Winning isn’t Everything, it’s the Only Thing: The Sports Loyalty Playbook

12/13/2017 02:11 pm ET

By Sara Hogan, Director, Growth Marketing at Merkle

Nothing inspires quite as much passion as sports. From professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts, weekend warriors and outdoor adventurers to the average fan, sports are a dream built on dedication and loyalty. But sometimes passion and enthusiasm can give way to discouragement and difficulty; when times or tasks get tough, dedication can wane without the right motivation. When this happens, loyalty programs can offer incentives for consumers to stay committed to their sport of choice, and stay loyal to the merchandisers, franchises and brands that help them live the dream.

Going Pro with Emotional Connection

Sports franchises are deeply intertwined with culture and business. Generations of fans pass on their devotion to beloved teams with a loyalty that money can’t buy. Even with this built-in loyalty, a sports franchise must keep fans emotionally connected… including the off-season, or when the product on the field (or court, or ice) isn’t so good. The Boston Red Sox, one of the iconic sports franchises in America, are a perfect case study in business-focused sports loyalty. The team was purchased in 2002 for $700M and today is valued at $2.7B. Much of that success stems from winning 3 World Series in 15 years. But just as importantly, the Red Sox are helmed by a marketing-savvy ownership group that renovated the 105-year old Fenway Park, maximized the merchandising power of the brand and, since 2013, engaged season-ticket holders with Red Sox Rewards. Rewards include unforgettable and privileged experiences such as meeting with players, watching a game inside the famous “Green Monster” wall and an all-expenses-paid trip to an away game.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, another iconic franchise famous for its national fanbase, has done a great job simplifying its rewards program and making it more personalized. The team’s mobile app is a content-rich hub driving brand discovery and maintaining engagement in-season and off-season. Since the team’s loyalty reset, it’s seen a 50% increase in enrollment and 2x increase in engagement.

Since the team’s loyalty reset, it’s seen a 50% increase in enrollment and 2x increase in engagement.

Goal-Oriented Engagement

Engaging with a beloved ball club is one thing; sticking to a health and fitness routine requires a totally different kind of dedication. Everyone agrees that healthy living is preferable to unhealthy habits, but exercising, eating right and staying balanced – consistently – is much easier said than done. For gyms and fitness brands, loyalty programs are key to retaining customers, keeping them engaged and bringing them back when they fall off the wagon. Gyms should reward their members for setting goals and establishing consistency, celebrate milestones, and reinforce the satisfaction of success. As in other industries, loyalty program data is invaluable for customer retention – a customer’s initial experience and behavior pattern often determines how long they will stay, and a drop-in attendance usually indicates that the customer will leave. Gyms can better understand their customers’ routines and truly earn customer loyalty by reminding them of their progress, offering incentives to try again and celebrate their incremental successes.

The company created tiers to motivate customers with differentiated experiential privileges and rewards for trackable activity, resulting in 20% increase in member spend and 40% of members being new active purchasers.

With the growing popularity of wearable technology, fitness tracking data can be integrated with loyalty and CRM data to open new opportunities in customer connection. In one particularly successful example, the well-known activewear brand New Balance partnered with sports tech company Strava to better connect its brand with customers’ everyday active lifestyles. The company created tiers to motivate customers with differentiated experiential privileges and rewards for trackable activity, resulting in 20% increase in member spend and 40% of members being new active purchasers.

Discovery Vitality, a wellness program operated by a health insurance company, is another great example of partnership in sports loyalty that focuses on practical, goal-oriented engagement. Rather than sell insurance to gym members, the company created a loyalty program and incorporated a gym partner directly into their insurance. Program members earn points for everything from physical activity to good nutrition, and the reward for good health is a lower insurance premium.  The company saw an 88% increase in member engagement after introducing the frequent reward element, which celebrated members meeting their exercise goals on a weekly basis.

Off-Season Workouts – Maximizing the Customer Lifecycle

Loyalty programs can help sports merchandisers gather data to keep customers engaged during off-seasons and maximize up-selling and cross-selling opportunities throughout the customer lifecycle. Men’s and women’s activewear is a $40M market in the United States, but only a fifth of activewear brands have implemented a loyalty program. These brands are missing out on valuable customer data and opportunities for engagement; 60% of activewear consumers in the US prefer to browse online and a third prefer to purchase online. Loyalty programs create opportunities to introduce members to new product lines, inspire new fashion choices, promote cutting-edge wearable technology and reward members for staying active. Programs should be content-rich and tap into the fun and excitement of each member’s active lifestyle.

Sport and fitness enthusiasts – who are hardwired to earn and achieve – would seem to be natural candidates for accrual and goal-based loyalty schemes. Still, a quarter of consumers in the UK and North America leave a loyalty program because it requires too much work, effort or spending, according to our recent survey, “The Great Loyalty Reset: A Global Outlook on Retail & CPG Loyalty.” Keeping customers engaged with daily goals, incentives and rewards will help extend and maximize the customer lifecycle.

Loyalty isn’t a Slam Dunk

Sports and fitness are a tremendously diverse (and highly profitable) market that encompass a range of active participants, from weekend warriors to professional athletes and generations of fans. The passionate intensity and dedication to sport make it an ideal environment for loyalty programs. But that also means brands have a high crossbar to clear when it comes to establishing and sustaining an emotional connection. They must maintain loyalty with practical goals, exciting engagement and data-driven selling. Sports brands that are passionate about their own products and services will thrive at inspiring achievement and loyalty in their customers.

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