Batter Up!

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Loyalty programs give sports teams much-needed demographic information about their fans.

In exchange for a little demographic information, a few loyal San Diego Padres fans will walk home with an authentic Louisville Slugger autographed by their favorite player, supporters of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs will sport exclusive team jackets, and Los Angeles Galaxy soccer aficionados will get to watch their team practice.

Just a little demographic information - that's the premise behind fan-loyalty programs springing up at ballparks and stadiums across the country. Offering perks only skybox patrons have had access to before, frequent-fan appreciation programs let teams find out exactly who is coming to their games.

It started in 1995, following the baseball players' strike the year before. Fans were disenchanted and growing scarce. For the San Diego Padres, a change in ownership made cultivating relationships with long-time fans even more imperative. The success of the nearby Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's "customer care" fan-loyalty card system, designed by Phoenix-based Essential Data Control Systems (EDCS), gave Padres executives their answer.

Working with EDCS, the Padres developed a baseball-friendly format that would allow the team to learn more about its fan base, while providing incentives for fans to come to more games. Fans who sign up for the program supply basic information such as name, address, age, telephone number, and e-mail address, as well as more detailed (sometimes optional) data such as household income, ethnicity, how many games they expect to attend that season, age of children in the household, and what factors most influence their decision to attend a game. In return, fans receive a card they can swipe at an interactive kiosk during home games to receive points and discount coupons. Accrued through the season, the points can be redeemed for soda, tickets, autographed memorabilia, and workouts with the team. Currently, there are 130,000 members of the Compadres Club, about 25 percent of the average attendees.

"Demographic information was not the only reason this program was implemented," says Brook Govan, marketing manager of the Compadres Club. "We had a number of fans who were nameless and faceless. We knew about our season ticket holders, but not about those buying tickets on a game-to-game basis. We wanted to create baseline data to judge how we're doing year to year based on our marketing goals."

EDCS has instituted similar programs for the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Anaheim Angels baseball teams, as well as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim hockey team, and the Carolina Mudcats, a minor league baseball team.

AIM Technologies in Austin, Texas, has started loyalty programs for the Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals baseball clubs, the San Antonio Spurs, the L.A. Galaxy, the Austin Ice Bats hockey team, and several minor league baseball clubs. For clubs with established programs, about 12 percent to 40 percent of attendees are loyalty card members. The Spurs have 28,000 members, who make about 13 percent of the crowd at an average game, and the Galaxy, the only Major League Soccer team with such a program, reports that 4,000 fans have signed up (about 3 percent of the crowd). A number of other baseball teams, including the Atlanta Braves and the Colorado Rockies, are on deck to implement loyalty programs next season.

Some teams ask additional market research questions at the kiosks, while others simply ask people to rate the level of service they've received or the cleanliness of facilities in an effort to make the fans' experience better.

The rationale behind the programs varies with the team. Some simply wish to improve customer service, while others hope to attract potential advertisers' dollars, says EDCS vice president of business development Anne Vyenielo. For most, though, boosting attendance is the number-one attraction.

The San Antonio Spurs used members' information to market "Pet Adoption Day," held during the eight playoff games in May and June. A dog adoption area was set up in the Alamodome, where fans could go during quarter breaks and halftime. Besides promoting adoptions at the card kiosks, the club launched a direct mail campaign to pet-owning loyalty members, offering a reduced rate on tickets, says Rebecca Caven, fan relations manager. The 3,150-piece campaign was a hit, she notes, generating 25 to 35 orders per game - about a 1 percent response rate - and may be repeated next season.

For the L.A. Galaxy, whose fans are mostly walk-up customers, finding out exactly who attended games - and how often - was a large draw for starting a loyalty program. "After the fifth game, we found 39 people who were not season ticket holders and came to all five games, and about 80 people who were not season ticket holders and came to four out of five," says Michael Arya, vice president of ticket marketing. "So we can market to them, offering season tickets and ticket packages, and let them know about upcoming specials." The team plans to offer weekend packages to people who purchase tickets only on weekends and inexpensive packages to those from outside the Pasadena area to make the trip more attractive, notes Arya.

The San Francisco Giants, now in the third season of its rewards club program, last year discovered that 80 percent of its fans came to 10 or fewer games, and half of those only came to one or two games. Big problem, given that the smallest ticket package offered by the ball club was for 17 games. A new ticket package was offered last season, six games for the price of five, and 13,000 of these "six packs" were sold, says Giants Rewards manager Felix Paulick. This year only about 10,000 sold, says Paulick, but that's not bad - many of last year's six-pack purchasers were more likely to buy the 17-game plans this year.

Attracting new sponsors and adding value to existing contracts are other tangible benefits for many teams. After AIM discovered that about 60 percent of Oakland A's fans had Internet access, the company inked a sponsorship deal this year for the team with service provider Mindspring. The deal includes Mindspring sponsorships of the St. Louis Cardinals and the L.A. Galaxy as wlle says AIM president Tim Keyes.

Applying the concept to other industries, Vyenielo says, is a "natural next step." Entertainment outlets, concerts, live theater, and venues with multiple sports teams could all potentially benefit from fan-appreciation programs, she says. She cites the Carolina Mudcats program, which integrates ticket purchases on a combined platform with the loyalty program, as the next step in streamlining the customer experience.

Professional football teams have been reluctant to try such programs, since they only host eight home games per season, Keyes notes. However, colleges and universities are able to integrate football and basketball attendance with less-attended sports such as track and field and women's soccer. The University of Texas' program, marketed to both students and alumni, rewards members' demographic information with perks such as a trip with a team to an away game or dinner cooked by one of the head coaches.

Within five years, Keyes predicts, as many as 75 percent of all baseball, basketball, and hockey teams will be passing out cards to fans who are willing to part with a little personal information. "It helps your database," he says, "and it's fun and interactive for the fans."

Oakland A's fan Bruce Bream doesn't need the hard sell. Thanks to his perfect attendance at last year's home games, he was entered into a raffle and won an all-expenses-paid, first-class trip to the World Series. Who's headed to the Series this year? For those die-hard A's fans, it's still up for grabs.

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