Alumni turn pro with CrowdPlay program

By Brian Koonz, MS '20 February 27, 2023

Andrew Pizzi and Michael Cusano co-founders of fan engagement program CrowdPlay smile arm in arm

As kids, Andrew Pizzi ’19 and Michael Cusano ’14 spent holidays with a big family and bigger dreams. Sure, they were a few years apart. But after they each found their footing in the School of Business, it was clear they weren’t just meant to be cousins. They were meant to be partners.

Pizzi and Cusano are the co-founders of CrowdPlay, a year-round fan engagement program that builds excitement and loyalty beyond gameday. What began as an in-game experience for fans answering questions on their phones during QU hockey games has become a surging market leader for professional sports franchises.

Over the last 18 months, Pizzi and Cusano have signed deals as the exclusive fan engagement program for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, and the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.

“There were a couple of competitors out there in the market, but they weren't really succeeding. That’s what really inspired us to make the pivot into who we are today,” said Cusano, the chief operating officer of CrowdPlay.

“When we finally started talking to the Devils, they were the first professional team that said, ‘Hey, we like what you guys are doing. We can see the long-term benefits it can provide to our organization.’ And things just really took off from there.”

The program is only available to season-ticket holders for these teams. With the Devils, the program is branded as Black and Red Rewards. With the Flyers, it’s offered as Inside Edge Rewards. The Nets, meanwhile, haven't launched their new rewards program yet.

CrowdPlay makes it easy for fans to engage with their favorite teams. They register for the program with the same emails they use for their season-ticket accounts. But that’s only the beginning.

Fans can earn points throughout the year, not just during the season. Keeping fans engaged and invested during the offseason, especially repeat season-ticket holders, is a huge win for these franchises.

Fans can earn points by checking-in every day and attending games. They can earn points by answering questions during home games from outside the arena, whether it’s from their living room or their favorite sports bar. They can also earn points by buying season-ticket packages.

Season-ticket holders can exchange their points for valuable rewards, including upgraded seats and special merchandise, along with signed memorabilia and exclusive fan experiences such as player meet-and-greets.

“These teams sound like they’re really big organizations, but internally, they’re really not that big. They realize that having a loyal fan base is critical for their bottom line,” said Pizzi, the CEO of CrowdPlay. “Season-ticket sales make up a large part of their annual revenues, but they don't have the bandwidth internally to operate a loyalty program.

“That’s where we come in. We have a great product that helps them increase their season-ticket retention year over year. For us, it’s more than just our passion. It’s something that we’ve found to be a really exciting product for these organizations.”

But wait, the CrowdPlay story gets even better.

On Feb. 22, CrowdPlay announced it had closed on a $1.9 million Series Seed Preferred II Round of financing led by Jennus Innovation, a Boston-based venture capital firm.

“Teams are finding clear and demonstrable economic value being added by the CrowdPlay program,” Pizzi said in his remarks. “The real-time engagement metrics that are built into our platform show an exceptionally high level of daily active users, and fan reaction is remarkably strong. We are grateful for this round of financing and believe it provides a resounding vote of confidence in our vision for the future of sports loyalty.”

And yet, instead of growing strategically and building an impressive portfolio of NHL and NBA clients, CrowdPlay could have struggled, or even failed, like so many other businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Pizzi, Cusano and the CrowdPlay team refused to surrender their dream.

Shortly after securing $1.325 million in their first round of financing in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything, including arenas. Without fans, there was no CrowdPlay program.

“We had this whole plan, and it came crashing down,” Pizzi said. “We were so excited we had just raised this new capital, but sports shut down — and they shut down for a really long time as you remember. They really didn’t come back for almost two years. Sports were just gone.

“From a business standpoint, teams weren’t entertaining any new business initiatives. They were totally focused on getting fans back in the seats, so that had a major negative impact on us,” he said. “But we didn’t waste the downtime. We used it to reorient the business and decide that we were going to focus just on professional sports.”

Dave Tomczyk, associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, had Pizzi as a student at Quinnipiac. He remembers when CrowdPlay was still in its formative stages, an unproven idea with unlimited potential. He pointed out the School of Business teaches the merit of pivoting in times of crisis or failure.

But first, students have to trust the professor as much as the process.

“For some students, it takes a little bit more effort because they think the big value is the idea — but to be honest, the idea is practically worthless,” Tomczyk said. “The big value is the implementation of the idea: How are you going to do it? Why are you going to do it? Why are people going to switch from what they're doing now to what you're offering? If you can answer those questions, that gets other people excited.”

Tomczyk said Pizzi got him excited about CrowdPlay when he supported his idea with data and evidence. But Tomczyk also knew this was just the beginning of Pizzi’s journey.

“My goal is to say, ‘Here are the next steps. Go out and do great things. But remember, this is college. You’re supposed to mess up. Go fail, awesomely. And then, take those lessons to the next idea, or revise the idea you’re currently working on and go forward from there,’” he said.

Tomczyk credits Dale Jasinski, a recently retired associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, for bringing this business model canvas to QU. Tomczyk said students appreciate the exercise because it forces them to write down their key partners, value propositions and other variables “into a nice, easy format that students can wrap their brains around.”

More than five years later, CrowdPlay has emerged as a force in pro sports engagement driven by the vision of Pizzi and Cusano.

“The foundation of any sports property is built by three fundamental pillars: the team, the fans, and the brands,” reads the CrowdPlay mission statement. “CrowdPlay was created to challenge ourselves to connect these three elements in a way that maximizes their individual strengths, and encourages fan engagement beyond the game.”

Building CrowdPlay with your cousin is just a bonus. Or maybe it’s the best part.

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