Sports Tech 14 min read

AFL expands fan engagement efforts with Tradable Bits

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An industry leader in the fan engagement, and data and marketing solutions space, Tradable Bits has secured a substantial expansion of its long-standing relationship with the AFL.

Tradable Bits will provide the AFL and 17 of its clubs with fan engagement and live activation solutions in 2024, extending a partnership that began with a seven-club pilot five years ago.

Based out of Vancouver, Canada, and operating in the sports entertainment sphere for 13 years, Tradable Bits has become a major player in the Australian landscape of what has become an increasingly integral part of sports business.

The company first established a presence in Melbourne in early 2020, and is the fan marketing platform of choice across the AFL industry, providing turnkey fan engagement options, a purpose-built customer relationship management (CRM) solution and simple, out-of-the-box integrations with ticketing, merchandise and Marketing automation tools.

“As the leader in fan engagement solutions for the live sports and entertainment industries, we are thrilled to expand our affiliation with the AFL,” Tim Mullaly, Tradable Bits’ APAC General Manager told Ministry of Sport.

“This relationship brings together our innovative engagement platform and CRM to deliver a holistic solution for the league and its teams. The demand for tailored experiences has never been stronger from the fan, and effective segmentation is the cornerstone to delivering on this.”

The Geelong Cats, Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide Power are the most recent additions to Tradable Bits’ stable of AFL clubs utilising their innovative software.

Nick Forward, the General Manager of AFL Digital, emphasised the importance of effectively capturing data to maximise fan experience – and Tradable Bits’ role in the league’s ability to do so.

“AFL fans are some of the most dedicated sports enthusiasts in Australia so it’s crucial for us to keep them actively engaged and captivated in our game, whether they’re at a match or engaging from afar,” Forward said.

“With the support of Tradable Bits, we’re able to offer personalised experiences and enhance our digital offerings that not only strengthens our connection with each fan, but also enriches their overall experience with the AFL and its clubs.”

In one campaign, the AFL partnered with Tradable Bits to engage attendees at all nine Toyota AFL Finals Series matches, running a Be The DJ vote through the big screen where fans could vote for one of three songs they wanted to hear at the 3/4 time break. Results were shown in real time on the big screens, encourage participation and the campaigns saw more than 35,000 votes across the finals.

WHO IS TRADABLE BITS?

Co-founded by current CEO Darshan Kaler and CTO Dmitry Khrisanov in late-2010, Tradable Bits’ product has evolved and its team has grown exponentially in that time. In fact, the company recently made three key hires to address global demand, including Greg Bobolo who joined as Global Chief Revenue Officer, former Twitter Sports and Gaming Partnerships lead Maurizio Barbieri who joined as Vice President overseeing Asia, and former Learfiled Vice President of Digital and Social Media Jack Patterson who joined as Vice President overseeing North America.

The company was recently recognised by Sports Business Journal as a Power Player in Fan Experience Technology.

As well as NBA franchises Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers, and NFL’s Tennessee Titans, Tradable Bits is a trusted platform of the likes of Ticketmaster and Live Nation Entertainment.

“Tradable Bits is primarily a technology company at heart and we’re a provider of fan engagement and data solution software for lots of leagues, teams and partners,” Mullaly explains.

“What we focus on is making it easier for partners to collect fan data – and to actually understand their fans at a deeper level, and then activate that data all in one spot so they can start to get a single view of the team, a single view of their fan and make smarter decisions when it comes to marketing, and tailor their communications for their fanbase.

Tradable Bits takes care of the nuts and bolts behind the scenes, but its team also works with partners to arm them with the tools, education and understanding to make key marketing and fan-focused choices themselves, and to simplify the solution.

“It’s a SaaS (Software as a Service) platform, and we first onboard our partners to make sure that they’re comfortable and understand the platform,” Mullaly says, “but we also ensure we have a really sound understanding of their business, what they’re looking to achieve and how they want to strengthen that communication with fans.

“That might take on different guises, whether it’s focusing purely on building out their first party database, for example, or they might be looking to create new digital assets that their partnerships and commercial team can bring in new revenue with.

“Or it might be around engaging fans in-stadium and trying to enrich the matchday experience they’ve got currently.”

