Creating a FANatical Experience

Mud Hens - Customer Experience

The customer experience a brand delivers is critical to its success. In my case, operating two premier minor league sports franchises, Toledo Mud Hens Baseball Club and Toledo Walleye Hockey Club, the customer experience we deliver is the driving factor to whether our doors stay open or not.

In 2009, we were exceeding our goals. But we wanted to do better. Since the Mud Hens had won only four league championships since 1898 and the newly formed Walleye were entering a market that historically viewed hockey as an inappropriate sport for families, we knew we couldn’t rely on the games themselves to drive ticket sales. We had to transform all our people, including 50 full-time employees and 200 seasonal staff, from fan-friendly to fan-focused so we could sell an exceptional experience.

And that’s when we brought in Root. They came in and studied our organization. They interviewed several full-time employees and many seasonal folks, too. The Root team developed a plan to help us motivate and inspire all employees to view their jobs through the eyes of the fans – enabling us to turn every attendee into a fan for life.

Creating a Fan-Focused Culture

Together we worked with Root to develop the “FANatical Experience” Learning Map® module to help our people embrace the fan-first mentality that was the cornerstone of our culture. As we put aside the typical lectures, PowerPoints, and memos, we saw how well this interactive training resonated. Through compelling visuals, self-discovery, and honest discussions, our people quickly realized why the FANatical experience was so integral to our success and how they each played a role in the many touch points – from the moment guests pick up the phone or visit the website to buy a ticket to the moment they leave the ballpark or arena.

We saw people’s mindsets shift on the spot. For example, when asked, “What would you do if a fan dropped a tray of food while walking away from the counter?” a new employee quickly replied that the fan was out of luck – after all, the fan dropped the tray. A long-time seasonal staff member replied, “Actually, we should help the fan and replace everything without a fuss.” A simple question, yet it was so impactful to helping everyone rally around the same mission: to ensure that all fans enjoy exceptional experiences.

But that’s not all. After the success of the Learning Map® experience, we decided it would be great to reinforce the “FANatical Experience” concept daily. So Root created a flexible process for our managers to use before each game, which centered around a team “Huddle.” Designed to last just five to 10 minutes, a Huddle incorporated the success routines, main points from the Learning Map® module, and other information key to helping our teams deliver the best fan experiences. Interactive, engaging, and just plain fun, this relatively simple practice has united all of our employees and rallied them around our FANatical culture. The impact has gone beyond our expectations.

We recently introduced the Learning Map® module to our Walleye coaches and players. Their response has been another interesting and positive surprise. (Next up, the Mud Hens!)

Six Years Later

Fast forward to 2015, and our staff and players have been living a FANatical culture for the past six years. We use the Learning Map® module as an orientation for all new staff, as well as a yearly refresher. Today, regardless of scores or whether we’re losing or winning that season, fans turn up game after game after game. Specific successes that we attribute the FANatical Experience include:

  • The Toledo Mud Hens were ranked the #1 minor league market in America in 2013 and #2 in the nation in 2015 – a huge honor that is based on fan base, tenured clubs, and the economy – not on the team’s performance.
  • When Nielsen Scarborough, which provides market research on American consumers, surveyed the most popular sports teams in the top 75 markets, the Mud Hens were the only minor team to crack the top 10 in popularity. The others on this list were all major league teams.
  • Since the Walleye were created in 2009, our fan base has increased just over 50 percent – and families with children are our #1 demographic.
  • Our staff receives hundreds of unsolicited emails, texts, and social posts regarding fans’ amazing experiences.

Today, we’re going through a growth period. And we know our people are pressured to live up to a very high bar, regardless of any new projects, initiatives, or responsibilities. To help everyone move through these changes and transitions smoothly, we’ve recently worked with Root to bring their Transition Highway experience to our team, which is designed to help people understand the emotional impact of change. After the program roll-out, we saw a noticeable change – a depressurization happened almost immediately.

In most communities, the minor league teams experience a “honeymoon” period of three to five years. Our honeymoon has been 15 years and there is no doubt that empowering our people to believe in the FANatical Experience has helped our organization to thrive. In fact, when we survey our fans, seven out of 10 don’t know the score of the game when they leave the ballpark or arena. A high percentage of fans don’t  know how we rank in the league. And they don’t care. People are truly attending our games just for the experience.