Ep. 9: Driving Growth Via Core Values with Jeffrey Rubin
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Jeffrey Rubin, Founder and CEO of Sidearm Sports, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how he has driven growth for his company via their core values (care, efficiency, innovation). Why is the relationship you have with your customers so vital? How can being more efficient not only help your customers bottom line but make their personal life better too? As a leader in the space, how do they push innovation to deliver the best experience? We also talk about the role data plays in technology and how to overcome app download fatigue.
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Rob Cressy: (00:00)
Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressy. And joining me today is Jeff Rubin, founder and CEO of Sidearm sports. Jeff, super excited to have you on the show.
Jeff Rubin: (00:30)
Thanks for having me today.
Rob Cressy: (00:32)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Jeff Rubin: (00:36)
Yeah, so I founded Sidearm Sports almost 20 years ago. You kind of fell into it. At first the company was from 95 to 2000 where we did websites for a variety of industries. It was a thing to do in the mid-nineties. Uh, and then fell into college athletics in 2001. Syracuse Athletics was looking for a new provider. I joke a year later we had 100 percent growth cause we added one school RIT of Rochester. But you fast forward, 2014 we had both 750 college athletics sites, but only three Power Fives: Syracuse, Texas, and Kansas. That's when I sold the company to Leerfield, which was now Leerfield IMG College. And today we're working with just over 1200 properties, 57 out of the 65 Power Fives and almost 320 Division One programs.
Rob Cressy: (01:29)
Can you share a little insight into what the catalysts were to drive some of that growth?
Jeff Rubin: (01:35)
Yeah, I think the catalyst then and now are really the same things. And part of those are our principles here at Sidearm. One is that we care and we look at some of our competitors that have been out there and ones who haven't lasted. And I won't name names. But you've got to support the partners college athletics, sports in general. It's a small world and everyone knows each other. If you've ever worked a gameday on a Saturday at a stadium, it's intense. And there, you know, people are wearing a lot of hats and juggling a lot of balls. So we have to care. We have to have empathy. Number two, we pride ourselves in making anything we do more efficient, meaning we don't innovate for the sake of innovation. We innovate for the sake of efficiency. So again, if you have all those balls up in the air on a gameday and we can take one or more of those balls and just make it a little more efficient, get your home a little bit earlier to be with the family, or just improve your overall fan experience. We're in it for the efficiency. And then the last one is innovation, which is a Sidearm pride itself. We push out releases in our software five nights a week. So we don't do them on Friday nights or Saturday nights. Cause that's when games are going on. And the fulltime staff isn't in the office Saturday and Sundays. But aside from those nights, we are pushing out a lot of updates to the software. And so some people say, Hey, what version of software do you have in that? That's such old school thinking there. There's no version A, the version is, you know, August 9th, 2019
Rob Cressy: (03:10)
Well, yeah, it's a, it's a mindset of constant improvement. So what I want to do is sort of delve a little bit more deeper into care, efficiency and innovation to see what we can learn from those things. And I love that care is there because so often companies can treat partners or the consumers as a commodity instead of looking at it as a relationship. And I fully believe the brands who are most successful are the ones who are so relationship-driven when they're caring a lot more about what I can do to elevate your experience. So can you give us an example of how care manifests itself in what you guys do?
Jeff Rubin: (03:53)
Yeah, and care goes beyond even just our partners, right? And it starts in, you wake up and do you care about your family? Do you care about the people around you? Then we come to the office, do I care about my employees? Do I care about their families? And those answers all have to be yes. Because if you don't care about life in general, then how are we going to care about the partners that we're working with? And so I think it starts with just being good humans and, and not being afraid to use that four letter word love, in truly loving each other and what we do. And when we do that, you know what? It makes it that much easier to have empathy and to put yourself in that situation; and to care for our partners; to understand that when they're upset and trust me, they will get upset. We will make mistakes. They're not really yelling at us because they hate us. They're frustrated. It's situational. And so if you, if you care and you can respect, and you can have a conversation, then look, we can fix any problem with the conversation. If you care and have the conversation, the problem is just temporary, but the relationship will be long-term.
