Play Ball.com

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 04-06-2006

Baseball fans are a sturdy lot. They have weathered every kind of scandal modern sport can offer—from corked bats and scuffed balls to player strikes and steroids—and still they come streaming through the turnstiles every spring, filled with the hope that their team can win the pennant.

The fact that baseball engenders a sort of blind devotion among its followers is something Major League Baseball and its member teams have known, in fact counted on, for a hundred years. Figuring out how that passion can be converted into increased sales of tickets, concessions and merchandise, however, has been a bit trickier, particularly in the Internet Age. That's where a little business intelligence can go a long way.

Two years ago, MLB Advanced Media LP, the company that runs the MLB.com Web site, as well as the individual team sites, decided it was time to start piecing together the first 360-degree view of baseball fans. The team sites had been serving up news and stats, booking tickets and selling merchandise for years, even before the Major League Baseball teams collectively funded the limited partnership in 2000. But they had yet to marry the reams of data they had for online customers with data that teams had been collecting from "offline" customers for decades.

"We had the information on where visitors went on the sites, how frequently they came, how long they stayed, and what types of products they purchased," says Kristen Fergason, vice president of marketing for MLB Advanced Media. "But we wanted to put that together with ticket sales, concessions, really any kind of transaction between the ball clubs and their customers."

MLB Advanced Media started with the basics. They matched the e-mail addresses that teams had been collecting for years with those they had captured through the Web sites. Over time, they began to refine the accuracy of the data by adding phone numbers, addresses and buying habits, captured through registrations, sign-up forms and contest entries. They used SAS Marketing Automation to work with the data and create a more complete view of the different types of customers.

"Across every team you could see how customers were behaving differently," says Fergason. "We found out who the ticket buyers were, who the news readers were, and who was coming from out-of-market areas. We learned that there is a very high crossover rate, that many people do multichannel purchasing."

With the information, MLB.com and the teams can market to customers more effectively. For example, a customer who buys individual tickets to four or more games a season can be offered a mini-plan instead. "It's all an attempt to understand preferences," adds Fergason.

The biggest obstacle MLB Advanced Media has is converting anonymous Web site visitors into known customers. At first, the sites only identify customers with the MLB cookie. MLB Advanced Media can track that customer's behavior, but they often have no idea who the person is behind the mouse. Using a variety of methods, MLB.com entices viewers to provide their e-mail addresses, which are then instantly matched to information already on file.

Also difficult is knowing which information is important, how much to save, and finding the storage to hold it all. "At first, being in marketing, I wanted to hold on to everything," says Fergason. "But it turns out that not all information has enough value to warrant the effort behind saving it."

Today, MLB.com, combined with the 30 team sites it operates, receives 1.6 billion visits a year generating 15 billion page views. It sells 50 percent of all single game tickets. And for the first time, MLB.com will be streaming every major league baseball game this season (including many spring training games), a service for which it already has millions of subscribers. Proof that in baseball, hope truly springs eternal.