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Here's What It Costs To Take A Selfie With Pat Fitzgerald

Crain's Chicago Business, September 14, 2015

By Danny Ecker

Northwestern University football head coach Pat Fitzgerald soon will be an expert in the art of the selfie if the school's latest revenue booster works as planned.

Fans of the newly ranked Wildcats football team can show up to Ryan Field a few hours early on game days and head into the stadium, where the 10th-year head coach will be ready and waiting to turn the camera on himself and you in the name of social media.

It's not a desperate move by Fitzgerald to boost his audience on Twitter, where he already has more than 30,000 followers. Instead, it's part of a growing trend of college and pro sports teams trying to help fans customize their experiences—while making a few bucks along the way.

The sideline selfie experience, which includes a signed football from the face of the program himself, costs $125 and is being offered for the first time this year at Wildcats football games.

It's one item on a menu of VIP access-type things fans can buy in advance through the Northwestern Wildcats mobile app. Also available: $25 for kids 12 and under to stand in the player tunnel as the team heads into the locker room after warmups and $25 for a pregame sideline pass that includes taking a photo with the Willie the Wildcat mascot.

"This is stuff that has always been accessible to friends of the program and VIPs. Now it's available to the general fan as well," said NU athletic department spokesman Doug Meffley.

NU is one of many schools and programs offering the experiences with the help of an Atlanta-based company called—appropriately—Experience. The four-year-old growing player in the tech world gives teams the mobile platform to let fans easily buy the game day experiences as well as in-game seat upgrades while also helping teams collect and organize data on fans who are interested.

"Teams want to make their events as incredible as possible to get fans to come back, and they have all sorts of assets that allow them to do that, but the challenge is, 'how do you deliver those?' " said Experience President Ben Ackerman. "This is a mechanism to do that during an event."

NU was an early adopter of Experience in Chicago, offering $10 and $20 seat upgrades through the app during the 2014-15 men's basketball season. The school declines to say how much extra revenue game day experiences and seat upgrades have pulled in, but said all of the revenue goes toward the Wildcat Fund, NU's athletic booster program.

To Charge Or Not To Charge?

Ackerman said about half of the company's more than 200 sports clients are offering experiences at a cost like NU, while the rest use its platform to offer experiences for free or a mix of both.

The Chicago Bears fell into the latter category with their "STH Experiences" option on the team's mobile app, which it introduced last year as a rewards program among season-ticket holders, giving out points based on how long they've had tickets.

The Bears offer the ability to hold the "Bear Down" flag during pregame ceremonies (two rewards points), the ability to enter Soldier Field without waiting in a line through Gate 25 (one point) and for six points a delivery from the team of an autographed mini-helmet to a fan's seat. The average season-ticket holder starts a season with about 7 rewards points, the team says.

The goal is to give season-ticket holders extra value from ticket prices that now average $108.44 per game, the fifth-highest in the NFL according to Team Marketing Report.

Many longtime Bears customers "have (already) been to big games and done pretty substantial things in their lives," Bears marketing chief Chris Hibbs said of the experience offerings last year. "The things that people remember are the smaller type of experiences that they can't buy and achieve on their own."

But the Bears also use experiences as a new revenue source, offering any fan the ability to stand in the player tunnel during pregame introductions for $1,000.

The Chicago Fire also use the Experience platform through their team app for pregame fan photos on the team bench ($10) and a photo with the team mascot ($25).

Other teams in town also offer unique experiences on game days but have not yet adopted the ability to buy experiences through their apps in-game.

The White Sox came close this season—offering in-game experiences using social currency by randomly awarding "Sox Surprise" experiences like changing out a base during a game to people who check in at the stadium using the MLB's Ballpark app. The team reports a threefold increase year-over-year in check-ins at games.

One challenge all the teams will face moving forward: Striking a balance between the access that they offer sponsors and rolling out such experiences for fans to purchase.

Benefits of exclusive experiences “are extremely valuable," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president at Chicago-based sponsorship consulting firm IEG. "If you've got brands that have an appetite for (game day experiences), most of the time you're going to be better off offering them to your sponsors."