Ep. 69: How The Columbus Blue Jackets Think About Fan Engagement with TJ Ansley

In each episode of The Playbook presented by FanFood, host Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment and hospitality. We invite industry veterans to talk about how customer expectation have changed in today’s world, and how businesses need to change accordingly for greater operational efficiency and better guest experience.

Ep. 69: How The Columbus Blue Jackets Think About Fan Engagement with TJ Ansley

TJ Ansley, Director of Digital Media for the Columbus Blue Jackets, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how the Blue Jackets think about fan engagement. Being in a non-traditional hockey market, how do they build their fan base? How can they showcase the in-arena experience digitally? When fans eventually return to stadiums and arenas, what can be done to elevate their experience?


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Listen to the Gameday Playbook on:

  • Ep. 69: How The Columbus Blue Jackets Think About Fan Engagement with TJ Ansley
  • Ep. 69: How The Columbus Blue Jackets Think About Fan Engagement with TJ Ansley
  • Ep. 69: How The Columbus Blue Jackets Think About Fan Engagement with TJ Ansley
  • Ep. 69: How The Columbus Blue Jackets Think About Fan Engagement with TJ Ansley
  • Ep. 69: How The Columbus Blue Jackets Think About Fan Engagement with TJ Ansley

Rob Cressy: (00:08)

Welcome to The Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment, and hospitality. I’m your host, Rob Cressy. And joining me today is TJ Ansley, director of digital media at the Columbus Blue Jackets. TJ, great to have you on the show.


TJ Ansley: (00:30)

Hey Rob, thanks for having me.


Rob Cressy: (00:32)

Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?


TJ Ansley: (00:36)

Sure. So, my name’s TJ Ansley originally from Ohio and I worked for the Columbus Blue Jackets now as Director of Digital Media. So, everything was social website content throughout the app, website, all that kind of stuff. So, a lot of stuff coming our way and definitely at a different time right now. So, it’s been fun so far.


Rob Cressy: (00:58)

So, that’s what we’re going to talk about is sort of the different time we’re in now, but we’re also going to look forward and see what we can do to make things better because certainly, you guys are on the cutting edge of things. So, let’s start with this. How do the blue jackets think about fan engagement?


TJ Ansley: (01:14)

Yeah, I think it’s definitely something that’s always on top of our mind. You know, we’re in Columbus. The monster in the room is all Ohio state. So, a lot of Ohio State fans in the area and our job is to kind of cut through that and we’re not a traditional hockey market, but hockey is growing tremendously in Ohio. Not only Columbus but Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, there are rinks popping up everywhere and they’re making investments in those youth programs and adult leagues that are around. So, more and more people are growing into the game of hockey. On our end, we kind of want to make sure that we’re engaging with our fans, especially because we’re only in our 20th season so we’re one of the fairly new franchises not named Seattle or Vegas.


So we try to, not only educate the fans but also be with them when we’re playing. We’ve been in the playoffs for I think for four or five straight years which is a great thing to be in and our next step is to get further. Get into that second round and get into the third round and eventually win the Stanley Cup. But our job with social and digital is to always engage with the fan. Making sure that what we’re putting out there is not just, Hey, here’s just a post. We want to make sure the graphics are right. If sponsors are involved, what we need to do to make them happy. I’ve always lived by the three rules, is it good for the fans, is it good for the organization and is it good for the sponsor? 

So if all three of those work, I think you get the most out of your engagement with that. We were talking a little bit before one of my friends and colleagues, Jeremy McPeak, he had a really good point, why not just go in and just talk to the fans? After a win, they’re posting pictures of them celebrating. Go comment on those or like them. It doesn’t take that long to do that after a win. You’re always doing more and more things, but that’s a really good way to engage and it’s really easy to do.


Rob Cressy: (03:32)

I’m curious if there is a movement or an opportunity with what you just said, what if the players could engage with the fan? So, I know players have their own brands and they’re different from the team, but I think one thing that I as a sports fan would love is could you imagine if one of the players of your team after a victory saw who was on Twitter? Cause I think Twitter may be one of the best platforms to do it because it’s very real-time conversational. But, it would give a surprise and delight factor where maybe if someone comments on one of the Blue Jackets posts, boom, here comes one of the players. And of course, there’d be some coordination around that, but it’s something that I’ve never seen done before. Is that even a possibility?


