The NFL knows it has a challenge on its hands.
Professional football's popularity has never been higher, television viewership is increasing, 180 million people identify themselves as fans of the NFL and millions participate in fantasy football leagues every year. The NFL is now a $9 billion-a-year business.
However, at the same time, attendance at games has remained flat over the past six years, and for those fans who do attend, their expectations for the experience are rapidly changing. They want an easier, more personalized experience and connectivity that lets them send as many tweets and photos as they want.
Even in a region like New England, which has seen an unprecedented run of success with its top professional sports teams over the past dozen years—the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins have won a combined eight championships since 2002—there is constant pressure to get a deeper understanding of those people who are pushing through the turnstiles in every game, from where in the stadium they go and what they buy to what they want in their experience and what will keep them coming back.
Sports teams are working hard to convince fans who increasingly own large-screen, high-definition televisions and have access to a wide range of options of what to watch that it's still better to come to the ball parks and arenas to watch the games in person. Teams and leagues are turning to big data to help them not only collect much-needed information and insights about their fans, but also the tools to parse and analyze that information to help them keep season ticket holders from walking away and convince people to continue coming to the games.
At the Experience Economy CIO Summit Aug. 12 hosted by Extreme Networks at the Patriots' home field, Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., executives from all four of the major professional teams and the CIO for the National Football League talked about how they're using big data analytics to improve the fan experience at the stadium.
The eventual goals are to create an experience inside the stadium and a relationship with the fans all year around to convince them that buying tickets and coming to the stadium is a better way to watch a game than sitting in their homes, the team officials said.
"We know [fans have] all the comforts of your couch watching a big TV," said Lisa Gelman, vice president of customer marketing and strategy for The Kraft Sports Group, which includes the Patriots, the New England Revolution professional soccer team, Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place, a shopping mall at the stadium. "TVs keep getting bigger and cheaper."
Gelman outlined many of the steps the Patriots have taken with big data since 2011, when the team—a perennial Super Bowl contender—suffered through its lowest season ticket renewal rate in a decade (though it was still above 90 percent, a high rate for an NFL team). The Patriots now hold an orientation day for new season ticket holders—whom Gelman called "rookies"—to get them ready what the experience is. For example, a day at the stadium begins in the morning, with tailgating, and can extend for hours after the game ends.
"It's a whole day affair," she said. "It's not a three- to four-hour thing."