Both attendance at NFL football games and TV ratings for NFL games have declined in recent years, but sports teams are endeavoring to draw fans back to the stadium. Modern facilities, family-friendly amenities, mobile ticketing, and strong, fast Wi-Fi are just a few of the tactical upgrades smart teams are making to increase turnout.

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Steve LaCroix, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of the Minnesota Vikings, has seen the appeal of a new stadium at work in Minneapolis. The state-of-the-art US Bank Stadium opened in November 2016 to rave reviews and record ticket sales.

But it takes more than technology and a roof made of clear space-age plastic to engage fans. Under Steve's leadership, the Vikings have forged community partnerships, supported charitable causes, and worked tirelessly to create meaningful relationships with the fans. The team even created its own entertainment network to engage fans across channels.

Steve, in his 17th season with the Vikings, shared some insight into the sports marketing industry and what the future holds for major sports franchises.

Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:

Mobile technology should enhance fans' game-day experience, not detract from it (04:30): "We really kept the fan experience front of mind across all decisions, and really wanted to bring technology to the forefront. The [Wi-Fi] connectivity for fans is a frustrating point, especially for the younger fanbase and the Millennials—that they can't stay in touch and upload all their social media. To be disconnected for that amount of time is a concern, so we made sure that the base connectivity was best-in-class and then shifted things to the Vikings mobile app and digital ticketing.

"We want to know who's in the seat on game day. We've always known who we sold the seat to originally, but we've never really known who was actually consuming our product on game day, and so we're making big steps there. Much like an airline, where you no longer carry a paper ticket in most cases. A lot of times it's in your mobile wallet. How do you then further engage the fans once their in the stadium and use mobile ticketing to get in? How do you drive engagement to the Vikings app via replays and food and beverage and fantasy stats and all kinds of ways to keep your fans engaged and interacting with your brand on game day, but all the while you don't want them to take the focus off of...cheering for the Vikings while we're playing."

Focus on the fan experience and ROI will follow (08:26): "We really try to satisfy and engage all aspects of our fanbase. We've got first-game packs for those fans, especially younger kids, when it's their first Vikings game. We deliver them a first-game package so they can really feel...'wow, that was special.' We want them to become Vikigns fans for life and come back to the stadium and continue to be engaged with us. A lot of things are difficult to put an ROI to, but it's the right thing to do for the fans, so you really just make [fan experience] a priority and make sure that you keep it top of mind."

Enhance the customer experience by using real-time data to streamline your operations. (09:36): "We, as a team, have built a whole analytics department. Just a mere few years ago, we were gathering all this data and it was just kind of sitting there and it wasn't really being cleansed or being efficiently utilized. We wanted to be able to utilize that data so we know what gates are slammed and we need to put more personnel there to assist. We send around analytics reports on game night every 15 minutes, as far as what's the level of activity, as far as gates, concessions, app usage. What parts of the app are they utilizing? Over time we can be smarter about certian aspects of what we're offering."

The NFL helps teams to suss out which social channels are worth their time, but they take a hard line on livestreaming video (16:30): "There's definitely NFL guidelines, especially when it comes to content. What can we post? What social platofrms are approved or not? So, at times, it's one of those [situations] where 'boy, we'd love to try XYZ platform that's emerging, we don't know much about it, should we engage or not,' and the league is a very good source to help vet that and make sure we don't take any missteps or misappropriate resources to chase down an alley—one that might not be the right one to pursue. 

"It's the live broadcast, the live game footage that's sacred for [the NFL]. Obviously they need to protect the national TV contracts and the significant amounts of revenue that come into the league to drive the bottom line.... It's a fine line [with fans]. We want that younger generation to become fans, to become season ticket owners. Don't just engage with snippets of our brand, but basically dedicate a handful of hours to come down to the stadium.... That's a big time committment, but when it comes to inside the stadium...livestreaming is not allowed.... It's just the nature of what we deal with in the NFL. But there are so many other ways we can engage you with [your mobile device], and that's what we're working on."

To learn more, visit You can also follow the team on Twitter @Vikings and download the Vikings mobile app.

Steve and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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