Photographer: Jason Miller/Getty Images

NFL’s Cleveland Browns Are on a Cash-Making, Data-Mining Mission

  • NFL team and startup YinzCam create individual fan dossiers
  • Browns saved $1 million in season tickets, raised food sales

If you watch the Cleveland Browns, there’s a good chance they’re watching you too.

For the past few years, the Browns have been compiling extensive, individual profiles of their fans. Pulling together data from ticket sales, merchandising, concessions and even web traffic, the National Football League team can cross-reference basic contact information with games attended, souvenirs and snacks purchased. They even follow every minute spent on the team’s mobile app, plus each highlight video watched or article read.

By turning the same rigorous attention to fan data that the team’s coaches apply to evaluating players, the Browns say they’re making more money and keeping fans happier. Together with Pittsburgh-based software firm YinzCam, the team says it has preserved $1 million in season ticket sales and increased food and drink sales. Now it is looking to the same data to raise more money from sponsorships.

“The traditional approach -- ‘Let’s e-mail people 18 to 35 because they’re young’ -- the days of that are really over,” said Joe Moeller, a business analyst for the Browns. “We can now treat every person as an individual.”

The various companies that serve sports teams and venues have been edging closer to this for a while. In particular, concessionaires Aramark and Levy Restaurants have developed analytics divisions to help arenas and teams increase sales. Fanatics, the biggest online retailer of sports apparel, also scours its customers’ shopping habits. So does Ticketmaster.

YinzCam took all of Cleveland’s separate data streams -- basic demographic information, ticket sales records from Ticketmaster, merchandise sales information from Fanatics, and concessions data from Aramark, among others -- and combined them into one program. The company, which also builds mobile apps for teams in all four major U.S. sports, gave Browns executives an easier look at what fans want and how to give it to them.

“If you’re a season-ticket holder, the Browns should give you everything you need to know about game-day, from parking to traffic to venue concessions -- you shouldn’t have to hunt-and-peck your way to it,” YinzCam founder Priya Narasimhan said. “On the other hand, if you’re a fan on the couch and a big social media follower, that should be front-and-center for you.”

One of the Browns’ early experiments targeted those season-ticket holders. Until recently, the team typically called its biggest fans to encourage them to renew. Then executives looked at the data, which revealed that phone calls hurt more than they helped.

“The more you call people, the less likely they are to renew or change their behavior,” said David Giller, another member of the Browns’ analytics team. “That’s interesting to us, because that’s a tried-and-true industry practice.”

The Browns scaled back phone calls in favor of text messages, e-mails and push notifications to people who, their data showed, were more likely to interact with the team electronically. As a result, they say, they retained $1 million in season ticket sales they would otherwise have lost.

That some people find sales calls annoying isn’t particularly ground-breaking. What’s new, is the ability to identify who those people are, so the Browns can tailor their outreach accordingly. For a team in a smaller market like Cleveland, that’s a big deal.

“The well is just not that deep,” said Giller. “If we burn every lead in the barrel, we’re stuck.”

After season tickets, the Browns turned their attention to merchandise and concessions promotions, like discounts on food. The team’s earlier research found that sending an e-mail blast to random recipients resulted in a 7 percent jump in spending. When the team used YinzCam’s predictive analytics, spending rose 33 percent. That’s a jump of $33,000 per promotion.

Now the team is working on data to convince companies to sign on as Browns sponsors, and to figure out which fans need to be nudged toward bigger ticket packages. Eventually, a fan who buys a Joe Haden jersey might start seeing more videos of the All-Pro cornerback. The potential, says team Chief Financial Officer David Jenkins, is rich.

“We’re now at the edge of this frontier,” Jenkins said. “I can’t tell you where we’ll be three years from now, but I do know we’ll be better at making this a personalized experience.”

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