Learn How B.LEAGUE Used Smartphone-first Digital Marketing to Acquire Fans and Double Visitors

Given the major international sports event to be held in Tokyo in a couple years, Japan's sports industry urgently needs business model innovation. Conventional approaches--such as ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorship deals, and TV broadcasting rights--no longer lead to acquiring new fans or higher revenue.
B.LEAGUE, a professional men's basketball league established in Japan in 2016, is fighting to find a new way to run a sports business. This article introduces how the basketball league's digital marketing strategy leverages a Data Management Platform (DMP).
[Fujitsu Insight 2017 "Digital Marketing" Presentation Report]

B.LEAGUE: The Third Professional Team Sports League after Baseball and Soccer

Kazumasa Ashihara
Director and Secretary General
Japan Professional Basketball League

B.LEAGUE was established to organize a professional men's basketball league in Japan. The league began in September 2016 as the third professional team sports league after baseball and soccer.

Currently, a total of 45 clubs from 34 prefectures, including Hokkaido to the north and Okinawa to the south, belong to B.LEAGUE. The league's large size becomes apparent when one considers the fact that J.League, Japan's professional soccer league, started with 10 clubs and today, after 25 years, has 54 clubs from 38 prefectures.

In contrast to J.League, B.LEAGUE players and teams are far less visible. Except Yuta Tabuse (from TOCHIGI BREX), the only Japanese player to have played in the NBA, B.LEAGUE players are unfortunately not very well known.

Targeting Youth and Women to Attract Seven Million Latent Visitors

When we formed a preliminary office for B.LEAGUE in 2015, we discussed how to popularize it. We focused on the following two characteristics.

First is the player population's potential. Actually, basketball has the largest number of players of any sport in the world. In Japan, the number of basketball players is second only to soccer (Note 1) and there is no difference by gender.

The second characteristic is that basketball attracts far more female visitors than male-dominated baseball and soccer. The number of female spectators at the B.LEAGUE final exceeded 50%. Even though B.LEAGUE is 10 times smaller in market size and attendance than J.League, a survey revealed that the number of people who want to watch basketball games was as high as 7 million, including 2.6 million former and current players, and this desire was especially high among younger generations.

To attract these seven million latent visitors, we decided to carry out measures that mainly targeted youth and women. We maintained a business policy of "Thorough Promotion of Digital Marketing," a globally leading initiative for a sports business model, to ensure an accurate approach.

  • (Note 1) Excludes baseball, which has no player registration system.

A System to Do Everything on a Smartphone

Many professional sports earn revenue from four primary sources: ticket sales, relay broadcasting, sponsorship, and merchandise. B.LEAGUE thought to establish a system that enables achieving all of these on a smartphone, a familiar device for the target demographic.

Specifically, we introduced electronic tickets sold directly on a website as well as Internet broadcasting. We also make active use of EC sites to sell merchandise.

B.LEAGUE has also started to build a Data Management Platform (DPM) to unify and leverage customer information. Most professional sports have no concept of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and lag behind other industries in terms of data use.

Currently, B.LEAGUE is working on Step 3 to leverage unified data linked to clubs within the league. Unifying data that clubs have--such as visitors, tickets, and merchandise--provides visitors with various benefits, such as more convenient ways to obtain tickets, for both home and away games.

The DMP also enables data analytics and comparison as well as knowledge sharing. In addition, leveraging accumulated data facilitates discovery of new businesses. We aim to link the DMP to a player database, as shown in Step 5, over the next 18 months.

A New Business that Uses ICT to Strengthen Players and Entertain the Audience

Currently, B.LEAGUE is building a player database in collaboration with Fujitsu, which offers best practices in the sports industry, in order to jointly create a new business that integrates sports with state-of-the-art technology.

One such technology is to offer a data management service for central management of basketball players' performance and coaches' career info. This service facilitates searching for various data, thereby helping select certified athletes and national team members. Another technology is digital marketing, which facilitates providing information that meets fans' tastes more accurately by harnessing data analytics. We are also committed to realizing state-of-the-art smart arenas (Note 2) that leverage various Fujitsu technologies, including IoT sensing technology.

We developed a cheering app for smartphones for the previous B.LEAGUE final. This app emits light like a penlight for doing cheers. Of the 10,000 visitors, 7,000 downloaded the app. In January 2018, an all-star game took place in Kumamoto Prefecture. A public viewing of the game was held at a special site in Ebisu, Tokyo. Fujitsu's state-of-the-art technologies gave visitors an immersive experience by using light, sound, and vibration.

  • (Note 2)This refers to the smart arena solution, which leverages sports IoT and free viewpoint video generation technology, including high accuracy 3D laser sensing and player motion tracking technologies under development at Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. In addition to helping produce a large number of world-class players and teams as well as to realize dreams, this solution also contributes to creating communities centered around home arenas and hometown development.

The Value of Internet-TV Integration and Fans' Feelings as Seen from Data

Looking back on the B1 2016-2017 season-- the first year of B.LEAGUE-- we successfully boosted the number of visitors by 50% compared to the former league's final season, exceeding 2 million visitors overall. By leveraging various data, we also noticed many interesting facts.

For example, take the correlation between TV and the Internet. The first game (held in September 2016) was broadcast on Fuji TV terrestrially and on NHK over satellite as well as webcast on Sportsnavi Live.

We expected that older people would watch the game on TV and younger people would watch on smartphones; however, it turned out that many men in their twenties watched the game on terrestrial TV. After the game, basketball-related keywords accounted for 19 of the top 20 keywords in real-time searches and for more than half of social network leading trend searches.

Tickets sold well and those words became buzzwords on social networks partly thanks to the introduction of LED courts that can realize CG effects in synchronization with player movement. We found that the Internet and TV are in a complementary relationship, not an interchangeable relationship, and that unifying both while offering new value is important.

Another fact concerns a difference in the analysis axis of smartphone users. Originally, we focused on core fans (frequent visitors) and light fans (infrequent visitors) in our data analytics. However, it turned out that smartphone usage and smartphone ticket purchase rates were much higher in urban areas such as Tokyo; the area axis was more influential than we expected.

Continued analysis gave us a different perspective on light fan analysis in marketing. Many measures we implemented based on an attribute analysis of light fans failed.

When light fans are asked why they have come to the venue, almost all answer because they were invited. We became aware that interpreting the mechanism that makes core fans want to invite someone when informed of some kind of information was more important than attribute analysis of light fans.

Going forward, we must change the interfaces between ourselves and the fans. We think that designing a system that allows core fans to easily purchase many tickets at once and share them with their companions is more important than designing a system for light fans.

We of B.LEAGUE are still a fledgling after our first year. We will gather more data and make improvements in collaboration with Fujitsu. We look forward to presenting our results at another opportunity like this one. We hope you will come to one of our arenas.

Presenter's profile
Kazumasa Ashihara
Director and Secretary General of B.LEAGUE/Director of JBA/Director of B.MARKETING/Director of B3
[Abbreviated biography]
Born in 1977./Graduated from the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University.
2003 Joined Arthur D. Little Japan, a foreign-affiliated strategic consulting firm.
2007 Joined the Orix Buffaloes (formally known as the Orix Baseball Club), a professional baseball team. Also worked as Sales & Marketing Director at Pacific League Marketing Corporation, a company jointly established by the Pacific League's six baseball teams.
2012 Joined the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Mainly handled business strategy development and promotion-related tasks as Director of the President's Office immediately after the team joined the league.
2015 Joined the Japan Professional Basketball League to launch a new professional men's basketball league.