With the Yale men’s soccer team competing under a new coach, the volleyball team looking to win its sixth straight Ivy League title and the football team hoping to avenge its loss to Harvard last year, Yale fans have a variety of reasons to flock to the stands this fall.
This year, another incentive may cause attendance numbers to see an increase: free merchandise and food for fans.
At the beginning of the school year, the Yale athletic department unveiled Bulldog Rewards, a new fan loyalty program that rewards fans for attending sporting events and interacting online with Yale teams. Using a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone to mark their presence at venues and social media to share posts, Eli fans can score points that are redeemable at an online store for various prizes, which currently include Yale t-shirts and gift cards to local restaurants.
Associate Athletic Director for Sports Marketing Patrick O’Neill, who is leading the implementation of Bulldog Rewards, said he hopes to increase student support and excitement for Yale teams with the new program. The service, which is powered by fan loyalty company FanMaker, currently has approximately 250 users signed up since its announcement on Aug. 28, O’Neill said.
“Yale students, and our fans in general, are smart fans. When people win, they come out,” O’Neill said. “Unfortunately, we don’t win every time all the time, so we need ways to incentivize folks to come out. Although I think our teams are really competitive … it’s tough to get students and fans out to everywhere. Hopefully, we’ll be able to incentivize fans to go to every event, not just one.”
The online store currently includes two different t-shirts and $25 gift cards to Oaxaca Kitchen, Thali and Thali Too. O’Neill said that restaurants sponsoring Yale athletics have given gift cards for the program, and in the future, users may be able to earn additional points by checking in at these restaurants.
O’Neill added that the new program is in its “first lap around the track,” and the department is still looking for new prize ideas and different ways to use the various features provided by FanMaker.
“We’ll have some bumps and bruises, but hopefully a year from now we’ll have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, and what good point values are [for attendance and social media activity],” O’Neill said. “We want feedback, we want people to tell us how it’s going.”
By signing up for Bulldog Rewards, downloading the mobile application and syncing their accounts with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, users can quickly tally 3,500 points, roughly half of the 7,500 points needed for a Yale Athletics t-shirt. Earning more points than that, however, requires attendance at events or regular Yale-themed social media activity.
The mobile application, which has an identical format to that of many other FanMaker applications for college programs, connects with “beacons,” or Bluetooth units, that have been placed around Yale sporting venues. The Yale Bowl, Reese Stadium and Lee Amphitheater will all have beacons installed this fall.
Though the program was established entirely through the athletic department, it has gotten support from the Whaling Crew, Yale’s student fan group. Whaling Crew Communications Director Adam Lowet ’18 said the group has assisted in publicizing the program and encouraging students to begin using the mobile application.
Lowet said that although the Whaling Crew and the athletics department aim to convince as many students as possible to attend Yale sporting events, he believes that Bulldog Rewards is geared more toward students who have already demonstrated some athletic interest but could attend more events throughout the year.
“It does generally target people who are already interested in sports,” Lowet said. “I think that it’s a little optimistic to say that someone is going to go from attending no sports to attending 20 in a single season.”
Lowet added that he thought the program was a “nice gesture” on the part of Yale Athletics because it shows appreciation to fans who support Yale teams.
Brea Baker ’16, who was fourth on the list of seven-day points leaders as of Wednesday night, said she enjoyed using the application at a Yale volleyball match last weekend and will continue to use it in the future.
Approximately 20 people checked in at that match last weekend, the program’s first event, according to O’Neill.
Baker added that she plans on going to more games this year because of the incentives provided by the program. Baker has never been to a Yale soccer game, for example, but plans to attend the men’s soccer home opener on Friday — a game worth 350 points in Bulldog Rewards.
“Our athletics teams are under-appreciated and under-supported,” Baker said. “They work so hard and deserve more people showing up to games just like they do for their friends a cappella jams. If it takes 200 points with the hopes of winning some cool stuff to raise awareness, then more power to it. Initially maybe people only show up for the points, but they’ll soon realize how fun [attending athletics events] can be.”
Though the points system is the only feature currently used in the application, O’Neill said that there are other features that can add to the fan experience in games and encourage interaction with the Bulldog Rewards program.
For instance, if users allow the application to push notifications to their phones, the athletic department can offer temporary coupons for concessions or merchandise during a game or send traffic information at the end of games, according to O’Neill.
In addition to encouraging fan engagement, the program will allow the athletic department to determine broad facts about the demographics and interests of its fans, O’Neill said. He added that success of the program, to him, would mean over 2,500 people signed up by the end of the year.
“I think the best way to describe the FanMaker app is that we’re going to be able to put our finger on the pulse of Yale fans,” O’Neill said. “If fans sign up and allow us, we’re going to be able to find out who they are, what their demographics are, and if we push out surveys, we’ll find out what kind of fan they are, what sports they like.”
FanMaker has assisted with loyalty programs for many professional and Division-I sports programs, including Colgate, Florida State University and Alabama. It was founded in 2007 as row27.