A piece from SportsHosts CEO and Founder, Darren Walls
In a modern world, teams need to engage fans in new ways
Having spent the past 3 years with more sports fans more than I can remember, from all over the world, I can tell you that a common response is a blunt “no”. The perception for many fans is that when it comes to the teams and leagues they follow, their interests are secondary to those of big business, sponsors and the media.
As a fan at a game, I get overpriced beer, bad food, and kiss cam. It doesn’t exactly communicate appreciation.
What I will tell you is how leagues and teams can harness some of the most pressing global social problems and trends to grow, now and ongoing, in a way that truly empowers their fanbase, while providing teams and leagues with passive income.
Too good to be true? Here’s an even bigger claim: it will make the world a better place.
Warning: this article is for big thinkers.
The sports industry is hyper-competitive. There has never been more consumer choice and it has never been easier to not attend a game, as the at-home experience is superior in many ways.
Having said that, people increasingly value personal experiences more than material possessions. The experiences and activities that they seek are projections of how they see themselves, how they spend their time is an expression of these values.
In a world that values experiences, staying home doesn't cut it. Nothing can replace the thrill of being there, sharing those moments in person with thousands of others. No one tells you the story of how they saw it on TV.
Fandom makes the game come alive and all that emotional energy can be harnessed. So, what if we harnessed it for something greater?
Better stadium food?
I’m only half joking. Decent stadium food is probably a bridge too far, but we can dream.
In 2012, the World Federation of Mental health described depression as a global crisis. In the book Lost Connections, the author, Hari discovers that depression is not only a biological ailment but is a psychological and environmental one as well. Hari presents an exhaustively researched argument for people to re-establish human connections. And, in a world where we are connected online more than ever, but more lonely than ever, sports offers one of the greatest chances for people to connect personally on a global scale like never before.
Leagues and teams can benefit in inconceivable ways, all they have to do is to become human again. And with over 3.5 billion sports fans in the world, bigger than any race or religion, the possibilities are staggering.
So let's look at the four key factors that are driving change:
(1) loneliness is social illness
(2) people seek authentic, uplifting experiences
(3) sports fans have become more global and;
(4) leagues and teams need to compete.
So the question is how do leagues and teams bring fans together in a globalized world and allow people to make personal connections.
The challenge for teams is to shift from a local lens to a global lens while engaging and growing their local fans bases.
The engagement of current fans in relation to the globalization is the most misunderstood point in how team marketers can increase attendance. The true local fans are the soul of the team, and the greater that soul and spirit are, the more they will attract others. So the starting point in moving from a local to global lense is to start with engaging your current fans to support that shift in building a bigger and more diverse fan community.
As Professor Daniel Wann of Murray State University, author of the book Sport Fans: The Psychology And Social Impact Of Spectators puts it; "The simple fact is that people are looking for ways to identify with something, to feel a sense of belonging-ness with a group of like-minded individuals.”
Community lifts our spirits, and communities give people:
(1) Membership (the right to belong)
(2) Influence (the feeling that you have influence)
(3) Integration and fulfillment of needs (aligning the needs of the community with the individual)
(4) Shared emotional connections (operating at the same emotional frequency)
Within this challenge, many teams are facing stagnant, or even declining membership, season pass holders, and attendances in general. And what we are seeing working with teams in this environment is they are doubling down on their focus on local fan marketing, which is logical as these fans provide the highest lifetime value and, as I said, are the soul.
But the issue is, teams are often doubling down on short-term, push marketing with new offers, increased flexibility in packages etc... And while these tactics all have their place, they tend to miss why fan communities exist in the first place, how they grow, and how they can be linked to the bigger social trends of our time.
We also know that shifting the teams’ marketing efforts too far towards an international focus can have serious pitfalls, as global fans attend far fewer games and are lower value.
For the leagues and teams that are fortunate enough to succeed in growing a global
audience through one-off attendances, the risk is even greater.
When the tourists piss off the locals at games...
At the beginning of the 2015/16 English Premier League season, fans from all 20 teams protested in unison against the rise in ticket prices, which were in part attributed to the influx of tourists over the previous years.
The Premier League succeeded in becoming a “must-see” event for people visiting the UK, yet in a twist of irony, this success put at risk one of it’s greatest attractions - the atmosphere of games.
From both a culture and product point of view, the tangible loss of atmosphere at grounds is a real problem for Premier League teams and the league as a whole. Combined with the rising ticket prices, this has created a tension between local fan culture and global growth.
The worst part is that it’s both sides who are being short-changed. The local fans are paying more for their tickets (if they can get them) and the tourists are rendered spectators to both the game being played on the park, and also to the broader event itself. They’re outsiders, even inside the stadium.
This is not the tourists’ fault though. They have been imposed on local fans in an often awkward and clumsy manner. Leagues and teams who haven’t yet capitalised on the international market have a clear blueprint for how not to do things and should heed these lessons.
For leagues and teams that don't think global fans are important, the NBA would disagree.
Soaring local media deals, new arenas, and basketball’s international popularity continue to push the value of NBA franchises higher. The average NBA team is worth $1.9 billion, up 13% over last year and three times the level of five years ago (Forbes Feb 2019).
One of the factors driving the NBA’s phenomenal growth is its image as progressive, inclusive and fun, which is shorthand for globally relevant in 2019. I realise the words “progressive” and “inclusive” have become politically loaded terms these days but in the context of a sporting arena, they simply mean everyone is welcome.
But like the Premier League, the NBA's challenge as it attracts more international audiences to its games will be to retain the energy that makes it so special.
For teams and leagues that don’t consider themselves to be a global brand or even harbor such aspirations, the writing is on the wall.
Standing still is not an option for the very fact that sports is a global market now.
