NBA Joins Gamification Wave, Fanning the Flames of Loyal Followers

When Hope Tannenbaum joined the NBA in 2020, the idea of the league launching a fan rewards program was just that—an idea.

Tannenbaum had previously worked with Foot Locker and American Express’s loyalty offerings, two of many companies that rely on similar programs to boost customer retention.

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“That’s why [the NBA] brought me in,” Tannenbaum said. “To really start from the white sheet of paper and figure out … how do we create a program that focuses on fans?”

Loyalty programs (corporate strategies that reward customers for, well, their loyalty—or at least their dollars) have existed for hundreds of years. But they really took off with the frequent flier programs of the 1980s. They now abound on land as well, where Starbucks may lead the way, with more than 50% of its store revenue coming from rewards members. Beauty brands, hotel chains, and credit card companies are among the many other businesses that rely on perks to separate themselves from the competition.

Sports organizations have tried to get in the game, too. About 10 years ago, a plethora of programs swept across the industry, from San Francisco’s Faithful 49ers to Miami’s Fin Club to New York’s Jets Rewards program. Fans could accrue points (or “yards”) for buying tickets, visiting team websites, or even contributing their vocal chords to cause opponents’ false starts. Benefits ranged from discounts and merchandise to a seat on the team plane.

None revolutionized the sports fan’s everyday experience. Many programs required fans to jump through additional hoops to receive rewards of uncertain value; others entirely excluded swaths of fans, like those who live outside a local market. On the team side, it became impossible to justify the amount of work required to monitor and maintain the programs. Focus often shifted instead to retaining and rewarding season ticket holders.

“When you think about these fans that aren’t coming to the venue, I think that the industry is leaving billions of dollars on the table,” said Vincent Ircandia, co-founder of fan data startup StellarAlgo.

Today though, a new generation of programs are emerging. Teams and leagues are building more direct relationships with fans, giving them both more ways to track engagement as well as more motivation to entice fans to their own products and platforms.

“Membership programs are a foundation of a direct-to-consumer strategy,” Tannenbaum said.

This year, she helped unveil NBA ID, a fan membership system that links a user’s profile between existing products like League Pass and Pick’Em while offering rewards ranging from merchandise discounts to ticket giveaways. Soon, the league will announce additional benefits around the NBA All-Star Game, including increased voting power and trips to the game in Utah.

“We’re focused mainly on getting people into the ecosystem, and just starting to identify and explore the benefits that they can get from creating an account,” Tannenbaum said. “As more folks do that, and we learn through their behavior what’s most important to them, we can build additional benefits and additional engagement activities going into year two.”

Every fan may want something different for their loyalty, but it’s easy to imagine use cases. When Tom Brady tallied his 100,000th passing yard, his best fans—the ones who first followed him online, or bought multiple jerseys, or have just watched him the most—could’ve received a video message from him thanking them for their support. An MLS supporter who logs into Apple TV in time to catch their team running out of the tunnel 10 times in a row could join the squad in the tunnel the next time around, or get to bang the fan-section’s drum.

In Orlando, the Magic have recently started rewarding loyal fans with video messages from rookie Paolo Banchero, spots in postgame layup lines, and so on. Loyalty programs also become platforms for partner activations, with the Magic offering Papa Johns coupons as prizes, and the league creating a Nike Run Club partnership that unlocks League Pass discounts.

“There’s a growing appetite by teams like us to try to create a more seamless fan experience process and also recognize our fans in all of their different touchpoints,” Magic EVP of strategy and innovation Jay Riola said.

Several companies are also using blockchain technology to put a twist on traditional loyalty programs. Socios is currently working with more than a dozen NFL teams while prioritizing giving fans a voice. Outside the U.S., fans holding certain crypto tokens can vote on things like jersey designs and elements of the gameday experience.

Fan Controlled Football has gone a step further, letting users draft players and call plays, with individuals’ sway rising as they level up their FanIQ score by engaging with the league.

But Andy Reid need not turn over his play sheet just yet, experts said. While rewards like access and influence might be nice, recognition alone would go a long way.

“We’ve seen that there’s a lot of fans that really, really strive just to let the team know that they exist,” Socios chief strategy officer Max Rabinovitch said.

One option is to establish a scoring structure (what sports fan wouldn’t like earning points?) for basic actions, and then displaying tallies on a public leaderboard, so supporters know where they stand. However, teams are wary of appearing to support one type of fan over another. Instead, properties are opting for other forms of so-called gamification, using techniques similar to fitness trackers or video games—things like streaks and bonuses—to guide fan behavior. Both the NBA and the Magic have added badges as rewards to their platforms, while the Sacramento Kings built challenges and achievements into their in-venue app. In Orlando, for instance, fans can receive a special emblem if they witness a buzzer-beater.

This season, NASCAR rolled out a rewards program built with many of the hallmarks of a modern loyalty scheme—points that could be cashed in for prizes, badges to track milestones or special moments, and tiers (Rookie, All-Star, Champion) that unlocked new benefits for diehards. The program specifically targeted the many fans who don’t show up to speedways by rewarding online purchases, fantasy gameplay, and even just checking in during a race.

Gamification “becomes a permanent fixture of pretty much every kind of app that is trying to track behavior or get people to do stuff,” said Adrian Hon, who just published a book on the subject. Chris Giles, the former COO of the Oakland A’s and current CEO of next-gen ticketing startup FanRally, has seen it firsthand.

“Watching my kids, it matters to them,” he said. “I don’t fully understand it. But they will play these games to earn these statuses and collect rare things until they’re blue in the face … We have to acknowledge that there is a generation that’s growing up with that everywhere. And if we don’t do it, we’re not going to engage them very well.”

Sports marketers, then, should prepare for a changed world. Fans will continue to root, root, root for the home team. But they also might start asking, What’s in it for me?

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