Engage Fans With A New Kind Of Community

“Fan” audits run the gamut, but when it comes to understanding the sports consumer’s mindset, the common theme seems to be the ability to consistently engage an audience.

My company measures the attitudes of sports fans. These “fan” audits run the gamut from brand assessments to evaluating sponsorship effectiveness to issue specific studies of price and product optimization. But when it comes to understanding the sports consumer’s mindset, the common theme seems to often reverberate around a familiar and often elusive ideal — the ability to consistently engage an audience.

Now stay with me, here. Since I run a research consultancy, I’m going to turn to the numbers and reference data from our most recent fan omnibus studies that on the surface, appear to present a series of paradoxes related to this concept of engagement. Here goes.

At the beginning of this year, we surveyed over 1,000 sports fans and found that nearly half strongly agreed with the premise that the coming year would be better than the prior year. This level of optimism was up significantly from only 29% that felt the same way a year ago. Further, interest in following favorite teams and athletes continued to be expressed as a welcome and non-negotiable rite, at least perceptually removed from the negative impact of a still-struggling economy.

Yet, talk to sports marketers today and the challenge of commanding premium pricing, let alone selling out an event, appears to be significantly greater than it was in the recent past. That in its own right may not be a surprise, and our data show that nearly nine in ten sports fans strongly agree that ticket prices are “too high.”

Why we are having such a difficult time in getting fans to embrace and value our properties at the levels that we feel that they should? That’s a loaded and rhetorical question. I’ve stressed before that value and price are not synonymous.

To illustrate what I suspect is driving this “engagement paradox,” I first look to perhaps my most memorable qualitative interview in my career as a sports researcher. We were in the midst of conducting one of the largest studies ever on golfer attitudes — nearly 100 one-on-one interviews followed by 15,000 surveys.

Those familiar with the challenges of increasing golfer participation know that the most frequently cited barriers have always been expressed as time required and cost to play the game — not the most actionable insights! So there I was, in San Francisco, with a particularly articulate respondent, who earlier in our conversation mentioned that he and his family had invested in a vacation home.

When he later answered my inquiry about why he wasn’t playing more golf, he came back with the standard, “time and money” response. I probed him further as to why he’d invest in the home and not in more golf, and what he said, ultimately became the most strongly agreed sentiment among all surveyed … the experience provided “no guarantees.” The vacation home did!

This comment really spoke to a lack of consistently engaging and customer-centric experiences that I maintain can provide guidance to sports marketers in general.

For today’s fans, guarantees mean providing a welcome and consistent escape from outside distractions. They mean embracing what our recent research shows to be a “re-cocooning” of society around communities that share a commonality of values and an appreciation and respect for a heightened family focus.

Those sports marketers that can understand the values most pertinent to their customers and create meaningful experiences around them will become a welcomed part of the community in its figurative and literal sense, and thus engage fans in ways that create real and perceived value.