TJ Ansley: (04:18)

So, funny you say that like most of our players are on Instagram. They’re younger. Instagram kind of skews that way for us. They do comment on things that we do post. So, when there is a win because we have our name is Blue Jackets, it’s not because it’s a bug, it’s representative of the civil war. The Blue Jackets that the union army made were made in Columbus. So, that’s the whole thing about that. We don’t want to get too far into that. But, we give away a hat, a civil war type hat to the best player and they do it internally and in the locker room. It’s not anything that we had anything to do with it just kind of happens that way.


Other NHL teams do something similar to that, but every time they do that they’ll go in there and we’ll post a video from the locker room. So, when we post that in there sometimes the other players will kind of go in there and give a little jab to that player in the comments or something like that. So, they’re kind of naturally doing it anyway. But, I do like that approach where if it’s a fan that’s saying, Hey good job, Nick Felino.He should be able to go in there and say, Hey, thanks for supporting us. Would it be there? It’s a really good idea. We’ll bring that up


Rob Cressy: (05:47)

Because from a brand-building perspective, I think one of the biggest opportunities on the athlete side is right now their heat is never going to be hotter than they were playing with Columbus or in the NHL. So, it’s a matter of awareness. The more that I can be in the awareness of the Blue Jackets feeds or of the people who are fans, because guess what could you imagine if Nick Felino tweeted or IG commented to a fan? Do you know how many people you’re going to tell you about this? Which sort of transitions to the next thing that I wanted to talk about that you mentioned as being in a nontraditional hockey market and you gave some examples of ways that you grow. But, I think this is an important thing because so often one of the biggest challenges in growing a business or a team or a league or an organization is the start. We can make excuses for why things do not happen, but you guys have been successful, and Oh, by the way, OH. Ohio State is right there in your backyard. So, you have a built-in in terms of like, well you know what? But guess what you guys are growing. So, I’m curious, what are some other tactics that may be more universal than someone listening to this can say, Hey, if I’m going to grow something in a non-traditional market, here are some things I can think about doing.


TJ Ansley: (07:08)

Sure. No, that’s a good point where we’re in the thick of that right now, and obviously, we don’t know what this next season will be like. Whether there are all fans, half fans, quarter, whatever we do, but our goal is always to sell tickets, to get sponsorships because that’s how we run. On the ticket side, we want to make sure, Hey, because there are a hundred thousand people that go to a game at Ohio Stadium almost every other week in the fall. How do we get those fans to even think about the Blue Jackets? Because they’re most likely 75% of those people are all from Ohio. Well, we’re in Ohio too. Our entertainment value is just as good or even better. So, how do we reach those fans? If they’re straight football fans, how do we get them to come to a game? Experience it, and then move them up that ladder to get them into quarter season tickets, half-season tickets, full season tickets. So, I think a lot of the goal for social and digital is to kind of showcase our experience. I mean, I can name one other team which is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who have a canon in their arena or stadium. We have one too and it is Rob, I don’t know if when you were at Miami, do you ever come to a Blue Jackets game?


Rob Cressy: (08:32)

I did not. So, that actually I don’t think the Blue Jackets, the Blue Jackets may have just started when I was leaving Miami.


TJ Ansley: (08:39)

Gotcha. Yeah, I mean, it’s something to behold. Even players that are on the ice for warm-ups and the cannon goes off, it scares them. So, it’s a pretty cool thing to have. So, us highlighting the canon that’s in there. All of the opening credits, the highlight videos, us pushing that out to say, Hey, this is hard-hitting exciting loud, but also we’re trying to reach those, like I said, Ohio State fans and maybe families to just come out to enjoy it and see what it’s like. Because I’m sure if they experience it, they’re going to come back. So, like I said, we’re trying to reach all those fans within Ohio. I like to say we’re not only Columbus, but we’re early Ohio Blue Jackets, honestly. So, there are lots of towns in here that, people come from Springfield, they come from Dayton, they come from Cleveland, Cincinnati. So, we’re here to kind of be that franchise that kind of gets people excited.


Rob Cressy: (09:47)

I believe the pandemic in the ways that teams and leagues and brands have had to evolve digitally is going to end up becoming a positive for us because we’re going to have to get better at evolving digitally. But I’m curious from your perspective on how you showcase that experience digitally. Because anyone who’s ever been to a hockey game and certainly the first time you go, I think it’s one of the most beautiful things because when you’ve watched hockey on TV or you’ve never watched it you’re like, okay, whatever. You go there and it’s a little bit cooler in the building. And then you see the speed in which the players are skating around and you can feel the hits and the board’s making noises. And you’re like, Whoa, it is a completely different thing. And the best thing that I could compare it to would be going to a NASCAR race for the first time. Where the experience in the arena or in the stadium is just mind-blowing and using that canon is a great example. What can you guys do to digitally transfer that? Because the inner arena experience is so unique and it’s so heart pounding in the best way possible.