Rob Cressy: (05:04)
Yeah. I mean, communication is so important both internally and externally, because when you think about where do things potentially go wrong, it's because we didn't communicate things well enough. And if you're using empathy and you're caring and you're using candor, we can be all on the same page because as a trusted partner, "Hey, we're there to service you." And if something doesn't go right, listen, we want to own it. But at the same time, we want to be on the same page knowing we want to deliver the best results possible for you.
Jeff Rubin: (05:31)
Yeah, that's 100% right. And you said it, look, things will go wrong in a relationship. I don't know any relationship personally or professionally where things don't have a bad moment. Uh, but it is that communication and this transparency. It is owning it. You said that, uh, and I couldn't agree more that when we make a mistake, we're not gonna hide from it. We're going to own it. And yes, we will get better if we make that same mistake over and over, then I get it. That's how relationship could fall apart. I don't know anyone who, who's made one mistake that's had anything in life that pulls away or runs away from them because of a singular mistake.
Rob Cressy: (06:09)
So looking at the next thing, efficiency. And your core values are on the website, which I absolutely love. And I'll break this down because there's two sentences there and we'll do each one. The first thing says we understand that the sports industry is fast-paced and high-stress. So when dealing with fast pace in something that is always changing, I know common thing we've had on this show is the adoption of it and making sure that what you're doing actually solves the need and you're not being fast paced just for the sake of saying, Hey, look at what we can throw out there. And you're also managing a high stress environment. So things are moving fast and then there's a lot more stress in there. There's a lot of opportunity for things to be very combustible. So talk a little bit more about the efficiency in a fast-paced high-stress environment.
Jeff Rubin: (07:00)
Yeah, look, I think the websites have changed. The digital environment has changed so much from the mid-nineties when colleges and professionals started putting out websites. When you go back to those mid-nineties, really until probably 2010 for some, 2015 for many, the website was really an information distribution platform, right? And it was a place to get the news and the rosters and the schedules and the stats. And I don't want to take away from that, but I would argue that if you're a Power Five school, if you're Clemson or you're Alabama or Oklahoma, the last place a fan needs to go to learn about your game is your official athletic website. Right there. They can get that information on Barstool and they can get that information on ESPN and Yahoo sports.
Jeff Rubin: (07:56)
We could just go on and on and on. All the blogs, sites, SBJ and Sports Nation and so forth. And so the question is, what does become of this official athletic site? The idea of these websites being owned by sports information folks. And that still has a place, I don't want to discount it. Information distribution is important, but the website and digital environments become so much more complex because so many folks within the organization have found that "Hey, this isn't just information distribution, it's monetization and it's a monetization engine." And so how do we monetize information which is now going to tie into ticketing and donor relations and the marketing team and the athletic directors message and the student athletes and their goals. So all of a sudden the complexity becomes quite a bit more than what it was early on. And so our goal is how can we have this thread through the organization where we understand the business of sport, the business of college sport. That's so important, right? We're not just throwing up a WordPress site and saying, here it is. Go. We understand the information flow stats, we understand the ticket-buying process. We understand donors, how you cultivate them, how you get information, what you're looking for and how you monetize that in the products and services that we continue to improve. It has the efficiency throughout that thread.
Rob Cressy: (09:28)
I think what you touched on something unique in the monetization of information and I've got a background in both content marketing and the business of sports. So this is a world in which I'm thinking about constantly and I think oftentimes brands forget the narrative of branding and communications. So we think about just the website itself as opposed to social and all the different opportunities there. Every opportunity is one for you to create a positive brand interaction, one in which you can communicate something with set audience. And so often, once again, we're going to hear communication again. So whether we're doing this face to face with our clients or you're communicating something to your fans, I'd be like, it's an extremely important part because what if it's not there? There's the missed opportunity and I don't believe that you can just look at it and saying, how are we monetizing this specific thing? Knowing that as part of the larger package of everything.
