Engagement Marketing in Team Sports: Turning Fans into Fanatics

By Drew Lillie

Not terribly long ago, if you wanted to watch your local team’s game in real time you had to be sitting in the arena or stadium.  Regardless of how the game turned out, attending the event in person meant a variety of costs to you in terms of money, time and increased aggravation. Since more often than not home games were not televised, it meant driving through traffic to the venue, finding a place to park, queuing up to buy a ticket, elbowing your way through throngs of fellow fans at concession stands (for ridiculously expensive offerings) and restrooms, and eventually waiting in a long line of vehicles all trying to exit the after-game parking lot.  Would you want to do it again anytime soon?  Maybe.  Or maybe not. 

With today’s billion-dollar TV deals and gigantic but inexpensive HDTVs, you no longer have to spend money, time and sanity to see your favorite team play live.  Everything is ready and waiting to unfold on the 70-inch screen hanging on your wall. Just settle into your favorite chair, pull an ice cold beverage out of the fridge, and you’re all set.  There couldn’t be a better way to watch the game—right?! 

Well, while there’s certainly a lot to be said for the modern home-viewing experience, there may be something lacking.  Where is the energy of a live crowd that erupts when your club’s centerfielder makes a brilliant, leaping catch at the outfield wall?  Where is the deafening roar of approval when your team’s QB throws a perfect pass to a wide open receiver in the end zone?  Sure, HD and surround sound systems can mimic the experience, but it’s just not the same as being there in person.  Even the sometimes-annoying people sitting near you can offer an opportunity to exchange forceful high-fives when your star left wing fires a 100 mph slap-shot past a diving goaltender and into the net.  Everyone jumps to their feet simultaneously and screams with overwhelming approval.  There couldn’t be a better way to watch the game—right?! 

Certainly, each option has its pros and cons.  But, more and more, people are choosing the home viewing option, causing concern among team executives. Not only will the lack of fans in the stands lead to diminished “12th Man” support for the home team but, more importantly, there is likely to be a serious dip in revenue.  Big-money TV contracts can help fill some of this revenue gap, but the networks’ – and sponsors’ – deep pockets can’t compensate for the lifeblood of most sports franchises: revenue from the sale of tickets, parking, concessions and team merchandise. 

Not surprisingly, the big question on the minds of team management is:  How can we make the game-day experience so irresistible that fans would rather take an inconvenient path to come to the venue rather than stay home and watch on TV? 

Probably the most obvious – and critical – thing a team can do is develop a winning product on the playing surface.  People love winners and they’ll spend a lot more money to watch a winner than a loser, especially if it’s a matter of attending in person.  But when winning becomes the norm for a franchise, how can the team keep people coming out game after game after game over the course of a long season?  How can they provide an experience that outweighs the convenience – and lower cost – of staying at home?

The answer is that teams must do everything they can to make the game-day experience as inviting, entertaining and memorable as possible, time after time.  Team-fan interaction no longer can be just a single ticket-buying transaction.  Rather, the team must actively engage fans before, during and after the contest. Games must be perceived as entertainment being provided to valued guests, and the interactions need to be aligned with this view.  The possibilities are endless, but some examples of interactive engagement might include:

  • An email reminder before the game to print out tickets or to download a fan app that allows you to present your tickets digitally when entering the venue.
  • A text with recommendations for parking locations or food and merchandise options at the venue.
  • A text offering an opportunity to upgrade seats just before the game, or special discounts on fan shop merchandise purchased after the game ends. 
  • A special offer emailed immediately after the game for tickets to the next game, or even a season ticket package offer to secure the exact same seats for the rest of the season and playoffs

The primary threads that weave through the customer engagement process are technology and data.  When teams can accumulate preference/experience data, manage this data in a thoughtful and strategic way, and then communicate directly with customers through a variety of technology-driven media (email, text, apps, social media), it creates a personalized, interactive experience that turns a mere fan into a valued, long-term client.  Many professional teams have begun to engage with this process, either by investing in the technology and expertise necessary to expand and extend the customer experience or by collaborating with strategic partners wishing to leverage sponsorship opportunities. 

Upgrading and expanding mobile communications infrastructure in and around sporting venues is a critical component for enhancing the fan experience, as it allows teams to interact with a large number of customers simultaneously in real time across various communication platforms.  It also provides customers with the means to expand their knowledge, insight and enjoyment of the game with real-time access to player statistics, video highlights and player interviews, as well as the ability to interact immediately with other fans around the arena, city and world via social media.

Eventually, fans will be able to fully customize their game-day experience to suit their own, unique needs.  Teams will be able to take your food and drink order in advance, begin preparing it when your car enters the parking area, and have it ready to pick up or deliver to your seat shortly after scanning the digital-ticket barcode on your mobile device.  Teams will be able to push customized content, based on preference data, to your mobile device and make specific recommendations and offers for seat upgrades, merchandise, new concession items, fan/player interactions, post-game entertainment and uncongested driving routes.  What may have seemed like a challenging or frustrating game-day experience will become a truly unique and enjoyable experience that the engaged fan will look forward to sharing with others and repeating again and again. 

The bottom line is that teams must view the ticket buying fan’s single game attendance as just one stage in the customer journey, ultimately leading to repeat attendance, greater engagement with – and emotional attachment to – the brand, and higher revenue for the team.