Airlines, hotels and retailers have long found success using loyalty programs to retain their very best customers.

And a growing number of sports teams are finding similar success. 

Rightsholders are increasingly using loyalty programs to reward and retain season ticket holders, with two secondary benefits following close behind: a new sponsor activation platform and access to fan analytics.

Fan Engagement

  • Reward season ticket holders
  • Drive STH engagement/satisfaction
  • Increase STH renewal rates

Fan Analytics & Insights

  • Identify and track customer behaviors
  • Access data for customer profiles
  • Create personalized offers

Sponsor Engagement

  • Access new sponsorship inventory
  • Provide sponsors a new activation platform

Case Study: Red Sox Rewards
The Boston Red Sox have found success with Red Sox Rewards.

Following a disastrous 2011 season that saw a decline in fan satisfaction and an increase in no-show rates, the Major League Baseball team piloted Red Sox Rewards with 500 season ticket holders.

“We still had strong renewal rates, but our fans started to show signs of less interest. We needed to take better care of our season ticket holders and give them more value than just their seats,” said Tim Zue, Boston Red Sox executive vice president and chief financial officer, who spearheaded the program.

The team, which expanded Red Sox Rewards to all season ticket holders in the 2014 season, uses the program to accomplish three primary objectives:

  • Provide STH value
  • Drive STH engagement
  • Increase STH renewal rates

The Red Sox created Red Sox Rewards based in part on the growing number of companies that have found success with customer loyalty programs, many of which sponsor the team (Dunkin’ Donuts, JetBlue Airways, etc.).

But sports teams have three advantages over traditional retailers in driving customer loyalty: The opportunity to tap into a key passion point, the ability to provide more exclusive rewards (intangible experiences, etc.), and multiple platforms for fan engagement. 

The Red Sox designed Red Sox Rewards to reward fans for what they already do: attend games, purchase concession items, watch games on TV and participate in contests and promotions.

Red Sox Rewards members also can earn rewards points by coming to games early, staying after the seventh inning and numerous other activities.

Members can redeem points through the Red Sox Rewards portal, with prizes ranging from baseball jerseys and autographed photos to the opportunity to throw out the first pitch, a private dinner with a Red Sox player, and other once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Members can redeem points in three primary ways: The Red Sox Rewards marketplace (team merchandise, etc.), contests (fan of the month/year) and auctions and raffles (money can’t buy experiences, etc.).

While Red Sox Rewards members earn points for concession and merchandise purchases, the team consciously designed the program to reward fans for their behavior, not how much they spend.

“We thought a fan shouldn’t be defined by how much they spend, but how much they engage with the Red Sox.”

And the program is working: Sixty-six percent of season ticket holders modified their behavior to earn points, according to Red Sox research.

The Red Sox launched the program with an RFID card, but have since added a mobile component via the MLB Ballpark app. Members log points by swiping their phone at scanners in Fenway Park (entering the venue, making purchases, etc.) or entering a special code mentioned during TV and radio broadcasts.

Members can also load money on the card or app for on-site purchases. 

A team can expect to pay anywhere from $250,000 to a low-seven-figures annually for a rewards program, said Zue. That includes technology, prizes and staffing costs (one full-time staffer and several part-time staffers manage Red Sox Rewards).

“Season ticket holders are the lifeblood of any team’s ticket revenue. On the surface, $500,000 or $1 million may sound significant, but in the context of the revenue you’re trying to protect, it’s worth the risk.”

London-based software company Fortress GB powers Red Sox Rewards.

Using Red Sox Rewards To Better Understand Fans
In addition to retaining season ticket holders, Red Sox Rewards provides another major benefit: deeper insight into Red Sox fans and their behavior.

The Red Sox use the fan loyalty program to create a 360-degree profile on each season ticket holder based on their interaction with the team. That includes game attendance, purchase activity, TV viewership and other activities.

Prior to Red Sox Rewards, the team primarily collected fan data via season ticket and single game ticket purchases. That audience represents roughly 10 percent of fans in Fenway Park.

The Red Sox feeds the data into its CRM system to give sales reps a big-picture view of how each fan engages the team. The Red Sox plans to use the data to offer personalized communications to each season ticket holder based on their likes and dislikes, as well as their renewal intent.

Case in point: The Red Sox this year incorporated Red Sox Rewards data into its predictive season-ticket renewal model. Fans who actively engage Red Sox Rewards are likely to renew their season tickets, while those who do not may be flagged for special attention from the team’s sales staff.

“The data doesn’t change their intent to renew, but it helps us better understand and predict their intent to renew,” said Zue, noting that the team will put those insights to use during its October through February season ticket renewal efforts.

Using Red Sox Rewards To Reward Sponsors
The Red Sox have taken a go-slow approach to integrating sponsors into Red Sox Rewards. The team has thus far brought in two sponsors: MasterCard and Irving, a regional chain of gasoline stations.

“When we launched the program, we were careful not to make it feel overly commercialized. We knew there were going to be sponsor opportunities down the road, but that was never the driving force.”

The Red Sox brought on MasterCard as the program’s first sponsor. The company, a long-time Red Sox sponsor, approached the team about using Red Sox Rewards to drive transactions.

The Red Sox use incentives to drive card usage. Red Sox Rewards members earn 100 points for their initial eCash load, 200 points for setting up auto-load and 1,000 points for paying for season tickets with a MasterCard.

The Red Sox have increased the number of points consumers can earn over the last few years, resulting in increased usage. The percentage of Red Sox Rewards members that use a MasterCard for eCash load transactions has more than tripled since 2013.

The Red Sox did not charge MasterCard for the sponsorship, said Zue. “We gave it to them as a bonus because they have been a large partner for so many years.”

Demonstrating the depth of the partnership, MasterCard has offered up unused experiential marketing assets that it receives as part of its team sponsorship as reward items. The company, for example, offered up a Center Field Batting Practice experience as an auction item.

The Red Sox last month added Irving as the second sponsor of Red Sox Rewards. The company is using the tie to drive membership in its own loyalty program, Irving Rewards. Red Sox Rewards members earn points for signing up for Irving Rewards, after which they receive a discount on their first fill-up.

“We’re more open to these types of conversations, but it has to make sense. We won’t sacrifice the program’s core message for a sponsor.”