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Opinion: Wake-Up Call from Sports Fans

Brian Gordon, Chief Executive at Engine Shop, argues that Covid-19 has transformed fan engagement and that sports businesses and brand partners need to move beyond the game day fixation to win fans back.

Back in March, when Covid-19 brought sport to a screeching halt, there was a collective global gasp followed by the question: “How are we going to survive without sport?” Months later, when the idea of playing without fans became the likely path forward, nervous leagues, teams and other organizing bodies expressed confidence that television would save the financial day. All of that pent up demand, that craving for sport, would yield record ratings because after all, what else did people have to do?

Except something happened; sport came back, but fans weren’t tuning in. Not only were they not flocking to broadcasts in record numbers, but as the ratings verdicts came in, they were ugly. With little exception, ratings in the US were down between 30-60% and almost none of the major leagues or events were spared. NBA Finals were down about 50%, NHL Stanley Cup Finals down over 60%, MLB World Series saw the worst ratings ever by over a whopping 30%, US Open Tennis down more than 40%, US Open golf final round down over 50%, college football down between 30-50%, and on and on. Even the bulletproof NFL, playing in its normal seasonal window, was down nearly 10% at the midway point.

The top sports brass has rationalized these ratings for a variety of reasons, including oversaturation with sports all happening at once, seasons falling outside their traditional calendars and fans not being in the stadiums and arenas to “give the game energy that comes through on the television”. Seriously? These are all symptoms – what no-one is talking about is the actual root cause of the issue: lack of fan engagement.

Fans haven’t tuned in because they aren’t engaged in sport and as a society, we’ve moved beyond a desire to be passive participants in our passions, even sports. See, while sports were paused, we all found shows to binge with better storylines, hobbies to take up that connected us with other people, self and home-improvement endeavours to take on and even video games to play. So, while sports ratings were plummeting, stocks for Netflix, video game companies, Home Depot, Lowes, and social media platforms all hit all-time highs. It wasn’t that sports fans just couldn’t decide what sports to consume or that basketball was just too darn weird to watch in October, they just found more engaging stuff to do.

There is no doubt that what the sports industry attributes the decline to has played a role, and I agree that ratings will improve as arenas and stadiums open back up. I also recognize how much sports leagues and teams are thinking about their fans – to assert anything to the contrary would be unfair and untrue. However, this should be a wake-up call for sports executives that they must think differently and more creatively about how to make fans feel like they’re active participants in the sports they love to follow.

The hot take here is that broadcast ratings are a derivative of the level of engagement a fan feels, and that engagement actually doesn’t often come in the form of game attendance.

We engage by gathering into physical and virtual communities of like-minded individuals to share an experience. Physical fan rituals matter like tailgates, watch parties, road trips, and sports bar outings along with everything that goes with them: text chains, food shopping, cooking and grilling, one-upmanship, rivalries, and friendship. Digital rituals like fantasy, sports betting, content and social media consumption, plus that desire to know as much as possible about a team, game, player or competitor. All of that “noise” around the three hours of competition is what matters to the fans and is the glue that holds interest in sports together.

The industry needs to realize that just opening up buildings won’t bring ratings all the way back – solely relying on this could cause another year of shocking viewership declines in 2021. Covid has been an accelerant of so many trends, and sport is no different. Game attendance and ratings were already challenged, but now people have figured out that maybe there’s more to life than sport. Fans used to fit their lives in to sport, now sport has to fit in to fans’ lives.

There have been instances of necessary creativity percolating, much of it in response to Covid, but not all of them. Many of these ideas have come from collaboration between sports and their brand partners but still, most are focused on enhancing engagement around the event itself. The Golden State Warriors launched an immersive fan experience called ‘Hooptopia’ pre-pandemic, Michelob Ultra and the NBA figured out a way to bring fans virtually to games, and Mercedes-Benz engaged fans to count every ace in a charity initiative at the fan-free US Open.

As marketers, we all know that it’s very hard to win customers back once they’re gone. Sports businesses and brand partners need to move beyond the game day fixation to win fans back, focusing on engaging their communities in creative ways 365 days a year. As sports marketers, we need to use Covid as our own accelerant, to push fan engagement forward with more creative ways to truly make fans feel like they’re active, annual participants. For sport, “back to normal” may actually be a very bad thing.

Dylan Rogers
Dylan Rogers

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