Slow Ticket Sales? Here's The Real Reason Why

Growing and maintaining fan attendance and consumer participation in sports seems to always be on top of sports marketers’ list of top concerns and priorities, and it should be. We live in an age where the proliferation of leisure time choices has grown exponentially. I’ve often commented that we live in an attention deficit society, where capturing the interest of our target audience is more of a battle than it ever has been, and then there is the task of maintaining those levels.

This leaves sports properties in an interesting conundrum. We’ve heard rallying cries to dumb things down, to simplify and to minimize the time requirements to enjoy a sport as either participant or fan. While I don’t dismiss these “entry ramps” or “lite offerings” as valiant efforts to build attention, awareness and hopefully an ultimately long term commitment, they are only part of the answer, and they risk alienating core participants or followers who’ve bought into the full proposition and probably represent the most lucrative targets.

Our firm has done extensive work with properties and administrative bodies alike to gauge and track major objections and to identify ways to create more compelling sports offerings. There isn’t a one size fits all solution, but there are some incorrect generalizations that lead to some meaningful insights.

Time and Money: Precious Commodities and Overblown Crutches

As researchers we spend a lot of time asking people questions. Ask a sports fan directly, why he or she doesn’t come out to the stadium more often, or a golfer why he or she isn’t playing more, and you will typically get one of two responses: “It’s expensive” OR “It takes too much time and effort.” Now one can take these reasons at face value and you are still learning something. It has been well documented that the cost to attend or participate in a sporting event has risen at levels that certainly eclipse income growth for a large percentage of Americans.

Further, we have reported on research that shows that particularly for the more affluent among us, perceived scarcity of time has become a more acute concern than ever in our nation’s history. We are connected to our jobs, 24/7. We are caring for our children and perhaps our aging parents. We are being asked to be more productive with less resources. These are all legitimate objections. But they are crutches. They do not uncover the deeply embedded emotional drivers of these decisions or non-decisions. Let me explain.

A Two Percent Focus Group Moment

One of my true business mentors once taught me about two percent moments. Roughly defined, these represent the 2% of your life that would make it past the cutting room floor if your career were made into a movie. For me, having conducted more focus groups and consumer interviews than I’d want to count, one two percent moment that seems to repeat itself across sports research scenarios, can be illustrated by an in depth interview that I conducted with a golfer in San Francisco, where the essence of what we were trying to learn, was why people weren’t playing as much as they used to. Again, this has repeated itself over time and across categories, so substitute golfers with participants or fans of virtually any sport. The early parts of the interview included engaging the respondent with general discussion about some of his favorite leisure activities and how he spent his time.

Among his list was a vacation property that he had bought for his family. This gentleman was clearly financially secure. He was hard working and professionally well accomplished. When I got to asking him why he wasn’t playing as much golf as he used to, he came right out with the push button response….”It’s expensive and it takes a lot of time to play.” I probed deeper. He had certainly made a significant investment of both time and dollars in the vacation home, why did he make the time and spend the money to do that?

His brilliantly simple and poignant response was that “there are no guarantees in golf.” He knew what he was getting in the vacation house. But he invested in lessons and equipment and didn’t get better at golf. He came out to the golf course, and didn’t know if a round was going to take four hours or six. You can easily apply this to spectator sports as well. Will it take me two hours to get out of the parking lot? Will I spend $9 on a warm beer? Will my team trade away all of my favorite players?

Digging deeper still, this respondent’s perspective personified what much additional quantitative and qualitative research has borne out countless times…consistently positive experiences and perceived value will lead to loyalty and retention. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and the definition of “consistently positive” differs across sports or product categories.

But there’s a simple truth behind this insight….People make the time and spend the money if you can be relied upon to offer a consistently valuable experience. That equates to basic blocking and tackling of exceptional customer service. It equates to delivering on a promise and it equates to a level of transparency and honesty in communication that builds a trust in your fan base and moves the interaction from a transaction into a valued relationship.

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