TJ Ansley: (10:58)

Yeah, you’re exactly right. Because the first time you go to a game, it is completely different watching hockey in person than it is on TV. I mean, we have great technology. We can get as close as we can with it, but you just being there and feeling the chill in the air and that kind of stuff in the arena is something that, that’s what I was trying to refer to before, we’re grabbing those people right away and hopefully they’re coming back. Some of the things that we do, we have a really great video person that helps us during games for social. He is on the glass. If you ever see it, there’s a hole in the glass that you can kind of take a little thing out and put your camera through. He’s down there, he’s on the bench right before the game. So, he’s getting right there because you know, really hockey is different than any other sport where there is glass between the players and the fans. Football there isn’t. Baseball, well they’re kind of trying to with the nets and everything. Basketball, definitely not. If you have courtside seats for basketball or you’re like you could reach out and touch somebody if you need to. So, that’s the one way that it’s a little bit different. We want to get that video person in there and get the photos that are really close, really showing the hits, showing the slap shots that are insane. Hockey players are only on the ice at times for a minute or two and then they shift. So, you have to get that moment right away.


I worked in the NBA and it was there for Damian Lillard’s 0.9 shot. Forget what year it was, but you as a social person, you have that lead-in. That came from a timeout to an out of bounds play. So, you’re getting ready. You’re making sure things are in place. You’re making sure the video person’s ready and hockey, you could go into overtime as soon, you could be done in two seconds and you don’t have everything right away. So, the speed of the hockey game is insane and you just gotta make sure everything’s in place right away because you can miss that entire thing.


Rob Cressy: (13:18)

One thing I just realized when thinking about the inner ring experience of what I like so much about it comes to one thing, the community. I love being part of hockey and hockey fans because when you go to a game, you’re seeing the overwhelming majority of the people there wearing blue jackets, gear, or jerseys or hats and it feels good to be around other like-minded people. And then I thought about sort of you’re in Columbus and Ohio State. Well, that’s one of the biggest communities you have, period. And it’s a series of communities that are extremely inclusive where Columbus Blue Jackets becomes your friend and you’re among other people. And I’m curious about the way that you guys think about almost segmenting fans because hockey is one where I see it as very binary. It’s diehards or regulars, but if you’re out of a market, you’re not watching a ton. So, I’m from Pittsburgh originally and I live in Chicago and I went to school at Miami of Ohio. All huge hockey programs or markets. So, for me, I’m all in on hockey, but find someone who is from a state or a city where hockey is not part of their lexicon and it’s nowhere in their orbit. Thereof course, lies the opportunity. And I’m curious how you guys think about the niche fan versus the person who may just go for an experience versus the diehard and how that sort of comes into your mix.


TJ Ansley: (14:52)

Yeah, that’s a great question. Because we were such a new franchise and I was in the same boat with you. Like I was in college in 2000 when the Blue Jackets came. I wasn’t in the state. So, I knew they were here. I’d come down and visit my friends who are out of state and maybe we go to a game. So, eventually, as you grow up and kind of get to know the players more it’s a little bit different from a hockey player walking down the street, then a starting quarterback for an NFL team. I don’t think Baker Mayfield could walk down the street and not somebody recognize them. Where hockey is a little bit different. They’re kind of on their own. Most of our roster is foreign, so they’re out there.


So, it’s our goal to tell those stories of those people. Nick Felino is a family man Cam Atkinson’s family man. They’ve been around for a while. So, to get to not only just coming to a game for the first time, that’s our introduction to say, come experience it, follow us on social, check us out on the website, download the app. Then we got them. Then we want to move them to the next realm. So, go buy a Jersey when you come to the next game or buy a t-shirt and you’re walking around and you see them at the mall or something like that. Then you’re kind of snowballing into kind of that lifelong fan, which I actually just read a proposal today just trying to get those gen Z years to try to get more involved in hockey because it’s not everybody plays hockey.


It’s a very tough sport to get into because it requires a lot of money. There’s a lot of gear that you’re wearing. It’s not like basketball or football where you can just pick up a ball and go outside and play. You have to find a rink. You have to find time on that rink. And there are not many rinks. So, how do you get them involved? You don’t have to play to like the game. I can’t even skate. We have open skating times at work sometimes and I look like a deer just kind of on skates over there. So, there are different evolutions. Get them to come to a game, get them to stay, come back, do more things. Social is that part that kind of keeps the engine going and keeps them entertained. That’s what I’m saying. Like when we go back and comment on somebody’s post, that gets them to say, Hey, Oh, Hey, blue jackets are still there. Let’s check them out for the next time.


