Perhaps it’s an overstatement to suggest that American sports properties suffer from a crisis of confidence among their fans and target audiences. However, it has become apparent of late that some of the same sensitivities that U.S. corporations have had to battle in sustaining, rebuilding and managing their reputations over recent years have been amplified for the owners and stewards of sports properties. Those that embrace the reality that corporate reputations matter and are proactive in their protection of these reputations are headed in the right direction.
The Corporate Benchmarks
When we first asked the question to sports fans in 2009, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed strongly agreed that they were less trustful of U.S. corporations than they were five years ago. In the 2013 edition of the same study, that strong conviction had abated to just a third of all sports fans, but there were still less than one in five who strongly disagreed. If you are a half-full person, you can claim victory and laud the rapid improvement in consumer sentiment. A more pragmatic interpretation probably grounds itself in a commitment to the active management of these reputations. Such stewardship is built upon a broader interpretation of key constituents to expand beyond customers, employees and shareholders to embrace a larger community.
Social media management is a central component of this. In a survey released just last week, 76% of global executives asserted that it is a good idea for CEOs to actively participate in social media, and these same respondents believed that such engagement and transparency correlated to stronger perceptions of leadership. A second unrelated study, also released recently, added that corporate leaders with their own blogs or forums for public discourse were more successful in evoking a culture of trust, openness, collaboration and innovation.
The Lesson for Sports
We live in an era where every property faces greater stressors on delivering a product or fan experience that delivers a return on investment of time and money that exceeds that derived from a wider range of substitutes, ranging from watching the event at home to alternative leisure pursuits. Sports-related content and commentary are ubiquitous. Fans can listen to sports talk radio in their cars and on their mobile devices 24-7. Traditional media is augmented by blogs and online fan communities outside the locus of control of the league, team or property itself. This proliferation of content and real time, often uninformed commentary, subjects us to live speculation, that left unbridled can quickly turn perceptions on a dime. Last week alone, the Miami Heat went from being a franchise in disarray to “grace under pressure.” Ohio State’s Gordon Gee went from the model of what a university president should be to an insensitive and then “retired” pariah. Apologies du jour can lack sincerity and fall on deaf ears, absent the pre-existence of a trusted relationship or connectivity with the athlete or administrator that delivers them.
Some of our proprietary work for teams, leagues and properties echo the above sentiments and implied courses of action. With all of the voices and static noise, the foundations of trust, credibility and consistency can be eroded absent an open and sincere direct dialogue between properties and the communities that they serve. One of the most poignant moments I’ve experienced in my research career came about some nine years ago, when I was interviewing golfers to learn more about why they weren’t playing more golf. A particular respondent who had been decreasing his frequency of play in favor of more time at a vacation home attributed his behavioral change to the greater consistency of experience achieved in the new preferred activity. He had a confidence that he knew what he was going to get. Fast-forward to our present-day work, and we continue to hear fans angered not just by inconsistent team performance and the fluidity of rosters, but by a skepticism in the intentions and alignment of values between a property and its fan base. It strikes me that an honest and open articulation of these intentions and values can go a long way in repairing or sustaining fan trust. Such a dialogue in this age of social media proliferation can build opportunities for one-on-one connections that move the grips of messaging control back to a property.
Of course, heightened visibility also demands greater efforts to evoke sincerity and greater scrutiny if one doesn’t follow through on their assertions. I’ve seen our survey results affirm that well-orchestrated, visible involvement of top league executives in community activities can deliver strong improvement in reputations among fans and a broader base of potential fans -- though I’ve also seen instances where this outreach appears hollow. A solid program of both proactive message testing and ongoing sentiment tracking research (ideally conducted by a third party in a brand-blind, objective way -- no one likes to call the baby ugly on a property-sponsored survey) can mitigate the PR disasters.
Like corporations, sports properties are subject to greater dissection and scrutiny. It strikes me as mandatory in this day and age to assure that reputation-influencing behaviors and messages be delivered directly and sincerely than to leave it to the subjective interpretation of fan bloggers, sports talk radio show callers-in and others in the media who might not share the interests of your property. The stakes are simply too high not to make an effort to manage the dialogue.