The goals of successful major league sports franchises are simple: win games and win fans. Yet, over the last decade, the scoreboard-to-seat sale relationship has become significantly more complicated.
Consider the difficulties experienced by the Tampa Bay Rays. They’re a solid performing baseball team and genuine pennant contenders, but they’ve had the lowest attendance in the league for four straight seasons. Conversely, the consistently sub-par Toronto Maple Leafs post sell-out seasons year after year.
The sports world has changed. Fans are more fickle than ever and they’re looking for true engagement with their home team. Empowered by social media and mobile technology, fans want a connection to the teams they love. They crave an emotional attachment that extends beyond the excitement of being in the stands. Yes, for the true fan nothing beats being at the game, but a team risks alienating game-goers if it doesn’t foster a meaningful relationship in between games. It’s as simple as that.
Take Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks team owner, as an example. As he says, “We in the sports business don’t sell the game, we sell unique, emotional experiences. We are not in the business of selling basketball. We are in the business of selling fun.” The Mavericks currently have the longest sell-out streak in the four major sport leagues. They have sold out every game since Dec. 15, 2001, with the run topping 500 games last year. Dallas Mavericks fans react, relate and retain experiences beyond the action on the court and that keeps them coming back for more. For Cuban, that experience is broadly defined as fun.
What does it take to create an emotional connection with with fans?
Create brand mystique: For teams steeped in history like the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Maple Leafs, they have the benefit of a rich legacy that is inextricably linked to the identity of their hometown. For newer teams in less-forgiving markets, the challenge is to uncover those emotional anchors and integrate them into the larger brand experience. Look no further than to the transformation of Seattle sports over the last few years as a good example. Seattle Seahawks football fans have a growing reputation as being some of most loyal and enthusiastic fans in the country; they are even known as “the 12th man,” giving their team an advantage against the competition. It’s hard to believe that the city was voted the most miserable sports city in the U.S. in 2013.
Ensure total brand entertainment: For many people, a game is more than just a game, it’s a night on the town, an escape from reality, a time to relax. Talk to the fans or risk losing in this department. As a team, you have to make sure you’re providing fans with what they actually want. What music and entertainment do they like and how can that inform decisions around in-game entertainment? What food and beverages do they love to enjoy at games, and can you provide that to them at concession stands? Are you ensuring wi-fi is available so they can track their fantasy teams alongside the game as well? You know they love their fantasy teams. If you’re talking to your customers and asking them what gets them investing in the experience you provide, then you’re able to provide a better, more cohesive (and memorable) brand experience.
Integrate out-of-arena experiences: There has been a seismic shift in the way people are consuming sports media. Teams must find ways to connect with fans in a manner that matches their consumption habits. In other words, if teams want fans to come to their games, they have to go to where the fans are — the digital realm. There has been a significant lift in people engaging and interacting with sports franchises on social media and mobile. From 2011 to 2013, online sports consumption increased by nearly 10%, mobile was up by 15% and social was up by 10%. So it stands to reason the tools teams use to connect with those people must be congruent (better yet complementary) with their habits and the shift in behavior.
That thinking needs to extend into the strategies and tools that teams use to engage with fans, as well. Teams that put customers first, value the customer intelligence of their fans, and leverage fan insight to influence business decisions are the ones that will win (and not just games) in the long run.