LEVERAGING FAN ENGAGEMENT

Far beyond being a sports marketing buzzphrase, fan engagement – and leveraging it through data analytics – is an area of any sports organisation’s business that they can no longer afford to neglect.

It has taken time for it to be properly utilised on a large scale, however, and some key changes in recent years have helped facilitate that shift.

Mullaly contends the technology has been available, but the understanding of how important first-party and zero-party data – essentially data collected directly from customers and audiences through interactions with them – within the sports industry hasn’t necessarily been there.

That’s changed in the past two-and-a-half years since iOS 14 privacy changes transformed the industry. This self regulation essentially put privacy back in the hands of the consumer – which is really a good change – and meant brands had to sharpen up and start to understand their fanbases and their consumers in more detail. This will only become more prevalent as 3rd party cookies start to disappear too,” he says.

“First-party data allows them to do that and to actually own that data. With more of a focus on that and the understanding of the importance of it, the industry has really started to catch up in that regard as well.

“We want to be able to engage fans in different ways. There’s now more of an understanding of the importance of the role data plays in that meaningful exchange. So you can actually find different ways to keep your fans excited, run different activations that allow you to creatively execute different fan engagement pieces, but then also focus on what you can do to enrich that experience by understanding them at a deeper level.”

 

THE SOCIAL LADDER

Another shift within the sports industry has accelerated the efficiency in which these data-driven findings are able to be implemented.

Leagues and teams are increasingly employing people with data and analytics backgrounds, as well as those who have come from different areas of marketing. That influx of expertise moving into the sports sphere has put a more streamlined focus on knowing fans at a deeper level – and how organisations can tailor the experiences for them.

Social media teams are now a necessity, rather than a luxury – nor can their expanding responsibilities be palmed off to staff in more traditional communications roles.

“Social media managers really hold the keys to a lot of things within a sporting team,” Mullaly says.

“I think what’s been pleasing to see over even the last three to four years has been how those roles have been boosted and supported further by growing [social media] teams, but also [supported] by marketing teams, consumer teams, and starting to understand the importance of knowing that supporter base more themselves.

“Social teams are being resourced more effectively. The big difference you see in [clubs and leagues] who are really getting this right is that they’re becoming less siloed between [their] social team, marketing, partnerships and [their] consumer team – there’s more cross-functional communication between those teams.

“That’s the real hallmark of effective fan communication and engagement, when they’re working together for a common good: how can we actually deliver something for the fan? It’s a really tailored experience.

“You’re going to get more fan buy-in, you’re going to be able to move more tickets, see more people watching your content. And at the end of the day, we want to be able to sell more memberships as the longer tail. Stronger fan numbers then have a positive commercial impact on what you can do to sell packages to partners and sponsors.

“It’s a bit of a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach.”

TEAMING UP

Mullaly joined Tradable Bits as the company became established in Australia in early-2020, moving over from the AFL, where he was in a Club commercial manager role, helping clubs to understand, capitalise on and commercialise their digital assets.

Unsurprisingly, it was a challenging juncture to make the jump as the pandemic threw the sporting world – and society generally – into uncertainty just weeks later, with the AFL and all other Australian codes forced to go on temporary hiatus.

“COVID was a pretty interesting time and it was actually pretty surreal because there was a significant demand for Tradable Bits – a lot of clubs really wanted to be able to engage fans while there was no sport on,” he recalls.

“Everything shut down, people were just screaming out for something and it was a really key tool for our AFL Club partners in particular to be able to remain quite close with their fanbase, and be able to provide some content value and stay connected with them.”

The AFL-Tradable Bits relationship has blossomed in the intervening years – and Mullaly the league’s integrated approach working with its clubs has been a crucial element.

But it’s not only at the elite level where these tools are useful – the AFL has also utilised Tradable Bits’ systems to boost grassroots footy.

“Something the AFL does really, really well is to try centralise services, but they’re always looking to try out new technology and to expand that.

“[Australian telecom giant] Telstra played a really big role within that as well. So we had a chance to pilot with seven teams in 2019 … it grew year-on-year to 10 teams, to 12, then 14, up to the point at the beginning of 2023, where we had had the Geelong Cats sign on, who were the 17th team.

“The AFL’s focus has really been around growing their fanbase in non-traditional markets where possible. So we’ve done a lot of work with AFL New South Wales teams and AFL Queensland to help any of the programs that they’re running within schools, for example, or working with their core marketing teams and social teams to help them.

