Ottawa sports marketing app FanSaves competes for global gold

FanSaves co-founders Kris McCarthy (left) and Shannon Ferguson.

An Ottawa-made tech solution bringing analytics to the age-old sports marketing industry is gaining momentum, scoring big pitchfest wins en route to a shot at an international championship.

The FanSaves app looks to bring the traditional sports team sponsorship model into the 21st century. Users who download the free mobile app can follow teams that have licensed the FanSaves application and access direct discounts from businesses sponsoring those teams. A fan of the Ottawa Champions baseball team, for example, could support the organization and save a few bucks on a slice at Gabriel Pizza after the game.

A member of Invest Ottawa’s accelerator program, FanSaves recently won the regional qualifier for the Get in the Ring pitch competition. Now, co-founders Shannon Ferguson and Kris McCarthy are headed to Germany for the global competition in mid-June to face off against more than a hundred startups from dozens of countries.

Ferguson says the idea for FanSaves came in 2017 when she and McCarthy were going business-to-business trying to lock down sponsorship support for a minor league hockey team in Cornwall. The rejections started to sound familiar, such as one Menchie’s franchise owner who complained to Ferguson that she used to put a coupon in the back of the game-day program, but either rarely got one back or knew nothing about the customer who turned one in.

“Every day, we’d come back with the same story where businesses weren’t willing to sponsor, not because they didn't want to support the team, but they felt like they weren't getting enough out of their sponsorship dollars,” Ferguson recalls.

She and McCarthy put together a prototype app that could give businesses a better sense of who was taking advantage of sponsorship deals, and the early enthusiasm from clients propelled the two to launch a business to take sponsorship into the digital era.

Analytics, both on the side of the team and the sponsor, are key to FanSaves’ value. On the teams’ dashboards, they can see which sponsors are benefiting the most from their deals and encourage them to double down or seek out partners with similar profiles. The businesses themselves receive a better understanding of who their customers are and what deals are converting sports fans into buyers.

Sports industry slow to change, expert says

While Ferguson and McCarthy ran the business on their own for the first two years, FanSaves is now up to six employees. They’ve also recruited an adviser in the form of Bruce Firestone, one of the businessmen responsible for reviving the Ottawa Senators franchise in the 1990s.

Firestone believes the FanSaves founders have stumbled onto a key pain point for the future of the sports industry.

“Sponsorship is a really important part of virtually every sports team’s past, present, future. Getting that kind of engagement with a team's fans is really important for sponsors,” he says.

While he sees a clear value in the FanSaves solution, Firestone says he’s warned Ferguson and McCarthy about the sports industry’s notorious lag time when it comes to adopting new strategies, both on the field and off.

He references the “Moneyball” approach, which sees sports teams measure players’ contributions based on niche metrics weighed against contract value, as a phenomenon that took longer than it should have to take off in sports.

“There's no question in my mind that FanSaves is a way for sponsors to engage more closely with the fan base of pretty much any sports team, or for that matter, any organization, but they certainly are going to face a resistance to change in the industry.”

While FanSaves is starting off targeting minor league teams – a great way for the startup to get the “worm in the apple,” Firestone notes – the app has garnered attention from a few major league players. FanSaves has had ongoing discussions with the Sens and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, and last month received a request from the NHL’s 2019 Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins looking to talk about the solution.

While FanSaves is waiting until after the playoffs are settled rather than rush the Bruins’ back office to get a deal, Ferguson acknowledges that landing the NHL powerhouse, especially if the team wins the Stanley Cup, could be a game-changer for the company – even if it comes with divided loyalties.

“It breaks my heart because I'm like a hardcore Leafs fan,” she says.

“My business mind is definitely cheering for them. Having Stanley Cup champs on the app, if they do win, would be pretty much gold.”

FanSaves has a fundraiser going on its website to help the early-stage startup cover its travel costs to Berlin for the Get in the Ring global competition.