Engaging Sports Fans Through Personalization and Perpetual Recruitment

Photo courtesy Rice Athletics

Photo courtesy Rice Athletics


Gameday technology is our thing. It’s the core of our business. As a leading fan experience creator for collegiate athletics, it is our duty to provide on-trend information that serves our partners and customers. And so, we are pleased to give you our Gameday Insider Series where we take our readers behind the scenes with some of the prominent architects of the gameday experience.


David Pillen is a former student-athlete turned fan experience creator. In his role at Rice University, David is transforming the way college athletics is experienced through digital platforms. Personalization, building unique experiences and creating a fear of missing out are a few of his mantras. Read on for an inside look at how Rice Athletics does fan engagement with Pillen at the helm.

David Pillen   Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing, Rice Athletics

David Pillen

Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing, Rice Athletics

AS: How have you seen marketing change in collegiate athletics over the years that you've been a professional?

DP: It's really become a deal where everything is personalized. What our fans want here at Rice University is probably completely different than what fans at Ohio State want. However, both sets of fans want to feel that their support has a sense of purpose, and so the more personalized you can get with marketing towards your constituent, the better. You see it all across the board from a marketing standpoint. Every single time you log into Netflix or Spotify, it's all personalized. You have specific playlists based on your most played songs. They welcome you by name. It’s the same thing when you’re marketing collegiate athletics. The more we can do to personalize and tailor our experiences, the more our fans feel special and part of our community. That’s what the fans want, and that’s how you build a fan base.

AS: Describe your unique approach to marketing Rice athletics?

DP: We're all about the Rice family, and so the more we can give people a unique experience through our events, the more we can make them feel like they're actually a part of our family. That's important to us. Our entire marketing and advertising philosophy revolves around people and their connections to Rice. From a strategy standpoint, we focus on an intense use of video and digital platforms. Everybody has a mobile phone, so we better be as mobile as possible. It's also through storytelling. We are trying to create this fear of missing out on what is happening at Rice. The more we can integrate our brand into people's daily lives, the more it will make them think that they can't live without it. Once we get to that point, that's when we start to make money.


“The more we can do to personalize and tailor our experiences, the more our fans feel special and part of our community. That’s what the fans want, and that’s how you build a fan base.”


AS: How did you staff your team in order to execute your marketing strategy?

DP: We made some key hires to accelerate our branding and digital strategy. We brought on a Director of Creative Services to set the standard for creative campaigns and unify our teams as one cohesive brand. We hired a digital marketing and revenue generation assistant to take us to the next level with our digital footprint and help create a consistent style and voice on social media. And, finally, we hired a creative video producer who could build cinematic hype videos and give an inside access look at our programs. These hires -- Trey Jackson, Kevin Richardson, and Caroline Hall -- have helped us develop a solid marketing product very quickly.

AS: Who are some of your key digital marketing platforms and partners?

DP: Our fan facing mobile application is powered by From Now On, and we use Sidearm Sports for our website. We also work with Opendorse, a Nebraska company, to reach new audiences through our athletes’ social networks. That platform has really taught us about the importance of using endorsements to build a loyal following. As for our paid social media and digital advertising campaigns, we’ve been fortunate to partner with WMT.

AS: Are there any schools out there that you really admire for their digital marketing?

DP: I would definitely say Central Florida, Nebraska, Tennessee, Washington, Clemson and TCU. They all do a great job. I think my alma mater, Abilene Christian, does a great job with the resources that they have. Texas has really stepped up to the plate in terms of providing digital content to fans, but Clemson has really been the trailblazer, in my opinion. They have set the standard for what you can really do. Most of these schools are giving the content back to the athletes. They are becoming more athlete minded rather than department minded. So instead of, ‘we gotta sell this ticket or we need to write this story or we need to market to this person,’ they take on more of a recruiting mindset.

AS: What do you mean by ‘take on more of a recruiting mindset?’

DP: In the world of athletics, we are always going out to recruit people to come be part of our university, but once they're here, recruitment fizzles out. My philosophy is that we're recruiting every demographic or constituent that touches our brand at all times. Current students, former athletes, alumni, donors, potential student athletes, current fans…  everything we do needs to take on that recruiting mindset. We want everybody to be a part of what we're doing and lend a helping hand to being the best that we can be. That's what recruiting is all about.


“We always ask ourselves the question, ‘What would you give somebody who can buy anything? What would you be able to provide to them within the framework of an athletic department?’ And at the end of the day, it's an experience.”


AS: In your opinion, what do your fans want in terms of game day promotions?

DP: We always ask ourselves the question, ‘What would you give somebody who can buy anything?’ What would you be able to provide to them within the framework of an athletic department? And at the end of the day, it's an experience. If you can invite people into the locker room or into a film session with the coach or have them on the sidelines to high five the team, then you’re giving fans a unique experience. That's why they go to sporting events. They want to experience something amazing and competitive, and if possible, something they can’t do anywhere else.

AS: What advice do you have for other people in your field as it applies to digital technology and innovation in marketing?

DP: Don't be afraid to look outside at what other industries are doing. There's so much that comes from a venue ticketing and sales aspect in our sports industry that it’s easy to get narrowly focused. If you look at the airline industry or you look at the concert industry, there's so much happening at a much quicker pace. Honestly, from the athletics standpoint, we're so far behind. We're competing with top brands like Starbucks or even Yeti. We've gotta be able to provide the same type of experience to people… one that’s comparable and maybe even better than what they’re used to.

AS: How do you see the game day experience changing over the next five years?

DP: It’s a tough question. There could be a USB charging point in every seat of the stadium so fans can charge their phones without leaving their seats. Instant video replays could be watched from any angle. To be honest, the biggest barrier right now is that wifi is still not 100% reliable in-venue. If I go to a stadium today, I might not be able to use my phone. If we really want tech and digital technology to work, that has got to be in place, at a minimum. Then, anything is possible.

Follow along with us @FromNowOnExp #gamedayinsider to gather insights and best practices directly from the experts in Q&A style interviews, thought leadership articles and more, just like this one.

Amie Sheridan is a content strategist serving sports tech startups. Her work has appeared in Sports Business Journal. Follow her on Twitter at @amie_sheridan.