“[An example is] gamifying the traditional competitions that might be running, like Mark of the Year, Goal of the Year, and a lot of head-to-head fan engagement votes as well.”

In another campaign, Port Adelaide leveraged the huge popularity of their sold out retro guernsey to help generate qualified leads for their membership team. Fans had the chance to win a limited edition signed Retro Guernsey, and Port Adelaide used intelligent paid digital promotion to deliver record entry numbers, and significant qualified leads, 30% of which were new fans.

TANGIBLE RESULTS

Such is the prevalence of Tradable Bits across the AFL ecosystem, that in 2022 its campaigns or competitions accounted for one in every two new fan records generated.

“That’s a stat that we were particularly proud of and something that we worked at for a long time across our partner base with the AFL clubs,” Mullaly says.

“The way we’ve become quite sticky within the AFL ecosystem is really through our first touch point – the fan engagement templates and campaigns that our partners run.

“That’s been the way that we first got introduced to the system: ‘How can we start to collect first-party data? How can we run team selectors, MVP votes?’ And as clubs have become more sophisticated with it, they’ve gone from running a couple of engagement pieces per week – a head-to-head vote or a weekly quiz, for example.

“That’s how things started out in 2020 and ’21. And as clubs became more sophisticated and their understanding of the platform grew, we started to work with broader parts of the AFL club businesses. So you maybe start out working with the digital teams, then we started working with consumer and marketing teams to understand how can we use this to generate leads and what membership types fans are interested in, whether they’re interested in tickets, or maybe it’s more about content.

“This is where we’re able to start to work more closely with them, to dig into that and actually start segmenting fans and exposing them to our fan CRM, using that to create more tailored audiences overall.

“How that led into that one-in-two [new fans recorded] stat was really around clubs becoming a lot more intelligent with the way that they ran these campaigns and being a lot more strategic and understanding the power of running key data collection pieces at certain times of year.

“It might be around the start of season when that fan excitement is at its peak – all supporters think their team can win a premiership before the season starts – or tying into key rounds like the Sir Doug Nicholls Round or Anzac Day, for example, when we know there’s going to be a heap of eyeballs on their socials. Trying to run the right giveaways at that time of year, putting really great prizes up for grabs, like money-can’t-buy experiences or meet-and-greets with players.

“That’s when you can start to build out those prospecting lists for the marketing teams, for the consumer teams, to be able to action a lot more. And that’s extrapolated out over the last couple of years to that point where it’s really the main source of inbound data and new leads for the majority of the AFL now, which is something we’re exceptionally proud of.”

THE FUTURE OF FAN ENGAGEMENT

Tradable Bits is constantly striving to launch new and exciting opportunities and different fan engagement campaign types.

Mullaly says there are plenty of developments in the works – and he gave an insight into a couple that aren’t completely under wraps at present.

“Over the past 18 months we’ve been working with one of our technology partners – Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, who own the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors – to create a new campaign type, which is called Arcade.

“This is based on your classic arcade-style games, where fans can come and take flick shots for goal, shoot hoops or even run a digital T-Shirt toss style game. There’s a bunch of sports these have been templated for, allowing our clients to create bespoke looking Arcade games with commercial integrations, all in quick time.

“It keeps fans coming back consistently,on average about six plays per person and up to four minutes dwell time on it. They’re quite addictive! These campaigns are fantastic ways for our partners to integrate partners and bring in revenue, but also to just really amplify the fan engagement work teams are doing.

“We’re really excited about the future direction that our AFL partners and our other partners within the Australian landscape are going with their use of the platform. I think that correlates with the fact that there’s new, enriched marketing talent coming into the system who are starting to really understand the power of these data-led platforms.

“What we’re really focusing on with a number of our AFL partners now is helping them with their digital marketing, in particular, to sell more memberships and to understand the return on investment that they’re seeing for their digital marketing spend.

“We do this through integrations with numerous ticketing membership providers (such as Ticketmaster or Ticketek), to understand how many memberships may have been sold, and how many can be attributed to the club’s digital marketing spends. Tradable Bits is a Global Ticketmaster Nexus partner with expertise and focus on Ticketmaster’s Archtics platform. This helps us to provide more detailed reporting for our clients and a platform to keep innovating.”

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