Jeff Rubin: (10:28)
Yeah, that's right. And you know, how we monetize in a college world that I live in versus the professional world is very different. The rules of the NCAA and the way that universities are willing to monetize is different than a professional for-profit organization. There's challenges with that, but there's also great opportunity. We have to have athletic directors and we have to have college professionals thinking beyond the banner. What I mean with that is if we think of just putting up banners and a few IEB standard ads on these websites, that's not monetization, right? That's monetization of the early two thousands. But the reality is it's what most are still using today at the college level. And we've got to educate them to think about how we use native advertising, how we use data as a form of monetization. And look, I think so many schools, so many college programs are hiring these incredibly savvy digital folks who loves social media. But my question is, and I'm not against social media, I love social media, but how do you monetize it, right? If we're putting all of our content out on Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, what's the monetization strategy there? Are you monetizing it or is Facebook and Twitter monetizing it? And if your number one and two revenue sources are tickets, donations, and then maybe three merchandise, how are we accomplishing those goals on those platforms?
Rob Cressy: (12:23)
Well, that's very interesting that you bring that up because once again, that is something that I love talking about because the monetization of social media, oftentimes where brands fail is they just go buy what I'm selling. And if you think about collegiate or even any professional teams, they're just gonna throw the ticket links all the time. What that fails to do is one, the communication relationship that you and I have, if I'm following a school or a team, I want to get valuable information. And is there a time and place for buyer tickets or season ticket package? Of course there is and I think the key to that is these brands need a written digital strategy that says, all right, in our social media marketing, let's assume there is five to 10 different, we'll call them content buckets of things that we're going to talk about. And it just so happens ticketing is one of them and we're not going to do it more than 20% of the time because other than that we're being too over with everything that we do. So then you say, all right, well what do you do with that other 80% there? And there is a quote that Grant Cardone says, if someone doesn't know you, how can they buy from you? So there's an element of awareness that comes with social media marketing. So then you say, alright, now that we're more aware of said content, you need to be a lot more strategic about it. And that's why you say, all right, we're going to break these things into a few different buckets. And on average I believe it takes between seven and 11 times for someone to see a message before they engage with it and, or purchase it.
Rob Cressy: (14:03)
So now you started to think of this as a significantly larger funnel as opposed to just, Hey, let's just throw a bunch of ticketing links in our social media marketing and that we're going to monetize it this way. Because once again, we're dealing with brand name, we're dealing with communication. And quite frankly, we're dealing with relationships because as a school or a team, you're building a community. And if you can think of this as a community and not just as a one-way platform but a communication tool for two of them, I believe that's how the brands will succeed.
Jeff Rubin: (14:33)
I agree with you and I think it's not forgetting your entire product mix. Right? And social media is one or two channels depending on how you look at which platforms you're using the web as a channel. The mobile app is a channel, OTT is a channel, your internet of things, devices at home, they're different channels. And so it's not that one is more important than the other, but it's how we use them collectively to drive a message and engage the fan and knowing who that fan is. And look, social media. How do we get it where I'm giving one message to my season ticket holders, another message to my single game buyers and yet another message to the casual fan that hasn't bought yet. That to me is strategic.
Rob Cressy: (15:29)
Well, and it's also very intentional and I think that's the key. If you don't have the intention and you just blast it, sure. But I think this is where the complexity of things starts to come in. When you think about fast-paced and high-stress, it's why didn't this thing convert? You're like, well, we've got an email list that sort of goes out to everyone and we haven't segmented it. So let's get to the next part of efficiency. And it says, our technology focus is to create high impact digital fan experiences with as little burden on the athletic department staff as possible. So can you dig a little bit deeper and give us an example of how that manifests itself?
