Each summer, fans across the United States flock to stadiums around the country for the great American pastime. However, not every attendee is there to root for their favorite team. Some fans look for hot dogs, peanuts, and a way to bond with friends and family.

Franchises then need to create a variety of experiences that appeal to all different types of fans.

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Michael Shaw, Vice President and Head of Experience and Innovation, the Miami Marlins

“What we want to do is find a hook for any and everybody – those who come for the game as well as those who may come for the entertainment and the experience,” says Michael Shaw, Vice President and Head of Experience and Innovation for the Miami Marlins.

With the season in full swing, Shaw’s team faces a delicate balance. The organization has to create an engaging fan experience, while meeting safety expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shaw sat down with Innovation Leader to share projects that create a unique fan experience and explore the future of the game in a post-COVID world.

How the Marlins Create a ‘Uniquely Miami’ Experience

Miami is a vibrant city with plenty to offer — nightlife, a booming tourism industry, and beautiful beach get-aways. Shaw’s team incorporates the elements Miami is best known for to loanDepot park, allowing the stadium to stand out as one of the city’s top summer destinations.

“We want [Marlins games] to be a Miami experience,” Shaw explains. “We’ve got to continue to build the experience so that fans who come, win or lose, they’re going to come and have a great time.”

Shaw and his team have built multiple projects that blend the vibrance of Miami with the classic baseball experience. Beyond the traditional ballpark snacks like crackerjacks and hot dogs, Shaw’s team has focused on bringing traditional Miami cuisine to fans at loanDepot park. The team’s “Taste of Miami” program gathers local offerings — including Pincho, “Miami’s best pizza” — for visitors to enjoy.

The Marlins have conjured up other creative projects to separate the in-person fan experience from competing broadcast experiences.

“On the weekends, we have live music… We have a pachanga band, which is very Miami,” Shaw says. “So when you’re up there watching the game on TV, or you’re in the ballpark, you’re going to hear bands. You’re going to hear trombones and trumpets and drums playing in the venue… And, it adds to the allure of being in person versus watching at home.”

Finding Ways to Fill Seats

With television and smartphones making games more accessible than ever, fans can watch the Marlins from anywhere. Shaw and his team now compete with at-home options and hesitancy created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shaw says that filling seats starts with gauging customer feedback and continuing to build consumer trust.

“We want to be extremely…proactive in responding to that feedback,” Shaw says. “Whether it’s a comment with respect to our food and beverage program, or maybe about the general experience – that’s how we react to it, and we score it and we prioritize it.”

With changing COVID guidelines, Shaw’s team must also pivot its projects related to safety. At the start of the 2021 season, fans were requested to arrive in groups of two to five — a pod who they could sit with during the game. On July 5, loanDepot park began offering full-capacity seating. Socially distant programs like pod seating have been replaced by a flying drone program that sprays disinfectant across the stands after games.

Gauging Customer Feedback and Building Trust

To gauge the success of new initiatives, the Marlins have many ways to gather and analyze fan feedback. Buyer survey scans are sent to those who participate in digital ticketing, and fans can communicate directly with the experience team via email. Digitally, Shaw says social media and design play an important role in understanding and improving fan engagement.

“[The experience] needs to be something that people are…excited about sharing,” Shaw says. “And we’re creating with that in mind…and so we have social spaces, we have retail spaces, and we have food and beverage spaces that we hope people will want to photograph and share on their social channels.”

When sharing tips for other sports innovators, Shaw emphasizes the importance of both long-term and short-term agility when examining the fan experience. Especially during COVID, he says, focusing on controllable factors is a key to staying agile within the entertainment space.

“Sometimes there’s illness, sometimes there’s a fan who may have been struck by a foul ball, sometimes — like in South Florida right now — there could be a hurricane warning and there’s impending rain,” Shaw said. “We have to be extremely agile not just from event to event, but we have to be agile within the events… When the things that are out of our control come up, we can react if we’re proactive [with things] that we can control.”