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Building a Younger Fan Base: Sport Management Executive in Residence Offers Marketing Advice
November 02, 2018
“Sports fans are getting older,” observed 2018 Mark H. McCormack Executive in Residence Bernie Mullin in a campus-wide lecture in October. “In that trend, baseball does worst, with fan age growing by half a year each year,” Mullin remarked. Last year’s NCAA football attendance, he added, was the lowest in 30 years. And three years ago, season ticket sales to collegiate football continued their decline, dropping by 10%.
Mullin is chairman of Atlanta-based The Aspire Group, a sports and entertainment marketing firm with $200M in annual revenues and over 200 employees that has served 230 clients across the spectrum of professional and collegiate athletics. That’s 17 different sports in ten countries. To that end, the company excels in five related domains: fan relationship management, strategic consulting and research, data insights, sales and service training, and partnerships.
The aging fan trend, Mullin continued, points to more than casual disenchantment with spectator sports among millennials and the Z generation. Hence, the title of his lecture: “The Future of Sports Spectatorship: Will Anyone under 35 Still Be Watching?” Answering his own question, he responded, “It can be turned around.” In the fifty minutes that followed, Mullin, who in a much earlier incarnation (1977-1987) was a key member of the McCormack Sport Management faculty, offered insights and a systematic approach to make that happen.
Motivating the Young
Younger consumers, observed Mullin, connect with one another and consume media (including sports) through the prism of digital technologies. It’s a radically different perceptual filter that ranges from hand-held devices to large screens in bars, restaurants, and other gathering places. Today, selfies, texting, and other forms of digitized information sharing catalyze connections—personal and communal. That includes letting others in on “what I’m doing every second of the day,” noted Mullin. While that is surely “me-centric,” it extends the reach and centrality of connection and community, he emphasized.
Building a fan base among younger consumers, then, entails serious attention to the role of digitization in perceptions and in personal, communal relationships. “How do you build that connection, that community?” Mullin asked the gathering. Answering his own question, he advised: You have to give them something that they want out of a venue—a connection with each other, their community, the players.
Seating, for example, has significantly changed. It’s a far more communal experience with more options, including open, socially amenable spaces, higher-end refreshments, and digitized entertainment. Another tack is to deploy digitization and strategic smarts to build and reinforce “tribal” fan affiliations. To that end, Mullin cited Aspire Group’s work on behalf of the professional soccer team Atlanta United. The team grew and galvanized 48,000 fans, complete with five tribes in stadium “neighborhoods.” “The idea isn’t to segregate. It’s to make the fans comfortable,” he said.
“The key today is frequency [of fan involvement and attendance], Mullin insisted. To that end, you market to existing fans and secure casual fans before targeting and acquiring new ones. In all of this, data analytics are critical, he emphasized. That includes scraping web sites and dissecting social media as well as deploying more traditional marketing research. Then, analysis of those data allow you to create fan segments and clusters to which you tie your products and services. “You can’t rely on digital marketing [alone],” he cautioned. For best results, combine digital and traditional marketing with personal connections. And afterwards, measure all of your strategies and interventions against Return on Objectives and Return on Investment standards.
A Trail-Blazing Career
Before founding The Aspire Group, Mullin earned kudos as a turn-around catalyst in professional and collegiate sports. As president of the Atlanta Hawks (NBA), the Atlanta Thrashers (NHL), and both teams’ Phillips Arena (now State Farm Arena) from 2004-2008, he helped drive financial and athletic success at those previously ailing franchises. Before that, as Senior Vice President of Marketing and Team Operations with the NBA (2000-2004), he reversed a three-year decline in attendance and introduced the NBA’s first league-operated consulting and analytics service. Earlier, Mullin was similarly impactful as the University of Denver’s Vice Chancellor of Athletics (1995-1999), President and GM of the Colorado Gizzlies (1993-1995), Senior Vice President-Business with the Colorado Rockies (1991-1993), and Senior Vice President-Business with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1986-1990).
During his eight years (1978-1985) as a professor in UMass Amherst’s Department of Sports Studies—the forerunner to Isenberg’s McCormack Department of Sport Management—Mullin helped catapult the program to international prominence. He also authored Sport Marketing (now in its fourth edition), the first textbook in that discipline. And (decades ahead of its time) he insisted on Adjunct Professor status with the then School of Business (Sport Management didn’t become an Isenberg department until 2002). No surprise then, when Mullin applauded Sport Management students in the audience for their Isenberg identity. A career in Sport Management, he noted, is a career in business.