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Will The NFL’s Data Collective Be a Tipping Point?

As consumers, we have grown accustomed to, and perhaps weary of, being asked to share data with apps, websites and the occasional Nigerian prince. But a recent, out-of-the-ordinary data request is one to pay particular attention to, as it has the potential to dramatically impact the sports marketing landscape.

This was not a personal request, but one the NFL made of its teams to provide the data they have collected on fans to the league’s centralized database. The 32 owners voted in late May to comply, creating an opportunity for the league to do what few, if any teams, have so far been unable or unwilling to do: supply corporate partners with unique insights they can use to power relevant and effective activations.

As I have previously pointed out, this has been the missing link in the fan-team-sponsor chain for quite some time. Plenty of teams and leagues talk a good game about wanting or needing to share fan data with partners but have yet to make it happen.

With the addition of team data, the size and scope of the already massive NFL repository becomes one of the most powerful customer databases in sports. As Ben Fischer’s article in Sports Business Journal noted, the league has information on tens of millions of fans, “but it primarily includes data gathered at league events and through customer contacts generated by league sponsors such as Fanatics, EA Sports, Ticketmaster and Caesars—not data gathered by individual teams. Under this new measure, teams (will) have to share fan data generated by local events, merchandise sales, local sponsorships and team digital/social media.”

Paul Ballew, NFL chief data and analytics officer, clearly understands the importance of fan insights in marketing, as stated in Daniel Kaplan’s piece for The Athletic: “Ballew paints the NFL’s data move within the larger trend of companies offering personalization and engagement — no different from websites that know your preferences, algorithms that recommend which movies you might like on streaming services, and ads that pop up on your screen from companies you have engaged with previously. The goal for the NFL and its teams is to have that type of relationship with each of their fans.”

That, of course, is also the goal of the brand partners who shell out nearly $2 billion to sponsor the league and its franchises, bringing us back to the golden opportunity the NFL has to lead from the front and set an example by creating a way for sponsors to access the critical insights imbedded in its new super database.

While individual teams and smaller sports organizations have perhaps had the excuse that they did not have the capabilities and resources to effectively share insights with partners, the multi-billion-dollar enterprise that is the NFL does not have those challenges, setting the stage for what could—and should—be an exciting new level of cooperation between a rightsholder and its brand partners.

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