Big-league aspirations: marketing app maker FanSaves enjoying breakout year in 2021

FanSaves founders
FanSaves co-founders Shannon Ferguson (left) and Kris McCarthy launched the online sports marketing company in 2017. Photo courtesy FanSaves

An Ottawa startup whose “digital coupon book” is shaking up the world of online sports marketing is on the verge of breaking into the big leagues as it ramps up talks with franchises in the NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball.

FanSaves’ high-tech take on the traditional sports marketing model is hitting the mark with a growing number of organizations in the wake of the pandemic, says co-founder and CEO Shannon Ferguson.

Since the start of the year, FanSaves’ client roster has grown from about 30 to its current total of 42. This week, the company signed its first two customers from the major junior Ontario Hockey League, the North Bay Battalion and the Peterborough Petes.

“COVID could have been the end (of the business),” Ferguson says. “We very easily could have lied down. But we’re fighters. We really turned it around in a positive way.”

Petes sales director Eric Ebenbauer says the coronavirus crisis forced teams to “think differently about how they can continue to engage their fans while not being able to use traditional methods.” 

The FanSaves platform is “not only a game-changer for hockey, but for sports as a whole,” he added in an email.

Ferguson says sports franchises and other organizations such as chambers of commerce and BIAs quickly realized they needed to take a fresh approach to connecting with fans and consumers who could no longer attend games in person or shop at brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

Direct discounts

“They now see the even bigger need for FanSaves,” Ferguson says. “For us, we’ve been able to use that to our advantage.”

Launched by Ferguson and co-founder Kris McCarthy in 2017, the FanSaves app uses modern analytics to upend the traditional sports marketing model.

Users who download the app can follow sports franchises and other organizations that have licensed the FanSaves application and access direct discounts from businesses that sponsor teams or members of groups such as BIAs and chambers of commerce.

The app tracks all purchases made via the electronic coupons, making it easy for FanSaves’ clients to see which sponsors are benefiting the most and encourage them to double down or seek out partners with similar profiles. 

In addition, the businesses themselves receive a better understanding of who their customers are and what offers are converting fans and consumers into buyers.

The FanSaves concept has caught the eye of a number of big-league sports franchises as well as potential investors.

Earlier this year, FanSaves joined HYPE Sports Innovation, a virtual global accelerator that matches fledgling sports tech startups with partners in the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, NBA and other top-tier leagues around the world. 

The company is currently exploring pilot projects with hockey’s Vegas Golden Knights, football’s Minnesota Vikings and baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and hopes to eventually convert the partnerships into long-term deals.

Meanwhile, the startup is also part of the Florida-based Tampa Bay Wave accelerator. The FanSaves team will be heading south at the end of this month to meet with the Wave’s scaleup experts as well as representatives from MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays and other organizations.

"We have great relationships with all the teams in Ottawa, and we look forward to growing with them in the future."

The nine-person company is also in talks with the Ottawa Senators and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, the owners of the CFL’s Redblacks and OHL’s 67’s, about getting on board with its hometown franchises.

“We have great relationships with all the teams in Ottawa, and we look forward to growing with them in the future,” Ferguson says.

The bootstrapped venture has cobbled together some outside funding over the years, landing $100,000 at a pitchfest in Renfrew County two years ago as well as a few grants. FanSaves is currently in the process of wooing more investors, with the goal of closing a US$750,000 seed round this fall.   

Like athletes who’ve toiled for years in the minors before finally earning their big break, Ferguson and Co. are now seeing the payoff from all the blood, sweat and tears they’ve poured into scaling the business.

“That’s our biggest asset – we don’t back down,” the CEO says. “The sports industry is hard to break into, but once you break into it, it’s like a snowball effect. 

“It’s really taken this amount of time to grow our network, to prove ourselves, to grow our brand. But finally we’re able to be at that cusp where we are being taken seriously. We have grown consistently throughout the last few years, but now we’re really ready to take off.”