Yeah. You know, this one started early and I've got a good story probably is two to three years into to the company. So you were going back to around 2003 and I was at college sports information director's association. And this woman came up to me and she said, are you Jeff Rubin? I said, yes. Scary. She said, can I give you a hug? And sure. Great. And, you know, she gives me the hug and she said, you know, I just want to let you know that because of Sidearm, my husband gets home an hour and a half earlier every night and is able to put the kids to sleep for the first time in a couple of years. Wow. Right. I had never thought of our platform as, as efficiency. At that point, we were young. And to hear that, you know, today, I understand that. I see it. We go to these games and the SIDs and sports communication folks are usually the first ones there and the last ones to leave. And they've got a lot of pieces to juggle at pregame ,during game and post game. And so if we can make the software do a lot of things, but at the same time do it with ease and whether that's dual publishing or integration with ESPN or integration with the NCAA, just understanding the workflow and figuring out how can we provide better value to the fans, better inventory to the fans, engage the fans more, promote the student athletes better, but again, have that low impact in terms of added job responsibility. That is our goal. And if we get to do that, then yeah, maybe we get to have the users of our platform go home 30 minutes earlier and maybe that does have a big impact on their family life.
Rob Cressy: (18:07)
I absolutely love that. And it brings up another word that we just talked about and it's empathym because I feel like now you're empathetic of the plight of this person, so now you can create for them and any brand that is able to create for their end user. I know it's crazy to say that brands don't do that, but when you really think about it, time is my most valuable resource in my entire life. And certainly as you dig deeper to people with families, an hour and a half compounds over the course of someone's career, that's some real big impact you're having.
Jeff Rubin: (18:47)
Yeah. Yeah. 100%. And we just try to do our part.
Rob Cressy: (18:52)
So the last thing here, innovation, and it says we respect our role as well as a leader in the collegiate athletics digital space and are constantly exploring new technology, new practices and new methods of delivering content and experience to your fans. So the question that I have for you is looking forward, what has your eye right now from a technology stand point?
Jeff Rubin: (19:19)
Yeah, data. Data is just so critical and you can jump into big data and data analytics. Look at college, we're still trying to figure out how to play with small data. We don't need to get to big data, but that is critical to go into what we're talking about a couple of minutes ago of how do we ensure we're sending a marketing messenger or have a marketing automation platform that's doing its job — that's delivering the right message. The only way you're going to do that is based on data. My gut is if we stood in a room right now and we were with the 320 Division Three and 40 Division One programs, and I said, how many of you have a goal of collecting X amount of profiles this year? And in the 19, 20 academic year, how many profiles do you hope to collect? My gut is most people just start going down in their seat and say, Oh gosh, I don't know. People say they want to collect data, but what's the goal? We have revenue goals, right? We all have those. But what's the goal on data collection? Because I think if we can all start there, then you begin to say, our goal is a million new profiles or 100,000 profiles. Great. Now what are the tools that we can use to get there? And now it gets fun because we can look at both in-game activation as well as website activation, mobile app activation. We can look at brand activation with sponsorships. But without that goal, people throw around the word data. But what are we talking about? People who have signed up for the newsletter ticketing, you know, folks who have bought tickets, donors. We're talking about just a small segment of your overall user base.
Rob Cressy: (21:07)
Yeah, I absolutely love that. So the next thing you mentioned the fans, I'm curious, are fans using more in-app interaction versus desktop? Like what is the consumption like right now?
Jeff Rubin: (21:20)
Yeah, so if we just talk desktop versus mobile web first, and then I'll jump into to the native apps. It's really funny because it was only a few years ago where it was 60-40 desktop. And then it was a few years ago or three years ago, it went to 50-50, and then two years ago, it flipped for the first time, right. We saw 60-40 in favor of mobile web. And this past year it was 70-30, or 70% across our NCA sites. The traffic was on mobile versus desktop. And then of course traffic spikes during games. Usually nights and weekends. And during those nights and weekends we pick up our devices, right? And that's our following along. So no doubt, it's the corny phrase of mobile-first mentality. And there's truth to it. We need to design the right information to the right fan on their device. Now when you're getting a native mobile apps, that's where I think there's so much power to unlock or so much goal to unlock within the native atmosphere. Because what we don't know right now is if we are all carrying around our phones, do I really know if you're sitting inside of my stadium, are you 10 miles outside of the stadium? Are you going to a different state or country altogether? And look, this phone gives us that information, but then the trick is how do we get you to use that phone? Well, now we start with our relationship. When we integrate to have the digital ticket right within our native app, that becomes easy. So now we've built the utility that says anytime a fan comes to the gate, they're going to open up the official athletic app to scan in. Well guess what, we now know your location, right? And we know the time of day, we know what it is. Now we can do in-game activations during the game based on either or. Again, we can do it after the fact, right? We geo-fence that stadium and be able to do activations a day later. So it opens up just a wealth of possibilities in the app. Now, overall app usage, it's just not there as it is in relation to web traffic yet. But when you look at year over year increases, the highest increase year over year is the app traffic. And so you know, I think the wrong advice to give would be like, well, the numbers aren't there, so let's not pay attention. It's get there now because if we get the app out there and we can begin to engage and we can begin to collect data and we can begin to message and we have another platform to monetize, that's where the fan is going to be.
