Sport clubs have the most loyal fans in the world, so is it any wonder that they are leaders in innovations in Loyalty Programmes?

Imagine making a product that frequently lets its customers down, that causes grown men to cry real tears in anguish, and has intensely loyal customers who stick with it year after year, and generation after generation – this is what sports clubs have!

Sport is not just a source of intense dedication – it’s also a great equaliser; appealing to children, their parents, and their grandparents, across gender and ethnic lines, and even traversing financial demographics, like no other medium can, for example, bankers and blue collar workers share space in sports terraces every weekend.

Sports dedication has a law of its own. “Some people think football is a matter of life and death,” legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said, “I can assure you, it’s much more serious than that”.

So how do clubs, and other companies, make the most of this immense, lifelong dedication that fans have? And how are they thanking their fans, and encouraging continued loyalty?

Emotional season tickets

Before we discuss the ways to harness the power of a sports club, let’s look at how to encourage existing fans to stay true.

First, take into consideration that not every fan can be a season ticket holder. Manchester United, for instance, has millions of fans beyond Manchester (including thousands on this island).

Previously, fandom was just in the sports grounds or on one TV channel, now, of course, fans engage in online discussions, follow transfer and team news on apps, and watch cable TV channels dedicated to talking about one sport (and even sometimes just discussing one club).

Fan clubs are almost as old as sport itself (you might have been a member yourself, in your childhood!). But they’ve become more sophisticated in recent years.

For instance, the Chelsea Fan Club  has a number of loyalty tiers. Its free membership offers newsletters and competitions, deepening the relationship between fan and club; while various tiers of premium membership offer members exclusive videos on demand, live streams of Chelsea TV, and match programmes for up to £69.99 (€82) a year.

Chelsea Fan Club members can accumulate Chelsea Reward Points which are redeemable at the club’s online stores, sports grounds and beyond. These points are earned by, for instance, visiting the website daily, sharing content, and other similar engagements – all designed to drive participation!  It might help explain why attendance is almost booked solid, and revenue for Chelsea remains incredibly healthy, with the club achieving a record turnover of £321 million in 2016.

Further afield, in Canada’s chilly Winnipeg, the Jets hockey team offers deeper rewards for members. Getting to games early, shopping at the merchandise stands, and investing in a season seat, are some of the ways to earn points. And these points can be redeemed on anything, such as watching warm-ups from the team bench, to VIP trips and NHL events.

Jets Rewards is truly a leading edge programme for us that will benefit and appeal to all Season Seat Holders, Wait List Members, and Registered Share Partners.” said Jim Ludlow, President & CEO of True North Sports & Entertainment, who worked with the Winnipeg Jets on the programme. “Our fans are some the loudest and most loyal in the NHL. We wanted to thank these groups for their passion and loyalty, and this programme was the absolute best way to do that. Points are redeemable for just about anything a fan could want, but most importantly, what is most meaningful to them personally.”

What’s also really important, is the huge amount of fan and customer data generated from such Loyalty Programmes. These programmes have the ability to track every purchase at venues, every purchase online, and every purchase at participating stores, which can be linked to each fan. Loyalty Programmes like Jets Rewards will tell a team what their fans’ favourite merchandise is, which games and players generate the most buzz (whether on social media or web traffic), and even how far they travel to watch each game, among other useful stats.

Nurturing a sport

Loyalty Programmes help to maintain interest (and revenue) in a club all year round, keeping interest going with newsletters, competitions, previews, and even in the venue’s non-sporting uses. For example, American ice hockey team The Panthers informs its fans of gigs and events happening in their stadium off-season, with targeted correspondence examples: Young families might be informed about Disney on Ice, while young adults would be contacted about indie rock gigs (like the recent Imagine Dragons show there).

Is it any wonder that 12 of the 20 Premier League teams have a Loyalty Programme? Meanwhile, across the Pond, 23 of the 32 MLB teams, and 20 of the 26 NBA teams have them, and the NFL have one unified one, and one for every team.

Credit (card) where it’s due

Sport fandom often has a ripple effect on the economy, going beyond the stadiums, and the hospitality industry, and into daily finance.

Incentivising use of a credit card is an endless challenge, and a tough one to do creatively. Financial incentives can be dry, while competitions often slide into cliché.

But with sports fans it’s a different (ahem) ball game. The Manchester United credit card appeals to the club’s legions of fans, granting redeemable points for use. These points could be accumulated and exchanged for “money can’t buy” Manchester United experiences and products.

The Manchester United credit card tackles one of the oldest and most persistent challenges in the industry: It creates a positive emotional connection between the consumer and a relatively ordinary, and sometimes even stressful, product.

Lateral thinking

Sports fandom is a strange, but powerful phenomenon. Recent years have shown the new ways that clubs have strengthened the bond with fans, deepened the relationship and funnelled that passion in new and interesting ways.

Just like the finest athletes, canny loyalty experts will leave no opportunity on the field.