Loyalty is rewarded, for fan and team

Jason Thurston at - where else? - PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union soccer team. On Sunday, at the Union's home opener, Thurston will be honored as the 2011 Fan of the Year. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Jason Thurston at - where else? - PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union soccer team. On Sunday, at the Union's home opener, Thurston will be honored as the 2011 Fan of the Year. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer (Jason Thurston at - where else? - PPL Park,)
Posted: March 18, 2012

At every Philadelphia Union soccer game - day or night, broiling or cold, sunny or pouring rain - you can find Jason Thurston cheering from Section 103 of PPL Park.

He'll be there Sunday for the team's home opener, albeit with one short detour: Onto the field, to be honored as the 2011 Fan of the Year, the winner in an imaginative new marketing program that's putting dollars in the Union bank account, and giving fans once-in-a-lifetime chances to meet players, take behind-the-scenes tours, and even play pickup games on the field.

The "Loyalty Rewards" system is the frequent-flier plan of Philadelphia soccer - and it's drawing interest from other teams and leagues here and overseas, all of them eager to boost revenue and bind loyal fans and customers closer.

"I had no idea I would come close to getting Fan of the Year," said Thurston, 40, of Pennsville, N.J., who'll receive a framed, team-signed jersey and a complimentary stay at Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City. "I was pretty blown away."

The Union program picks up where the airlines left off:

Season-ticket holders claim 70 percent of PPL Park - 13,000 of 18,500 seats. Almost all those fans forgo paper tickets for a plastic ticket card, like a credit card, that is scanned to enter the stadium.

If you come early to the game, you earn loyalty points on your card. You come when it's teeming rain, you get points. Come to see the Union play a less popular team in the middle of the week, you get points. This year, fans can even earn points by watching away games on TV.

Then, they can use those points to bid during online auctions. Last season, the first year of the program, fans won Danny Mwanga's jersey, Sebastien Le Toux's cleats, and Faryd Mondragon's goalie gloves. Some got to attend a team practice, and others toured the media operation and met broadcaster J.P. Dellacamera. Some could upgrade to better seats at the same price.

This season the team has added a tour of PPL Park to its auctions.

"The airlines have been doing it for years," said Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. "We're refining it here."

If fans enter the stadium early, they're likely to buy more food and beer, and to shop longer in the team store. If they're coming to midweek games they might have skipped, then negative sales turn positive. By watching on TV - and proving it by entering a special code online - they help drive ratings and attract sponsors.

"It's smart of Philly to do that," said Rob Thomson, a spokesman for Eastern Conference competitor Sporting Kansas City, which plans to introduce a similar program this season. Other MLS teams are considering ventures, and the Colorado Rapids offer "Rapids Rewards," which awards one point for every dollar that a season-ticket holder spends in the stadium. Fans can win chances to attend a chalk talk with team coaches and watch warm-ups from the bench.

Sakiewicz said the Union hasn't calculated the increase in revenue but believes the program has helped the team reach its ambitious season-ticket goals - 13,000 this year. And it has shown Union fans that the team values and appreciates their support.

Thurston won Fan of the Year by following the adage "Half of life is just showing up."

In two years, he has never missed a home game - 38 matches, including international friendlies. He always arrives early. He takes part in team-sponsored activities, such as the annual blood drive - four pints between him and his wife.

"I'll do anything Union-related," he said.

Later this season, fans will be able to earn points for buying food and souvenirs at the stadium, and in the future for attending off-site events at taverns and restaurants, attractive to sponsors who want to attract crowds.

"It's a great program," said Matt Ansbro, president of the Sons of Ben, the major supporters group. "Anytime you add an incentive like that to a season-ticket-holder base, it certainly drives some additional traffic to the team."

The Union opened its third MLS season on Monday in Portland, losing 3-1 to the Timbers. The team routinely draws sellout or near-sellout crowds to the Chester waterfront, where PPL Park stands by the Commodore Barry Bridge.

In Loyalty Rewards, games have different point values. For instance, the big draws against rivals like the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United bring only 10 points. A game against a less familiar opponent, say, San Jose, is worth 30 points, and certain others - Columbus on a Wednesday, anyone? - reap 50 points.

"I wanted to give something to the fans - some of the cool, behind-the-scenes experiences that most fans don't get to see," said Mike Quarino, the Union vice president of ticket sales, who developed the program.

Several of the big, world-famous soccer clubs have versions of Loyalty Rewards, he noted, but a key difference is their systems are based on spending. Fans get points for buying tickets and souvenirs, earning the ability to purchase hard-to-get goods, like tickets to the popular games.

Quarino said he has had calls from teams in the NFL, MLB, and NHL that want to learn more about the Union system. Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue visited. There's even been interest from teams in the gold standard of soccer, the English Premier League.

"They're looking at us now," said Quarino, who flew to London in December to explain Loyalty Rewards to 15 soccer and rugby teams from England, Belgium, and France. "Going over as an American, teaching these guys how to treat the fans, it was kind of surreal."

Thurston, a longtime soccer fan and member of the Sons of Ben, scored 1,020 points on both of his sideline seats, with points-per-seat determinate for Fan of the Year. Usually he attends with his wife, Angela, while their 8-year-old son, Harrison, stays with his grandmother.

The funny thing, said Thurston, who works servicing equipment at Pitney Bowes Inc. in Delaware, was he lost every auction he entered last year. Then last week he got an e-mail from the team.

"I texted my wife: Big news for me and the Union."

Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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