Discovering The ‘Secret Sauce’ That Drives Greater Onsite Fan Engagement?

SLRG President Jon Last?s May column looks at sports venues? race to modernize their infrastructure and the role of marketing research in finding optimal solutions.

The sports marketing world is fraught with numerous examples of “fire, fire, fire” implementation strategies, in contrast to the more recommended “ready, aim, fire” approach. Nowhere do we see this more acutely than in the pervasive topic of retooling the fan environment at sporting venues. It seems that nearly everyone is making significant investments in upgrades, improving broadband infrastructure to enable more consistent wi-fi capability and in developing interactive, social spaces that seek to enhance the fan experience, drive greater customer value and ultimately create a more differentiated live environment that compels greater attendance.

And who am I to argue? Conceptually, the above is a total no-brainer. We live in an “always on” society. Being able to place a cell phone call or check the status of your fantasy team is something that sports fans have come to expect anywhere, particularly at a sporting event. But as properties grasp for the holy grail and dive head first into the new-fangled shiny toys of public space reconfiguration, how thoroughly are they assessing what fans really want and need rather than just flocking to what seems “cool to have?”

Full disclosure, our firm has been part of this phenomenon. We’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the more progressive organizations to gauge fan and potential fan reaction to some of these environmental transformations. But I’m reluctant to conclude that these are the exceptions rather than the rule. There is a fine line between creating an enhanced experience and a distraction. The proper answers differ by fan segment, by market and by the specific objectives of the property considering the investment. The needs of core fans that are primarily motivated by the ability to get close to and easily access action on the field, court or course are not necessarily the same as those who are more driven by the prospect of being part of an event. Properties need to study the needs of these distinct segments and to understand the potential lifetime value of each in driving revenue.

Clearly, it behooves properties to conduct well-designed and thoughtful consumer research, with various segments, including those who have eschewed the ballpark or arena for a comfortable seat on the couch or at the sports bar. Our experience across sports has shown that while not enough properties are doing any of this research, there are even fewer who take the time and effort to speak to rejectors and prospects as opposed to just the loyal core within self-recruited fan communities. One of my favorite research adages is that no one likes to call the baby ugly. If my favorite team is directly reaching out to me for my opinion, I’m probably going to be a little guarded in providing often less-than-candid input, more objectively extracted by professional researchers.

Insights worth seeking include to what degree is in-game connectivity coveted as an enhancement to the event rather than an “as needed” gateway to the outside world? We’ve found enough fans that see their trip to the game as a needed escape, island or oasis from the day-to-day chaos, that we’ve paused at the need or desire for interactive over-kill that some properties appear to be ramming down the throats of a not-always-embracing public.

The same “facts first” approach is recommended for the reconfiguration of common areas into social spaces. This begets a better understanding of who the property is trying to attract and where they sit in terms of engagement with the property. We might assume that a younger audience will be attracted to open lounge spaces with new age seating and high tops with embedded tablets. It’s not always that straightforward. The younger core fan might appreciate this, but not if it means that he or she can’t see the game, or the food still stinks, the bathrooms are dirty and it takes 90 minutes to get out of the parking lot.

Not to be overlooked is the impact of these enhancements on corporate partner activations. Interestingly, this sometimes seems to take priority over what fans value. It’s even more important to look before you leap, in this area. One can be underwhelmed and falsely conclude that a particular activation was a failure, when only 45 people tweet back, but only well-designed research will determine activation efficacy.