Rob Cressy: (17:37)

So, to get specific and tactical with this, what you’re saying is there are steps to building this relationship to get someone who may not be exposed to the Blue Jackets to slowly go up the ladder of the relationship. And whether it’s the inner arena experience or anything digital, or the players, you guys slowly but surely are going to do what you can to create a positive brand interaction. And it doesn’t mean the first time someone sees something in Blue Jackets, you’re like buy season tickets. It’s a gradual relationship building where Hey, sometimes someone’s first game may actually be a playoff game that the Blue Jackets and there are hooked just like that. Or some people, it might take a little bit longer to go through that cycle of a relationship, because guess what? That’s how relationships are built.


TJ Ansley: (18:27)

Exactly. Yeah, we do a lot of giveaways and a lot of entering to wins. Not only for tickets but for signed sticks or pucks or anything like that. One of the giveaways we did was for the Stanley Cup Playoff game one of, forget what year it was, but we had thousands of entries. If we would have done that in the regular season, a few hundred maybe, but since there’s not a lot going on at that time in Columbus with sports. So, people just gravitate towards it and they want to be part of it. They know once you hit those playoffs, it just magnifies what you’re going to do.


Rob Cressy: (19:11)

So, let’s look forward and of course, we don’t know what things are going to look like for the upcoming season, but eventually fans will be getting back into arenas. So, let’s start thinking about what the experience is going to look like. And I know one thing you and I talked about previously was cashless and how it is one opportunity to improve the customer experience. Can you expand a little bit more upon that?


TJ Ansley: (19:36)

Sure. There’s a lot of things that’ll probably change. Us not knowing schedule anything like that, or even when we’re starting. We’re just waiting. It seems it’s going to be the same for us where we push things out digitally. We get information of when games are. We don’t know how many people will be in the stands. So, as not only social, but digital, which is website and mobile app and everything we need to make sure that’s portrayed correctly on our website. So, people, when they do have questions of like, Hey, I’m not able to come to this game or I don’t feel comfortable coming to these type of games, which hopefully that’s not the case because we’ll make every effort to make sure everything is safe, healthy, everything for fans to be there.


But we also have to abide by rules by governments and all that kind of stuff. So, making sure everything’s correct on our website, you mentioned cashless. I’m not part of that conversation, but I know that it is happening throughout some higher-ups and some are technical people. We do have a mobile app. How do you make sure that that’s all connected? And making sure that when you go by concession stands, do we have Apple pay, or can I use my credit card. One that I just heard of was you can actually exchange cash for a certain type of card which I thought was interesting. I think the Browns were doing that. So, you’re basically going with a Brown’s looking debit card that you can go buy food, gear, whatever you need to. So, I thought that was a really interesting concept. We are an avenue to make sure that people are safe, healthy, all that kind of stuff. Get all the correct information and not just showing up at the game and expecting something normal.


Rob Cressy: (21:41)

And how do you manage expectations and certainly all things digital are opportunities to create touchpoints, but I think that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges is managing expectations. Because people come in with different mindsets. Some people don’t care, some people completely care. Who’s coming in when the gates first open? Who’s waiting for two years? So, how do you guys sort of manage those expectations?


TJ Ansley: (22:08)

Well, I think that goes down to make sure our ticket sales staff and service have all the correct info, are talking to our clients and season ticket holders to making sure they’re getting the correct information too. Shouldn’t fully rely on digital to do that, but are those service people are there to make sure things are running smoothly. If somebody does have issues where they don’t want to come to a game, I’m sure they’re out talking to our staff making sure that they’re taken care of. If it’s our team store, if it’s concessions, making sure that there are posted signs. All that kind of stuff.


Rob Cressy: (22:51)

And I actually believe there is a huge opportunity right there. Because we’ve been forced to be so digital, what we actually miss is connection and human interaction. Think about how many times now we’ve had to sit on hold on an automated phone tree where we put zero a hundred times and scream customer service at the phone. Well, guess what? Sometimes just talking to a person makes us feel so much better. And I think if we can add that human connection back into things, certainly digital’s always going to be there, but I believe doubling down on the in-person side of things is actually one of the tactics that will win because I want to feel that heartbeat from a person. And Oh, by the way, we may get an answer quicker talking to a person and feel safer than we will something digital.


