How One College Is Using Tech to Grow Sports Beyond Football

Ole Miss Enhance Rewards Program with Mobile Beacons at Baseball and Other Venues

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Swayze Field at Ole Miss
Swayze Field at Ole Miss

When the Ole Miss Rebels return to their 26-year-old ballpark in Oxford, Mississippi, this afternoon, the Southeastern Conference college baseball club and its fans will be sharing space with a decidedly modern technology: mobile tracking beacons.

The small devices are becoming ubiquitous in major league facilities, but the University of Mississippi's athletics department -- which has built up its marketing team significantly in the past few years -- is the first SEC school employing them, not only to streamline foot traffic but to enhance its rewards program and spur interest in less-popular sports at a school where football dominates.

For the ballpark, it's the first season for beacons, small sensors placed throughout the stadium that pick up signals from mobile devices of people who have downloaded the opt-in loyalty program app. Ole Miss has integrated beacons at facilities for some of its other 12 sports in previous seasons including basketball and football. If the athletics department learned one thing in earlier implementations, said Michael Thompson, the school's senior associate athletics director for communications and marketing, it's to add "more beacons."

For this season, Swayze Field has 21 beacons placed strategically at all entrances and exits, concession stands, merch stores and restrooms. The system, operated by Spark Compass, a mobile marketing platform from Total Communicator Solutions, will help track fan movement at the games, showing how long people stay to watch the action and where lines are forming.

"The seating area is critical…. It gives us the most accurate dwell time," said Mr. Thompson, a primary catalyst in upgrading the three-year old Rebel Rewards program from one involving staff scanning tickets to a mobile system that produces foot traffic heat maps and other data in real-time. The mobile app serves up stats -- a fascination for number-hungry baseball fans, and a bonus for those in certain seats. Normally data shown on the video scoreboard such as information on player's on-base percentage, or how a batter performed during his last plate appearance would not be visible to people perched in outfield general admission seats.

When staffers tasked with monitoring attendee traffic notice a back-up in a ladies restroom queue, they can send a push notification to rewards program participant phones about bathroom locations with lighter lines, or dispatch a concierge to the scene.

The rewards program bestows points on its 5,340 members that are redeemable for gifts like an Ole Miss Nike polo shirt or pregame courtside access for an Ole Miss basketball game. The system will also surface in-game deals on food and team gear, and automatically checks in members of the program, which requires use of the mobile app.

Embraced by retailers in the past year or two, beacons are becoming commonplace at large entertainment venues, sports arenas and museums. Major League Baseball tested beacons that connect with its At the Ballpark app last season, for example.

Another mission for the rewards program is simply to gauge and promote game attendance through reminders and points. Attendance is on the rise for many of the school's sports including volleyball, which grew from 5,834 total game-goers in 2013 to 8,289 in 2014, and the school's biggest sport, football, which attracted 405,000 attendees in 2013 compared to 430,829 attendees in 2014 -- an all-time record, according to Mr. Thompson. (It helped that the team went undefeated for its first seven games.)

Drawing bigger crowds to lesser-attended sporting events is also a goal, so the program offers extra points to spectators at events such as women's rifle matchups. The marketing team at the school's athletics department itself has grown during Mr. Thompson's tenure, from around seven PR people to a more diverse marketing staff of around 35.

As for a data analyst to pore over all that game info? "That's actually on the budget request," said Mr. Thompson.

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