So how do teams harness the forces of the globalization of fans, when the challenges remain enormous? They do it by speaking to shared values amongst their supporters that transcend traditional market segmentation.
Let's look at this through the lens of Sarah, a contemporary sports fan.
She loves sport, but feels it's getting inauthentic and corporate.
These days she is more likely to have a viewing party at her house, with like-minded friends, better (and cheaper) craft
beer, better snacks, than she is to go to an actual game.
She will only do it when she can round up the gang for a big event.
But she might be up for an adventure, or the experience and she knows hanging out at home is ultimately not the life experiences she is looking for.
And on the opposite side of the equation. People that are new to places, such as tourists, expats or international students, desperately want to connect locally and authentically. But the problem is it’s hard to meet people. Especially in new cities.
So with Sarah looking for new experiences that align to her passions, and newbies looking for an authentic connection in a new place, the answers for teams is to empower your current fans to engage potential new fans. As Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University says “We’re social creatures. We have a need to belong."
Our shared connection is that we are a part of one of the biggest tribes on this planet - we are sports fans. Being a sports fan allows us to enjoy life, have fun, and connect with friends and community. Being a sports fan means more than just donning your favourite team’s jersey or singing your club’s chant. We become a part of something bigger than ourselves, something that can be positive and uplifting. Sports fans help make sports come alive.
People love to be part of something greater than themselves, but they often feel this human impulse has been monetized and corporatized. They miss the authentic, human connection.
Fans want to belong to something greater than themselves, something that has the potential to make the world a better place.
They want to be part of a greater story. They want it woven into their lives. Fan love can move the world. It can find new audiences for games. More diverse, more inclusive, more gender-balanced.
If all that sounded like fluff, let me ask this: is attracting new audiences good business?
North American sports are highly coveted by the global market with visitors and immigration offering a massive opportunity as there are:
And good business is about more than just gaining new one-time customers. It is about increasing the lifetime value of current and new fans - maximizing Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) - and understanding sports fan equity is vital to CLV.
Allowing fans to host new fans drives Customer Lifelong Value on both sides. Much of the research on sports fan equity focuses on financial benefits. However, there are significant behavioral and psychological benefits that can be fulfilled through tangible and intangible offerings such as host-guest connection programs. From a behavioral standpoint, a study by Stahl, Matzler, and Hinterhuber demonstrated that information-sharing, new relationships, word-of-mouth/networking, referrals, and interactions with an organization significantly enhance CLV (Kim, 2014).
Another one of the big issues we see in team research is; fans are less stickable, they will follow success but switch as soon as the team performance is not optimal. Creating human social connections increases stickability as the new and existing fans are not just coming to see the team, they are also coming to be part of the team with others.
So if all this makes sense, the last question is do fans want to host, do they want to grow the team's fan base?
In conjunction with Victoria University (Australia), NYU and University of San Francisco we have conducted fan focus groups with NBA, MLB, MLS, and AFL fans, as well as quantitative research of 7000+ fans across the USA and Australia.
Will fans show off their favourite team as hosts? Research says so:
Significantly, 90% of hosts become ongoing hosts. The feeling of sharing your passion and telling your story to someone from a completely different walk of life is infectious.
Current fans hosting new fans increases the current fans’ emotional engagement with the team as well. The opportunity for ambassadorship not only provides a deeper connection for current fans – it actually extends the promotional arm of the league/team at little to no cost. A quality hosting model can attract these new generation customers – and teams can then potentially build customer lifetime value for the next 20, 30, 40, or 50 years
And here is the point about teams being “more human" - hosting is a fan-up strategy - not a team-down strategy. It is about community building, not business and dollars. Yes, it has powerful business outcomes but they are outcomes, not the drivers. We have seen teams and leagues fail in building "buddy programs" due to the need to remain commercially focused.
But hosting is about raising the soul of current fans, first and foremost. It is about allowing their stories to be heard. It is empowering them to welcome new fans into the team and own this initiative.
This strengthens the connections between fan and team as the fans become active promoters of a team they love, providing new and deeper experiences, and then sharing those experiences with newcomers who will build their own connection to the team. Remember how I promised deeper fan engagement and passive income?
The truth is that putting fans first is good business. Sports leagues and teams competitive advantage in business is their customers (fans) are the most passionate brand ambassadors in the world. So bringing fans back to the core of the team, making it fun, and letting fans gain access to new and deserved experiences are community-building drivers. Thinking around experiences for too long have been focused on sponsors and rich people.
Valuing what the average fan can contribute as an ambassador is how communities are built. Empowered fans will harness new people that are on the teams’ doorstep, but beyond their reach, without the fan community driving these connections.
And done well, allowing the fans to become hosts creates a flywheel effect where the community grows each year as new fans become old fans and host other new fans.
This is why we created SportsHosts, we make attending sports more fun by facilitating the connection of current passionate fans with new fans.
And this is not about just attracting traditional markets. SportsHosts provides a tangible way for teams and fans to ‘live’ their inclusive values. We have seen hosting as providing perceived “safe” opportunities for groups such as women, the LGTBIQ community and others to meet like-minded sports fans through hosting.
At SportsHosts we believe hosting provides new and amazing opportunities for fans to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and to understand their true power. We believe it can transform the fan experience, from one of a spectator to that of a participant in a beautiful human community.
The United Nation of Fans
As we believe...It is always better when we go together
Want to join the SportsHost community and be hosted be a local? Connect with local fans to experience a GameDay!- Find a GameDay
Do you think you would make a great Host? Share your passion for your team by hosting a GameDay with us!- Create a GameDay
At SportsHosts we love sharing our hosts and users experiences. If you have a great story, we’d love to hear from you.