TJ Ansley: (23:43)

Yeah. I think that’s a great point. I believe that’s what’s going to happen. We’re doing as much as we can on the digital side, whether it’s tweets, posting on Facebook, updating the website, but I don’t know if you actually look at it. So, if you’re coming to a game, you’re like, okay, I just parked, got to come to the game. Do I need to wear my mask? Do I need to use hand sanitizer when I come in and all that kind of stuff? They’re going to have that answer right away when you’re right there. Hopefully, by the time, you don’t have to do that all year because then people will kind of be accustomed to everything. But, other things that we’re looking into are chatbots. We have one on our website now and I think some of this stuff is being updated almost every other day with new information that we have. So, that does help kind of alleviate some of that. If it’s just a simple question. Those longer questions of, I have 40, 45 games in my ticket plan. I can’t come to all of these because maybe we’re not allowed to. So, that’s where human interaction comes into play.


Rob Cressy: (24:57)

And I think being proactive with this is something that everyone needs to be more on the ball of. And I also think we need to do this in a fun and engaging way because think to if you’ve ever gone to Home Depot or Lowe’s or some giant store where you’re looking to get something answered and you can’t find anyone. And even then you don’t even know if you get the right answer. And how often has that experience been something where you come home and you’re like, honey, you won’t believe this. I had the best experience at Home Depot. This person helped me, man they were amazing. I had so much fun. That never happens. And of course, we assume anyone we’re going to encounter from the blue jackets is going to be able to help us. But what if we add the standard of elevating that experience, knowing that the people coming in they might be a little bit more cautious or timid than they were a year ago.


Rob Cressy: (25:50)

Because if you think about our mindset going into a game and I live within walking distance of the United Center where the Blackhawks play, and there’s a buzz pre-game for arenas. That’s one of the parts that are so fun and exciting is maybe you go somewhere and you grab a beer and then you go and you’re walking into the arena and you see the lights and the marquee and the people, and there’s a buzz and it feels so good. But now that sort of has been simmered a little bit. So, what can we all do to say, well, wait a second. Let’s add some human interaction to add some more simmer to that.


TJ Ansley: (26:27)

Yeah. To that point, Columbus their downtown area is maybe not as vibrant and as some of what in Chicago because not a lot of people live downtown as much as they do in the suburbs. But there is a really big difference when there is a game. Bars around there are packed. Restaurants, you have to wait for a table and all that kind of stuff. You’re walking into the arena and there’s a band playing. So, even if our games starting December, January, this year. That pushes back towards the end of the season when we’re marching to the playoffs. That gives us the opportunity even more because before we would be ending in early April and it’s still maybe a little chilly here so people could be outside. But now it could be May, June before the end of the season. That gives us two or three, four months where we can have outside exposure. People won’t be as nervous to go into an arena where they’re maybe being uncomfortable with sitting next to people or we have to be spaced out. So, outside we could have bands. We could have a beer card out there. So, we can kind of engage with our fans in a different way than we don’t normally have.


Rob Cressy: (27:48)

Last question for you. What has your attention right now looking forward. Whether it’s technology, social, digital what has your eye that we should be on alert?


TJ Ansley: (28:03)

Oh, great question. What I’m trying to do is trying to make our lives easier in the digital world. I mean our team, cause we’re all spaced out. We’re all in our homes. So, we were covering the bubble games from our houses. So, we’re looking into different software that could help us cut highlights easier. Some software that could help us, we upload branded assets and create Instagram templates or Twitter templates. And then that gets us into another realm where we can easily engrain a sponsor without losing any of the engagement. So, I think that’s one of the areas that I’m working in. I’m not totally part of this, but the cashless part of it. Once games start coming back is very interesting to me. Making sure in-arena signage is pointing to the right way that you need to go. The local soccer team, which I actually used to work for a long time ago, Columbus Crew. They’ve had fans here for, I think maybe two months now, and they’re very good about showcasing, Hey, these certain sections they leave in this direction. So, they’re very cognizant of what’s going on. Making sure that information is out there. Whether it’s email, website, social. So I’m sure we’re going to be getting into that. Just to you making sure fans and everyone feels safe at games


Rob Cressy: (29:46)

And certainly it FanFood, we are big believers in cashless and elevating the customer experience, making it better. TJ really enjoyed jamming with you. Where can everybody connect with you?


TJ Ansley: (30:00)

I’m on Twitter. I’m at TJ Ansley. You can follow me on Instagram. It’s more family stuff there, but feel free to follow me there. Connect with me, I’m also on LinkedIn, the same thing. So yeah, find me anywhere.


Rob Cressy: (30:18)

And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. You know what I’m curious about, have you attended a hockey game live, and if so, what was your experience like? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodondemand. On Instagram @FanFoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.