As sports organizations across the world battle the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, each one has taken their own approach on how to engage their fan bases.
Some leagues have been able to restart behind closed doors, making it a little easier to garner audience attention.
However, there are organizations such as Europe’s elite basketball club competition, EuroLeague, which has had found keeping fans' attention more difficult, due to an absence of live-action games.
To combat this situation the EuroLeague decided to utilize the time as an opportunity to enhance their digital assets in order to better understand their fanbase.
The competition can trace its routes back to 1958, when it was known as the FIBA European Champions Cup. The FIBA run competition would become the richest and most popular basketball club tournament on the continent.
In 2000, the biggest clubs in Europe decided to break away and create their own tournament, the EuroLeague. FIBA would launch a rival competition the Suproleague, however, it was discontinued after a single season.
Euroleague has flourished in its modern form becoming the best-attended professional indoor sports league outside of the U.S. The competition now has 18 clubs across 10 countries.
EuroLeague was among a number of sport’s properties that chose to cancel its 2019/20 season.
The decision left a number of the 18 clubs facing financial turmoil, with the league seeing revenue drop by 30% from pre-season forecasts.
As the league then chose a more conservative route than the NBA's 'Disney bubble', by delaying the start of the new season, EuroLeague executives decided that it was the time to accelerate a digital transformation.
In early July the league set up a collective transformation fund (DTF) to promote clubs adopting new technology.
“We’ve always been looking at what we can do for our fans and gaining as much information about the fans as we can,” explains Roser Queraltó, EuroLeague Basketball’s chief business development officer. “By adopting the latest innovations on the market – including data analysis, technology capabilities, and monetization – this is what will guarantee that the clubs have the best tools to do that.”
“We have a pot [of money] that was decided on and will be distributed to the teams for a particular project,” Queraltó continues. “We wanted the clubs to focus specifically on that [digital] piece of their business and ensure that the fans had a destination [to engage with the teams] across the league.”
In its 20th season EuroLeague has been enjoying year on year audience growth.
According to data provided by Nielsen, the competition attracted an average 15% annual increase in fan interest across its team markets during the latest installment, including 41% growth in France largely due to Asvel Basket making their EuroLeague debut.
Year-on-year TV viewership in France climbed by 6,634%, while Italy 184%, Israel 144%, Spain 81%, and Germany 64% also saw viewership increase.
Along with the help of global sports marketing agency IMG, EuroLeague has been looking for ways to modernize and capitalize on the increase in interest, this includes improving digital platforms.
It was during a visit to the EuroLeague’s headquarters in Barcelona in July last year when Mounir Zok, N3XT Sports’ chief executive, first broached the subject of creating the DTF. He was invited to give a keynote speech during the annual EuroLeague Business Summit on the roles of consumer data gathering and artificial intelligence (AI), and didn’t take long to convince the league’s representatives of its benefits.
“The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a new variable that the sports industry hasn’t had to deal with in the past – and that is the lack of physical events,” Zok said. “We found that only the companies that have invested previously on their digital and data efforts – and have a proper working infrastructure – were capable of maintaining the relationship with their fans, communications with all of their stakeholders, and to quickly bring value to their partners and sponsors.
“We’re looking at different areas within the clubs, from customer relationship management (CRM) to venue management, to data collection, innovation, ticketing, and so on. We have also worked very closely with EuroLeague Basketball to fine-tune some of the details around the fund and developed some of the criteria that the clubs will take into account and keep in mind when they put forward their applications.
“All the clubs have their own digital and data needs. Our role is first and foremost to do a diagnostics and evaluation on what is the best step forward and evaluate and monitor what each of the club’s progress will be, and then decide when the club’s funds should be deployed and how clubs are improving their operations through digital and data.”
A large portion of the EuroLeague field falls under the auspices of historic multi-sport clubs that also comprise elite soccer teams, such as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, and CSKA Moscow. For Zok, those clubs with a presence in multiple sports have an opportunity to create a “360-degree view” of their entire fan ecosystem and to “cross-pollinate” learnings from each of their teams’ digital activations.
“No matter where your data is coming from, you need to be able to consolidate it and, in many cases, when we work with our clients, we find that they have lots of data points that are sitting in isolated stacks,” he continued. “If someone purchases a ticket, or buys a t-shirt, or has just subscribed to an OTT platform, there are usually three different entries into a database.
