowered and this opened up an increased willingness for casual fans to start attending more and more live games.

When the San Francisco 49ers rolled out their mobile app, the ease of use not only saved fans time and stress, it provided the team improved fan data, while simultaneously increasing revenues by upwards of $2 million. This type of mobile application quickly became what's expected by the latest generations of fans; it is now table stakes, and if a team isn't able to provide that, they risk leaving fan loyalty and fan dollars on the table. Now looking forward to post-COVID life, professional franchises have started to emphasize more and more on keeping their fanbase at the very center of everything they do. While teams will always look to maximize the number of fans in seats, we're seeing a fundamental shift in how that is being accomplished.

The new era of customer experience management is a digital-first strategy

Research shows that customers expect companies to accelerate their digital transformation. Eighty-eight percent of customers expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to COVID-19. An important 2020 lesson: every company must become a digital company. Seventy-eight percent of customers say this year's crises should be a catalyst for business improvement.

Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Football Club was established less than a decade ago, in a city that already had a longstanding pro soccer team with an incredible fanbase -- LA Galaxy. Knowing it would be an uphill battle to build their own foundation in Los Angeles, LAFC took a unique approach. Years before they even took to the pitch, they looked to the LA soccer community to help build a new club from the ground up. Nearly every brand-related decision was made using digital campaigns with their growing fanbase -- from their authoritative black and gold colors, to the stadium design, and even the name 'Los Angeles Football Club' was determined with direct impact from the growing fanbase. Backed by the passionate and loyal 3252 supporter group, these are only some of the reasons why LAFC boasts sellout crowds at nearly every match played in the Banc of California stadium, all in just a few short years.

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Orlando City Soccer Club loyal fans are engaged with their favorite team using mobile and social technologies.

One of LAFC's top rivals has taken another unique approach to how they are looking to accomplish the same goal of a fan-centric future. Orlando City Soccer Club recently launched a new version of their mobile application that was designed with the sole purpose to give fans a unique and interactive experience that hasn't really been seen in the industry until now. 

Orlando City SC designed an application that invites fans to be a part of the team by gamifying and rewarding them for interacting with the club via the mobile app. Fans are invited to vote on player MVP/man of the match. Disgruntled fans can make recommendations for player substitutions. Surveys with fan feedback are displayed to reporters to comment on during live broadcasts. There's also free access to match broadcasts -- an immensely powerful way to keep a global fanbase engaged. Casual fans feel the community embrace with access to club chants and a full history of Orlando City SC. Integrations with Ticketmaster allow for ticket purchases. A scannable barcode tied to a wallet gives fans not only an easy way to make in-person purchases but also, more importantly, a safe and contactless method to do so. Every time a fan interacts with the application, they earn loyalty points which can then be used to purchase experiences -- such as meeting their favorite player, claiming limited edition merchandise, and more.

The purpose of technology is to produce better business outcomes

Bruno Scotton, lifelong soccer fan, IT guru, and dev-ops engineer for Orlando City is the brains behind this endeavor: "We believe the best way to include fans in the club community that they love is by knowing, engaging and serving them in real time, all the time. Technology has the power to make that simple and effective for all generations of fans."

Since the new application was launched this past November, it has been paying dividends for the franchise: In only 9 months of being live, fan adoption has increased by over 450% from their previous mobile application. 

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Bruno Scotton, IT engineer at Orlando City SC

Each gameday, nearly 40% of those registered fans, approximately 10,000 fans, actively log in and interact. Even on off days, there is heavy usage -- on average about 20% of registered fans are logging in to read news or claim rewards. With revenues coming in from advertisers, this is a non-trivial number of fan engagements.

And the fans aren't just logging in to claim their rewards. Fans appreciate a community built specifically for them, and they are letting their wallets do the talking. Forty percent of registered users have made at least one ticket-related purchase, whether its a single ticket, season ticket, or group purchase. On gamedays, Orlando City is seeing that half of all revenues -- across tickets, concessions, and merchandise -- are made with a scannable barcode in the application itself. 

Compared to the last normal season in 2019, despite a global pandemic, and a season only halfway finished at this time, Orlando City is on target to increase ticketing revenue by 50%.

In addition to increasing ticket sales, 2021 research also shows that strong customers service delivery capabilities are more important than ever. Great customer service doesn't just benefit trust and engagement -- it benefits the bottom line and can even restore lost trust. Ninety-one percent of customers say they're more likely to make another purchase after a great service experience. 

  • 83% of customers expect to engage with someone immediately when contacting a company -- up from 78% in 2019. 
  • 52% of customers describe most service interactions as fragmented. 
  • 52% of customers expect offers to always be personalized -- up from 49% in 2019.  
  • 83% of customers expect flexible shipping and fulfillment options such as buy-online-pick-up-in-store.
  • 76% of customers expect consistent interactions across departments (sales, customer service, e-commerce).
  • 54% of customers say it generally feels like sales, service, and marketing don't share information.

In a digital economy, it's about delivering personalized value at the speed of need 

These results speak for themselves but do not paint the full picture. Every interaction within the app helps Orlando City really know their fans. Understanding what interests each fan, knowing their behaviors, past purchases, all help Orlando City build a 360 degree view of their fanbase. This data gives the franchise the ability to provide a unique experience for nearly every fan in attendance. If you are coming with your family of four, and have a history of buying chicken finger baskets, don't be surprised to receive push notification with a discount on a basket when you come back to the stadium. Does Nani change the tide of the match with a smashed left footer? Fans in attendance might get the option to purchase a limited edition jersey if they decide to buy within 15 minutes.

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Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha, commonly known as Nani, is a winger and captain for Major League Soccer team Orlando City SC. 

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. With the ever-increasing advancements in technology, who knows what's next? Using geofencing technology, parents on game-day will always be able to know exactly where their family members are located. E-commerce applications can use augmented reality and interactive 3D technologies to improve commerce using visual aids embedded inside the mobile app. With 3D scanning technology, you may soon be able to take a snapshot of any player, and instantly be able to pull up their profile, game stats, sports betting analytics and more. Machine learning powered marketing and commerce mobile apps will be able to predict buying behaviors based on time, location, competitors, player achievements in real-time, and then deliver personalized offerings based on prior purchase history and fan demographics. The technology already exists, we're just waiting to see what innovations people like Scotton are thinking up.

This article was co-authored by David Weisbard, lead solutions engineer at Salesforce