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How Edgbaston highlighted the role of data and digital in sport’s post-Covid revenue model

Fans are finally coming back to live sport but the industry cannot let itself return to pre-pandemic ways. Ben Wells, PTI Digital's chief commercial officer, believes a major change in attitude is needed to correct an outdated approach and usher in new growth.

13 July 2021 Ed Dixon

So far in 2021, UK sport has had to settle for mini milestones in its bid to get fans back to its biggest events.

The government’s various pilot schemes have offered glimpses into the live event experience as we enter the ‘new normal’ and showpiece competitions get ready to open their doors once more. Standouts include the Wimbledon tennis Grand Slam getting permission for capacity crowds, while Wembley welcomed more than 60,000 punters for the semi-finals and final of the Uefa European Championship.

Naturally, no British summer of sport would be complete without a Test cricket series, so the news that Edgbaston would be letting in 18,000 fans for each day of England’s second match against New Zealand in June was a welcome boost for fans starved of red ball action.

While the prospect of hosting so many people would have delighted those at the Birmingham ground, being given barely two weeks’ notice to prepare itself to operate at 70 per cent capacity threw up its own set of unique challenges.

For starters, the ticketing process had to be redesigned, including a requirement for attendees to consent to be part of the pilot study, which mandated that all tickets had to be digital. Then there was a shift to cashless payments, in-app pre-ordering, and click and collect functionality. Edgbaston’s consumer Wi-Fi also had to be up to the task, in addition to the venue providing fans with wayfinding tools to reduce close contact.

Considering what was at stake – not to mention the fallout if the ground failed to deliver – it would have appeared quite a daunting prospect. For Edgbaston, that meant calling on its technology partner, PTI Digital, to ensure a Covid-secure event without compromising the fan experience.

The sight of the venue’s famed Eric Hollies stand revelling in the return of fans was enough evidence of success, but the Test also provided Edgbaston with even more tangible results.

The ground reported 37,575 new mobile app downloads and more than 314,000 engagements across the match. With 48,750 tickets issued across the first three days, Edgbaston’s new digital ticketing suite ensured the data registration of four times as many customers as would otherwise have been the case. Food and beverage revenue via the app stood at more than UK£85,000 for the first three days, helped by the fact that average wait times for click and collect orders lasted under 90 seconds.

Average Wi-Fi speeds across the ground also kept up with demand, often exceeding over 50 megabytes per device through peak periods.

The Test showcased the merits of an integrated data, digital and technology strategy, particularly from a revenue standpoint. But Edgbaston’s efforts during the UK government’s Event Research Programme (ERP) should not be taken merely as a one-off in the wake of the pandemic. For Ben Wells (pictured below), PTI’s chief commercial officer, such an approach is long overdue in sport.

“I think, as an industry, we tend to rush into the ‘what’ rather than understanding the ‘why’,” he tells SportsPro. “People decide that such and such a thing is the answer. Well, what's the question?

“For the last ten years, our industry has been wrestling with the concept of data and the role it plays in our future. There's this sort of misconception that if I buy a CRM solution then, suddenly, everything will be fixed. But there are no silver bullets.”

While Wells claims he and PTI “are not evangelists for data and digital”, he also says the facts don’t lie when looking at the companies who have effectively utilised the pair.

“There's a chart I use a lot when I'm presenting which shows the top ten companies by market cap in 2009 compared to 2019,” he adds. “For 2019, not only are seven of the top ten tech companies, but their market cap is two and a half times of their equivalent from ten years ago. And it's all built on data. It's all about scale. Once you've got the insights it allows you to work smart, as well as hard.

“As an industry, we've never been brilliant at taking the time to ask, ‘what are we trying to achieve here? How do these things fit?’.”

The temptation would be for companies to lean on customer relationship management (CRM) or bring in consultancies to address those questions. Wells believes that will only take them so far.

“In isolation, that is never going to achieve very much,” he continues. “It might take you to a certain level after a period of time, but there's no way of scaling that because nothing else is plugged into it.

“This is the time when sport needs to innovate more than ever. It needs to recognise an event-based commercial model, which is based on 20 or 30 days a year, is no longer fit for purpose.”

Wells asserts that the mentality up to now has been to double down on selling tickets and merchandise to fans, adding that anyone unlikely to part with their money that way is of little value. He feels that method is gathering dust.

Instead, Wells believes sports properties need to ask themselves that if their current product range doesn’t interest someone, then what will? It’s about identifying the unmet need and involving brands when addressing it.

Of course, data and digital are hardly new to sport. The terms have been freely bounded around for years. Yet, for Wells, sport has adopted a broad and unfocused attitude to the pair, hampering both progress and revenues.

“Ultimately, if you just want to sell more tickets, you haven’t defined the role of data within your strategy, often because there isn't one,” he says. “Where there is a strategy, the role of data is perceived to be so narrow. It's basically: ‘can you help us sell our existing products and services?’.”

Edgbaston reported more than 37,500 app downloads across the England v New Zealand Test match

For Wells, sports teams and venues are only inhibiting themselves by prioritising an events-based model. That way is automatically limited because of a venue’s capacity and how many times it can stage events in a year. It’s also a short-term business strategy, according to Wells, who adds that marketing is also mostly operating “as a sales support function”, restricting customer relationships.

“These things need to be defined in the context of growth strategies,” Wells continues. “Rushing in and saying, ‘right, we need to sell more tickets’, yes, that's fine. But where do you go after that? What’s the long-term roadmap here?