Rob Cressy: (24:21)
Well, yeah, and I think it makes complete sense because even if there are hurdles that you have to overcome that when you own the data or you own the experience, there's so much more you can deal with it. Because as someone who's looked from a publisher side of things, when Facebook all of a sudden slash organic reach and publishers, it built their entire businesses on Facebook and then all of a sudden they're like, you know what we're going to do? How about we just triple the cost per click of paid advertising? And you're like, Oh my God. And then all of a sudden you see these brands who are built on a platform and that goes away. And then you're like, well, where was my space 10 years ago compared to now? So it's not being romantic about the platforms. And because of that, you say, well, if we build our own and we can create this own cultivated environment that allows us to control so much more, and I believe that's what is so important for brands now is sure, social is amazing and it's huge and people are always going to be honest, but you don't know what's gonna happen there. So control what you can control and start the improvement cycle right away.
Jeff Rubin: (25:28)
Yeah, 100%. And look, there's still work to be done in the professional leagues. There's a lot of work to be done in college to have connected stadiums and that's going to be the biggest challenge over the next decade for stadiums to figure out. It's not a question of should they do it. It's they have to do it to be competitive. And when do they do it? Yes, it's an investment. I think it's as important as an investment on the roof of a stadium. You need a connected stadium, not just be able to deliver information, but for the fan to feel connected throughout a game.
Rob Cressy: (26:05)
It's the no brainer. And actually on Episode One of the Gameday Playbook, I had Christian, the head of technology from the LA FC on the podcast, and they have one of the most technologically advanced stadiums anywhere. And we had this exact discussion because how many times have we gone to a game and the wifi doesn't work? And quite frankly, the answer is the large majority of it, right? I live in Chicago and most of the places where I go wifi is not accessible. But guess what I want to do when I'm at a game, I want to take pictures and post on Instagram and IG stories and I want to tweet about it. God forbid I want to live stream. And if you can give that opportunity to fans and then you build engagement around it plus data around it, holy smokes, Batman. Now we're cooking with gas.
Jeff Rubin: (26:55)
100%. There is no better way to promote your brand, right? Those are your most passionate fans. They're the fanatics. They're in this state and everything you just said. It's true, to think that we are, I hate to say robbing or, or taking away that opportunity from them is just sad, right? And we will get there, and it is an investment, but to me it's, you know, if, if I'm a chancellor or I'm an athletic director, that has to be just right up there. I get it. We need these locker rooms, like get it, we need these great facilities. But it doesn't matter if the fans don't feel connected or can't connect.
Rob Cressy: (27:32)
Jeff, I really enjoyed this conversation. I love the foundation of how you run your company and how you are such a positive force for what you guys do. Where can people connect with you and Sidearm Sports?
Jeff Rubin: (27:46)
So connect with me. I'm a big guy on Twitter, so @JHRubin. Best way you can hit me up at sidearmsports.com, or email me at email@example.com. Love to hear from you.
Rob Cressy: (28:01)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. I'm curious, have you ever downloaded an app from a school or a team? If so, let me know. You can hit us up. You can hit FanFood up on Twitter @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram, @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms at Rob Cressy.