SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/Marketingsponsorship

NFL flexes database marketing muscle to sell tix, boost viewership

In early September, the Cincinnati Bengals faced the grim prospect of opening their season with a game against the Denver Broncos well short of a sellout. Aside from the impact on concessions and parking revenue, not having a capacity crowd meant no TV exposure in the Bengals' home market — crucial for a team trying to establish an identity after years of mediocre play.

Enter database marketing. With the help of a list provided by the league of Bengals fans and displaced Broncos fans living in the Cincinnati area, an e-mail blast pushing tickets was sent, helping the game sell out. Local fans were able to watch the Bengals on television.

NFL officials said the team credited them with selling 500 to 600 of the tickets necessary to ensure the sellout. The Bengals have enlisted the aid of the NFL in selling tickets several more times since the opening week.

Helping clubs sell tickets is just one way the NFL is using database marketing, a common marketing tactic in some large consumer categories such as travel, telecommunications and financial services, but still relatively new to the seat-of-your-pants world of sports marketing.

With an E.piphany database system in-house for around a year now, the league has been able to cull a database of 11.4 million NFL customers from a variety of sources, the biggest being NFL Shop, nfl.com and NFL Sunday Ticket.

Through database management, the league can then find customers with multiple NFL commercial relationships and create new marketing initiatives.

Thus far, the league has employed those lists to increase its NFL Shop circulation from 9 million to 11 million. The NFL hopes to grow that to around 18 million licensed merchandise catalogs within five years.

"This is the engine that's allowing us to build that," said Bob O'Keefe, the NFL's senior director of publishing and direct marketing. "It's not about more; it's about more effective."

Another recent database application was helping the NFL Network launch with an e-mail blast to around 1.2 million fans. Some were just promoted to watch, while others, in geographically strategic locales such as Houston, Green Bay and New York, were asked to call their local cable operator and request NFL Network.

Plans are in place to expand the league's growing database marketing capabilities to other areas. At a time when the NFL is looking to create new sponsor assets, it wants to offer its corporate patrons a way to reach its most commercially active fans.

Under way are database-driven plans to give sponsors pages within NFL catalogs or offering a sampling capability inside the million or so packages that NFL Shop ships annually, along with an NFL-branded direct-mail program.

Still in their nascency are plans to boost TV viewership with marketing programs like a watch-and-win contest. When the new MBNA/NFL credit card launches next year, there will be even more data available.

"We'd like to get to a place where we could have a rate card with different prices for segmenting against different fans," said Perry Cooper, director of database marketing.

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