“You need to integrate all these, you need to understand why you're doing this, which is ultimately the strategic piece.

“You need to then understand what's the best way to do that. Data and digital play a big role in there. But, ultimately, that all needs to sit on the right tech infrastructure. That can be everything from hardware to software. If you don't have the means to deliver that experience for people, then it falls down.

“So it is an integrated approach. It means it takes time, it costs money. It's quite a lot of hard work and a lot of hard thinking. But what Covid has shown us is that however many ways you slice and dice your existing commercial model, it cannot possibly keep pace with the inflation in player wages.”So if the events-based commercial model really is ancient history, then data appears to be paving the path towards a new approach. It can potentially unshackle a constricted commercial model, according to Wells.

“What data allows is for you to unshackle that because you're thinking about how do we engage, how do we acquire and how do we monetise data year round? There's no ceiling to that,” he explains. “That's not to say you forget your existing revenue streams. Of course, you use data to maximise those. But what it does enable is when someone comes into your data ecosystem, you try to understand what kind of customer they are. Whereas the temptation would have been beforehand to try and just sell them a ticket.”

You've got 20 years to save your sport and you’ve got to start now and you’ve got to do it properly.

By finding out what is best for a customer, it should drive maximum value over the period that they engage with a particular sports property. Gathering consumer information, however, is the easy part. The true test comes from taking ownership of it and knowing what to do with the data.

“It's probably the biggest scam of all over the last ten years that we, as an industry, as have many others, have basically outsourced our engagement strategy to Silicon Valley, who've taken all of our customer data, made money from it, and then shared none of it with us,” Wells argues.

“Rather than actually getting on the front foot and working out how we could do it, we take the easy option because it doesn't cost anything. We dazzle people with Facebook likes and retweets, and all that kind of stuff. Now it's a race to who's got the biggest database. But, ultimately, it's an illusion. Brands now are spending more money on digital platforms, and it's increasing, because they can offer that hyper-targeted customer, a very in depth customer profile.

“I think for sport, if you can ally best practice of data strategy with the emotion and the passion that sport creates then you've got a really powerful platform. We see very much the driver of sponsorship moving away from media value and into data. There will still be room for people who want to stick their logos on things. But the really smart brands will actually start seeing this is a much more interesting place to be than just targeted advertising through the internet.”

Wells believes an events-based commercial model is no longer fit for purpose

What Wells doesn’t want to happen is for sport to slip back into old habits once fans fully return to venues. When restrictions are totally lifted, the temptation would be for the industry to assume everything will go back to normal. But the prolonged jolt Covid-19 has given the sector – and wider society – suggests otherwise, particularly for lower-tier events.

“We have seen enough evidence in Australia where, after the initial itch was scratched, audiences have tailed off,” Wells notes. “I don't for one second think that premium events will struggle, because people will want to go and see the big shows that they've missed out on. But I think it's the guys below who are offering not great value for money that I think will struggle.

“We've had 18 months of people getting out of their matchday rituals and finding other ways to spend their time and money. A lot of people spent the last 18 months thinking about the however many hundreds or thousands of pounds that they spend [on sport], asking if it is good value for money and if they’re being treated well.”

If you can ally best practice of data strategy with the emotion and the passion that sport creates then you've got a really powerful platform. 

This, though, isn’t necessarily a new problem. Rather, Covid has meant more fans have been able to think about the value they’re getting and how they want to engage going forward. As Wells points out, the average age of season ticket holders has already risen across various leagues. If sport needs to find alternative ways to attract younger people, then it has to clearly define what ‘engagement’ is.

For Wells, it means acquisition – gathering data and knowing unequivocally what to do with it. 

“These guys are spending their time gaming, watching video on demand, using social media,” he says. “What is being done to create an experience which is actually relevant to those people? And the answer to that is probably not a huge amount.

“The average age for a season ticket holder is about late 50s, early 60s. The average life expectancy of that demographic is 80. You've got 20 years to save your sport and you’ve got to start now and you’ve got to do it properly.

“You can't outsource it, it’s got to be done properly. You cannot do it on a budget. You cannot scrimp and save. You actually need a proper strategic view as to how you're going to manage your sport over the next 20 years.”

There’s been plenty of doom and gloom to digest over the last year or so, but Wells doesn’t want to be the bearer of more bad news for sport. There will be challenges ahead, but with that comes opportunity. An integrated data, digital and technology strategy could potentially turn organisations banking on live events from, say, a 30-day-a-year business to a year-round revenue-generating operation.

An integrated data, digital and tech strategy can open up more revenue streams, says Wells

“We see this being very much a tipping point for our industry,” declares Wells. “But this is a brilliant opportunity if you can harness this and really understand what is going on in the world around us and ask, ‘what's driving that?’, and ‘how do I apply that best practice?’.

“Whatever people think about the next generation of customers, and how they behave and spend their money, it's probably never quite as bad as it's all made out to be. But they do behave differently. Is the value exchange we're creating for them relevant? Or are we just preaching to the choir? How do we actually broaden that out?

“It might be that, actually, they don't want tickets, they want something else. How do we engage them, how do we give them access to what we're doing and remain relevant but in a slightly different way?

“Our approach often is to say, ‘how do we take our way of thinking about it and apply it to the problem?’. Actually, it needs something completely different.”

All that will mean a significant shift in mindset. After everything that’s happened over the last 16 months, there may never be a better moment to start.

“The thought process is very simple. Doing it is more complicated,” Wells concludes. “But if a global pandemic isn't going to force sport to think differently, I really struggle to think what might.”

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