SBJ/20081117/SBJ In-Depth

Colts use network to reach out-of-market fans

The creation of, the Indianapolis Colts’ official social-networking hub, represents a fairly new solution to a rather old problem.

The Colts, like many NFL teams, enjoy a large out-of-market following, not surprising given the national footprint of pro football and the unceasing on- and off-field ubiquity of quarterback Peyton Manning. Roughly three-quarters of the traffic to the Colts’ official Web site arrives from outside of Indiana, and more than two-thirds of respondents in an ESPN Sports Poll who identified the Colts as their favorite NFL team also reside out of the club’s home state.

“Before the Web there really was no way to reach these people,” said Pat Coyle, the Colts’ executive director of digital business. Coyle formerly worked for the team in a full-time staff capacity, but is now a contract employee as he also runs an independent new media consultancy, as well as Sports Marketing 2.0, a digital media think tank and traveling industry summit. “This was a huge opportunity that simply wasn’t being accessed.”

The site launched in June 2007 and now has more than 25,000 members. Many of the functions and features are similar to those seen on major social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, including fan blogs, photo and video galleries, discussion forums and surveys. But the format and tonality of is more free-wheeling than what is typically seen on the bigger networks. And the site features a loyalty points system in which active users can earn prizes and special offers through their activity on gives the team a way to
connect with fans inside and
outside of Indiana.

“As much content as we create, the fans are creating more,” Coyle said.

Such a dynamic is being replicated across the country on dozens of similar team-sanctioned sites, with some of the more prominent examples including the Phoenix Suns’ and the Portland Trail Blazers’, meanwhile, is yielding some consumer patterns outside the established norm for the NFL. Like the league profile for avid fans, two-thirds of the users are men. But that one-third group of women represents 55 percent of the loyalty points, known as Colts Cred, earned on the site.

With that data, Coyle is looking to better position locally oriented Web outposts such as more firmly in the minds of national-level marketers. The site has a presenting sponsorship with RCA, the naming-rights partner for the team’s former home stadium, and prominent buys from Canon. But more national-level ad sales to fully leverage that broad out-of-market profile remain a work in progress.

“We recognize we’re not the only thing a national brand needs, but we do have a system in place now to reach those truly avid, passionate fans,” Coyle said. “The jury is still out on exactly what kinds of things marketers can do on sites like this, but our attitude is, ‘Let’s try some things.’”

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