A growing number of sporting entities are grappling with an ageing or even declining fanbase which could eventually threaten their very existence. It is not just the audience that have become more selective, media, brand and community partners are all demanding more of rights holders. Ultimately, they want to invest in a product that better reflects the diverse make-up of society, provide opportunity for growth and strengthen their own relevance with the audience.
It is not a new phenomenon for rights holders to actively want to grow their fanbase and with that, gain a greater understanding of ‘the fan’. However, there appears to be a steady shift in the behaviours and actions of rights holders, to paraphrase the lyrics of the Eurythmics, they are now more than ever, “doing it for themselves”. From marquee events to teams and leagues, the opportunity to securely capture first party data and create a more dynamic structure of the rights and assets is giving them back greater control of their product and by immediate extension, the narrative.
Key to all of this is the fanbase - without an audience, and more importantly without a clear plan to grow and merchandise that audience - maintaining the health and wealth of sports is going to be an uphill battle. Solely operating on the basis that your product or partners are enough, will inevitably lead to being left behind by competitors and new platforms who are already starting to steal a march by broadening their appeal, diversifying their offering and breaking down barriers to entry. However, the premise of directly investing more into the tangible fan experience is seemingly an area that continues for many to play second fiddle to building a network of commercial partners! This approach seems somewhat counter-intuitive, if the fan is king and experience is the currency of fans, then why isn’t a higher value being placed on fan experience? If a rights holder can feasibly create a pipeline of more tangible fan touch points, both physical and digital, the output of this would seem to naturally feed in to and leverage the wider ecosystem of the media, brand and community partner activities and interests, increasing their value chain.
We are starting to see some movement on this and in the past year alone, three mainstream sports rights holders varying in size and reach have all gone out to market, looking to re-invent their live out of stadia/event fan experience. This arm of their business is no longer seen as a nice-to-have but it is becoming a must-do commercially, a supplementary fan experience that can bring fans closer to the game, keep them engaged for longer and start to build a more regular two way conversation. Creative and relevant fan experiences that are built around the core product can provide rights holders and their commercial partners with a complimentary platform that perfectly intersects sport, popular culture and the media.
As more rights holders start to adopt and apply their own specific brand strategy to how they activate through putting greater faith in the power of fans and their experience, the broader industry will also start to reap the longer-term benefits. From grass roots and community activations to more strategic brand partnerships, all the way through to credible, fan centric content that will better service the digital and social landscape.
Like brands, rights holders should be building experiences in the image of their fanbase and the target audience, tapping more into popular culture as well as fostering the fan behaviours and rituals that can attract new fans, create greater loyalty amongst the avid supporters and drive advocacy so the value of their fan community continues to grow.
The very instinctive and basic needs of fans have not changed. Sport is tribal in nature, it plays a significant role in our lives from schools to communities and all the way up to the elite, professional level. Therefore, at the heart of every sport’s business needs to be the fan experience.
Against a background of unprecedented challenges, it may not feel like it, but now could be the best time for rights holders to really interrogate how they are investing in their fans and at the core of that, the fan experience.
Knowing the fans better through owned data is a key first step, providing them greater access and equity in the sport can deliver more sustainable growth and stability, right across the board. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but the process surely starts with braver rights ownership. It is a process that will require increased collaboration and a more agile suite of assets to complement the core product. Finally, it is an approach that needs to command better stewardship of how these assets are co-created with, and disseminated to, the most important people in all of this: the fans.