Access Gone Wild

In this month’s Marketing Insider column, SLRG President Jon Last speaks to why the 24-7 sports news cycle may actually have a negative effect on fan engagement.

Adam Buckman’s June 29 “TV Blog” post struck a chord with me in its assertion that the expression “breaking news” is perhaps the most overused terminology in today’s 24-7 information overload cycle. I concur, and lament the fact that sports coverage seems to have also devolved into a similar battle for attention, that has resulted in a cacophony of sensationalistic, “supersized” reportage on the every breath of a handful of athletes. The noise is deafening, and may be doing ourselves as sports marketers more harm than good.

Interestingly, our fan research shows a paradox, on the surface, that may help explain the phenomenon. We often hear fans express a desire for “insider access,” and the proliferation of media channels leads to a persistent barrage of speculation, conjecture and overblown hero worship that likely numbs the impact of “real news” as everyone battles for eyeballs and engagement that can be leveraged into advertising dollars.

At the same time, we consistently see fans draw a fine line when it comes to expose, or unchecked superlatives. Like the protagonist in “the Boy who Cried Wolf,” credibility is lost when too many games become “instant classics”; and the fixation, bordering on obsession for a handful of current players, renders the inevitable and over-inflated G.O.A.T. monikers on current stars in what seems like every sport. One may think that these superlatives drive greater interest and attention, but our research suggests otherwise, definitively concluding that the most passionate fans have little interest in the personal lives of today’s athletes.

Granted, the participatory fandom exemplified by fantasy sports is fueled by 24-7 news crawls, incessant social media chatter, sports talk radio and OCD-centric highlight reels that constantly strive to show the most “lit” dunk, goal, putt, check, home run or touchdown catch, ever. To the fantasy players, that is amplified by often unfounded speculation on the seriousness of injuries and the lack of patience exhibited by today’s talking heads, who conjecture the coming demise or release of everyone from coaches, players and front office staff to the equipment manager.

Make it stop! Recognize that while there is certainly a narrow segment of fans that obsess over every injury report and purported sighting of a player out on the town the night before a big game, time and again, our research shows that the overwhelming majority of fans feed off of the uniqueness of the in-game environment and well-implemented sports marketing activations. They relish the camaraderie and social experience of making memories with friends and family, and the enduring value derived from identifying with old alma mater or the local team as it fights for collective glory. Saturation and amplification may work in the sense that inevitably “something” sinks in. But the net effect may actually be repelling the very fringe or latent fans that properties are trying to convert into more loyal, higher spending fans. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and too many diversions competing for one’s attention, such that the overhype and excessive details are overwhelming to most, and that’s a poor recipe for enhanced engagement; and perhaps a factor behind declining audiences and attendance.

As a related case in point, I look to the collective body of our sporting goods purchase journey research, where our Sports & Leisure Research Group team dives deeply into the emotional resonance and impact of various messaging, touch points and nuanced techno-speak behind the efficacy of the latest and greatest new ball, bat, shoe or club. People get the point that innovation is abound, but they are hard pressed to explain or understand it.

Further, for many who are not aspiring college or professional athletes, the unnecessary techno-babble often suggests that the latest and greatest new equipment is too advanced to make a difference for the weekend warrior. The same argument can be made for the barrage of superlatives or psycho-drama hurled at countless athletes. Maybe too much access has erected too high of a barrier for those who want just a taste of the action, while its impact on those who are already drinking the Kool-Aid is a skepticism and cynicism brought about by over exposure and the apparent need for each subsequent day in the news cycle to be bigger and better than the one before it.

Whatever happened to rooting for a jersey, or locking arms with fellow long-suffering fans in a chorus of “Let’s go, Rangers!” over a cold beverage and ballpark frank?