College football games are averaging 10% fewer fans than they were 15 years ago, according to NCAA data. Although average game attendance ticked up in 2022 for the first time in 10 years, the steady erosion of people in seats is worrisome not only because it means less game-day revenue, but also because it potentially dulls the general halo effect on donations to the schools. For South Carolina, the move to counter the trend was to attack it with data.
“There’s definitely an old guard [thinking] around college athletics where, ‘If you roll the ball out and play well, people will show up,’” University of South Carolina associate athletic director for revenue generation and business intelligence Dan Stahl said in a phone call. “We want to make decisions that are driven by data and have real metrics that help inform those decisions rather than using our gut, which is probably how our industry—especially in college athletics—has operated for decades.”
Starting in 2016, the athletic department decided to utilize all the fan data the school and vendors collect to help them expand their ticket-buyer base. That was easier said than done. The athletic department found itself with numerous different databases with no way of knowing if or how much they overlapped. For instance, the ticket-buyer database didn’t communicate with the school’s database, so the team didn’t know if buyers were alumni, parents of students, fans at large or some combination.
For the past five years, South Carolina has been working to connect and mine the various databases, using software from Affinaquest, a data management and analytics company, to build a single data warehouse that can sort and match up data points. The athletic department then feeds the information into a customer relationship management (CRM) database from Salesforce, where it manages the direct marketing efforts.
“We create a golden record that comes in and brings all of the information in from all of those disparate data silos, and we clean it, we position it, and we structure it,” Affinaquest executive vice president for college athletics Steve Hank said in a phone call. “The institution combines ticketing information, alumni status, donation status and other information in the CRM, and you’re able to build a holistic profile of that person.”
Hank says his firm’s system uses a proprietary algorithm that correctly links customer information from different databases, even when the information is non-standard, such as when nicknames or initials get used. Affinaquest counts among its customers some 40 Power Five schools, including LSU and Syracuse, as well as smaller institutions. The fee for Affinaquest varies based on complexity and size of the task at hand, but annual license fees run from mid-five figures to over six figures.
For South Carolina, Stahl says the undertaking has been worth it. The effort got a big boost when the school switched to Fanatics for its merchandise sales. Fanatics’ database has an application programming interface (API) that allowed easy communication with the data warehouse, providing reams of information. Fanatics’ customer data alone provided the athletic department with more than 130,000 new names of fans.
“I was surprised by the vast number of people who were buying Gamecock gear but were not communicating with us directly,” Stahl said.
Thanks to the data mining effort, the athletic department last year generated $1.068 million in ticket sales to 1,400 new ticket buyers; of those new ticket buyers, 186 also became new donors to the university, realizing another $125,000 in donations to the general fund.
“We were blown away,” said Stahl. “One of the biggest challenges in the data world is being able to show direct ROI to our leadership team. We didn’t know who these people were and wouldn’t have been communicating with them at all unless we had this data warehouse.”
Hank says that unlike professional franchises, which have a single sales and marketing group working for the one team, athletic departments have staffers who see their focus diluted by dozens of men’s and women’s sports, meaning technology can have a bigger bang for the buck. “What South Carolina did was they pulled the information, understood who their fans were, used the ability to segment them and then delivered highly targeted messaging—and their conversion rate was 11%. That tells you that those people are engaged, and they were hidden,” Hank said.
But don’t give tech all the credit. Stahl said the department also benefited from a willingness to pitch football games a different way. In the past, South Carolina focused on getting people to sign up for season tickets—a large commitment younger fans are less likely to make. For 2022, the school instead emphasized a campaign called “Catch a Game,” which encouraged fans to try and make it to just one home game in the season, leaning heavily on alumni nostalgia for autumn weekends on campus. It ended up generating the largest single-game ticket-buying volume for the program, Stahl said.
Looking ahead, Stahl says the athletic department is mulling a loyalty program that will provide points for purchases, including game-day concessions, as another way for the school to gain more information about regular fans they don’t know about, such as people who get tickets from friends and family.
“I can’t tell you how many times I interacted with a fan who said, ‘I haven’t missed a game for 20 years,’ and then I look them up and they’re not in our ticket system,” Stahl said. “If we’re going to capture the right people and create our next generation of Gamecock fans, we need to be smarter about how we conduct business and make sure we’re engaging with more and more fans at the right times, and engaging them the right way.”