“The capability of an organization to properly segment and filter its database will help it generate better results. We found the clubs to be evenly spread, which presents a massive opportunity for EuroLeague Basketball to step in and really contribute to bringing the clubs that are on the lower side of digital-data acumen [up to speed] and to quickly accelerate their learnings.
“Independent to whether there’s a pandemic or not, we strongly believe, as a company, that understanding who your stakeholders are, in general, gives you the capability of providing a better service. In the sports industry, we’re about to discover this and, in some cases, we have organizations that are doing an amazing job at this, and others less so.”
There are several key areas where the EuroLeague’s clubs may well look to adapt. While digital upgrades will likely include more customer-facing features for third-party sponsors – covering merchandise, food and beverage, and ticket sales – the role of the mobile app, more critically, could help teams to offer fans a “touchless experience” when welcomed back into arenas.
Some domestic competitions have been allowed to resume in EuroLeague markets without fans. On 28th July, for example, the final rounds of the Israeli Basketball Premier League saw Maccabi Tel Aviv defeat rivals Maccabi Rishon LeZion to secure their 54th title in the competition’s 67-year history.
With the focus now turning to the EuroLeague’s planned resumption in two months’ time, the six-time EuroLeague champions are also looking at ways of building out their own CRM system, as well as assessing how their relatively new mobile app, launched 18 months ago, can help the club achieve a deeper understanding of their fanbase during these uncertain times.
Daniel Shahak, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s head of digital, says that the creation of an integrated “digital wallet” for fans will not only improve the fan experience when allowed back into their Menora Mivtachim Arena, but will also help the club to garner valuable data to create a “much broader interface with the fan” and scale new revenue opportunities across its digital ecosystem.
“All leading businesses today, including sports clubs, understand that data, and the correct use of data, is the future in terms of bigger revenues, greater engagement, and building a greater community around the sport,” Shahak explains.
“However, a lot of the economic models used in Europe are based on models that are used in American sports. For example, fans [in the US] might pay money on a digital league pass, whereas European consumers think a bit differently. The collaboration and cooperation between the EuroLeague and the different clubs can help bridge over these gaps and can help us to achieve economic models that are suitable to the European consumer.
“I think we’re just in the beginning. There is almost no major club today that has a [fully] functioning sports-related CRM system. This is something that we have been working on over the past year, but we’re looking to make it even more efficient than we planned before, in order to know who is each fan.”
To help with that evolution, the Israeli club is working with global digital engagement specialist Pico, whose client portfolio includes other high-profile sports properties such as the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) St Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils, and the EuroLeague’s FC Bayern Munich.
According to Yaron Talpaz, Pico’s vice president for strategic partnerships, identifying “anonymous fans” across various digital assets is key. He believes more sports teams are beginning to see the value of data in building out their CRM and will only become more evident as teams are forced to adapt the fan experience in the wake of the coronavirus.
“When you know the fan, the messaging [you send to them] becomes different around the world,” Talpaz says. “The global impact Covid has had on sports teams, and especially those not yet thinking about data, has made them understand that they can no longer be an offline entity.
“Maccabi has been on this subject for years and was among one of the first leaders in the EuroLeague. By using a system like Pico, they are able to use that segmented data to help increase their sales around merchandise, sponsorship, and ticketing.”
In July, EuroLeague and its clubs agreed on a unified set of guidelines in response to the pandemic, created specifically to inform fans on how they can return to matches when a ban on spectators is lifted, and the steps the league body is taking to do so as safely as possible.
As part of the wide-ranging document, protocols include staggered arena entries, temperature checks upon entry, socially distanced seating, and flexibility to use ‘customizable payment methods’, including platforms for ticketless admission and cashless transactions.
Looking ahead to its resumption in October, Queraltó says the EuroLeague has everything in place for a return to play in 15 markets, though she warns the league could just as easily postpone again if circumstances call for it.
“Those are the plans but we also have to look at the reality we’re living in, so if we need to reschedule we will have to,” she says. “In Lithuania, people are able to go back to arenas, though other places will take longer.
“Fortunately, we know there will be a path we’re able to follow and adapt to the local law guidelines. It will be much quicker and more trustworthy [for fans] to feel safe, which is very important to all of us.
“The main goal is to be fan-facing. This includes a deep knowledge about our fans and properties. Things are changing, fans are evolving, so the idea is that we get to know what the fans want and to approach any decision-making, not only based on the sports industry movement, but specifically to the ones of basketball.”