Atlanta Braves Marketing Executive: Technology Is Now A Business Driver

ATLANTA — It’s a real step forward for the sports business industry, according to marketing executive Adam Zimmerman.

The Atlanta Braves Vice President of Marketing was referring to the increasing trend of professional sports organizations moving toward building a venue within an entertainment district and mixed-use commercial real estate hub. This past season, the Braves opened SunTrust Park adjacent to The Battery Atlanta. It’s a sign of an ever-evolving industry, which now includes similar experiences like Little Caesars Arena (home of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons), the Los Angeles Rams stadium in Inglewood, Calif. and future Milwaukee Bucks arena, which will be open in 2018.

“It is sort of like a destination now,” Zimmerman said of SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta, which together is roughly at 35 percent occupancy among retail shops, restaurants, housing and corporate office space. “When you think about exactly what do fans want to do, you have to make sure and think about a model that would allow that, from your most avid fan who cares about ERA, (first baseman) Freddie Freeman’s batting average and the game to the person who just wants to come here, hang out with their friends and have a beer.”

As the Braves have upgraded their playing digs, so too has the organization retooled its thinking when it comes to the traditional revenue streams in sports. Along with media rights, ticket sales, sponsorship revenue and merchandise, the team has now layered in “technology as part of the portfolio,” Zimmerman explained to Sports Business Chronicle. In particular, he said that the “widespread adoption of AR will give my (sales folks) a lot more opportunities to sell new inventory that never existed. … Technology is now a business driver.”

He added: “How can you surround yourself with creative people? It forces us to think differently as a business when you’re surrounded by tech culture.”

Zimmerman, who has been with the Braves for nearly two years, along with his senior staff coined a phrase called ‘Braves in Beta’. It not only includes the organization’s new creative way of thinking that has fostered outside-the-box ideas but also, the Braves inserting themselves into the technology conversation with local entrepreneurs, a still immature business tactic for U.S. professional sports teams. The two parties, according to Zimmerman, could then mutually benefit from one another.

“We’re all about meeting with those (entrepreneurship-type) of people,” said Zimmerman, who added that the Braves have participated in hackathons the past two seasons as a way to partner with Atlanta-based entrepreneurs. “It takes a lot of our time and again, I don’t think sports organizations are traditionally set up for that. You have to. I think you do yourselves harm by letting a third party curate it for you. You got to actually have a meeting with Mark J. Burns entrepreneur versus someone who’s going to broker Mark J. Burns for you. That’s the right path forward. It forces you and your team to work differently.”

Zimmerman cited the winning group from this past season’s hackathon at SunTrust Park as an example of engaging the local technology community. The idea, in short, included the Braves leveraging fans’ smartphones to crowdsource content and then project it onto the big screen, with the senior executive calling it a “nice engagement play” via the Braves Ballpark App.

“That’s the benefit of going outside these four walls and getting with non-sports people, non-baseball people,” added Zimmerman, saying that the Braves are still fine-tuning the business arrangement and technology with the winners.

Below are some further insights provided by Zimmerman and colleague Greg Mize (Director of Digital Marketing) about improving fan experience, how the organization has doubled down on leveraging data to drive key business decisions and social media ROI.

Mize on what The Battery Atlanta — a mixed-use real estate development project — means for the Braves and its new venue in SunTrust Park…

We’ve built a reason for people to come and hang out. We’ve built an experience that doesn’t end after the final out. It ends whenever you want to get in your car or Uber and head home. And then it doesn’t end when the season ends. It continues throughout the year. What’s interesting now, The Battery itself will be more at the forefront without baseball games being played. What will never go away is the fact that everything happening out there, whether you’re eating at a restaurant or hanging out in the plaza, there’s the allure of a Major League Baseball ballpark right there. That’s permanent, whether or not baseball is being played.

Zimmerman on data, data, data…

We’re focusing on CRM, knowledge and the more you can concentrate on all of the data that you have. We’re really doubling down on how do we use all of the data we have to inform decisions. And not just meet fans’ expectations. What can we put out there that fans haven’t asked for?

Mize on the Braves turning social engagement into data-driven business decisions…

What we’re doing now is really turning that social engagement into action. Where we’re doing that is social listening. The model is being able to understand who is engaging with a piece of content that we put out. So, one of the examples we used, (center fielder) Ender Inciarte had 200 hits this season, and we posted about it. By someone retweeting that, commenting on it, engaging with it, that is a fan’s way of raising their hand and saying, ‘OK, I follow you, so I have some affinity for the brand. I’m engaging with this piece of content’. By that engagement, we’re able to understand a little bit more about someone.

We’re able to crawl down a little bit deeper. How often are they tweeting about the player? Are they tweeting at the player? Is the player tweeting at them? Being able to build audience profiles based on that knowledge. Over time, as we collect that, we’re able to have segmented people who we know have affinity for him. Next year, we’re doing bobblehead night. That’s the first group we’re going to reach out to. We know that they are more likely to engage and to buy a ticket because of the affinity they have for that player.

Mize further commenting on segmenting Braves fans based on their social comments and interactions and how it impacts business…

Through social listening, we’re able to see everything a Braves fan is tweeting about: favorable, unfavorable, completely unrelated to the Braves and baseball. Then, we’re able to further segment and group and better understand that. For example, people who are tweeting about the Braves maybe are over-indexing on craft beer. Alright then, let’s do more craft beer nights then and more craft beer ticket packages next year. … It’s those types of insights we’re able to get by listening.

Zimmerman additionally discussing social media ROI…

Social engagement has become a long tail marketing play. … We’re connecting the dots between our business analytics guys and creatives. … When someone says, ‘Hey, we’re spending a lot of time, money and effort on social, what are we really doing?’ Now you’re starting to say, ‘This is why we’re doing this’.

Mize on SunTrust Park’s one terabyte WiFi capacity, how it’s 20 times faster than the average MLB ballpark and what it allows Braves fans to do at games…

The biggest thing as it relates to WiFi and what (Adam Zimmerman, VP of Marketing) said is what it enables. What we saw this year is that people were sending more content up than pulling content down. Think about that. Especially from our perspective as it relates to the more social content conversation that’s created around the great experiences happening here, the better for us. Whether it’s people putting up Instagrams, sending Snaps and even outside of social, texting, emailing, the fact that more content is going up than coming down just speaks to how the sports fan and consumer experiences the live event differently.

How many times have you been to a sporting event and gotten frustrated trying to put up a piece of content? It doesn’t happen here. That’s a game-changer. Now, can you meet the expectation that a fan has. They have the exception that, ‘I’m at a cool event, and I want to share it’.

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