As we put another year of conducting research with sports enthusiasts in the rear-view mirror, there’s opportunity to reflect on what we’ve collectively learned. I’ve often used this space to admonish those who eschew an appreciation and understanding of fan motivations for a greater focus on marketing’s shiny new toys.
To borrow a cliché that I first heard many years ago, too many sports marketers get caught in a trap that embraces a solution looking for a problem, rather than beginning the search for breakthrough resonance by placing ourselves in the mindset of those we are trying to influence. I’m talking about the classic case of product-focused, rather than target-centric marketing. We do a good job of articulating what we are trying to sell, rather than what the customer wants to buy.
Granted, understanding the customer is arguably harder today than when I first got into this business. We have more customer data than ever before, and a proliferation of spiffy tools with which we can attempt to analyze it. But customers also has also grown to rely upon more marketing mix channels, as they sift through exponentially greater reams of information and misinformation.
Couple this reality with a greater demand for sports marketing program efficiency, expedience, and often unrealistic expectations, and it’s not surprising that one often foregoes the exercise of drilling down to better understand customers. “Ready, aim, fire” becomes “fire, fire, aim.”
My holiday gift to you is to try to provide a simplified segmentation of sports fan motivations and desires that shines some light on two “generic strategies” for sports marketing activation. I recognize that this goes against the very fiber with which we’ve built a sports research agency that embraces the segment of one and recognizes how uncovering nuance can yield insight.
But as I recollect some of the more successful programs that our research has helped to develop and evaluate, there appear to be a pair of dichotomous fan motivations that when understood, yield the most effective sports marketing programs that have a chance to cut through the clutter.
Generic Strategy #1—Offer Unparalleled Access
A common theme of some of the best sports marketing programs that we’ve seen are those that target the super fan that values a deep and differentiated relationship with a given property. These include the “inside the ropes,” back-of-the-house tours and unique up-close-and-personal experiences. The fan takes batting practice before the game, attends a one-on-one meet-and-greet with a favorite player or has a gateway to other thought leaders and kindred spirits through well-thought-out and carefully curated digital communities.
The operative outcomes for this fan are association with an experience that provides for participation and interactivity. By becoming part of the team or event, the fan develops a bond within what we’ve previously labeled a “brand community.” The property or affiliated brand that facilitates this community becomes an authentic part of it, therefore earning the trust and credibility that are foundational prerequisites for building strong lifetime customer value. People buy from friends.
Generic Strategy #2—Offer Unadulterated Escape
The first generic strategy is probably the easier of the two for sports marketers to relate to. We typically and rightfully see ourselves in a similar position, as insiders who likely gravitated to the industry because of our own passion for and commitment to sports. More overlooked is the fan or “guest” who, often subconsciously, values the sports environment as something that they needn’t live or die with on the scoreboard or in the standings.
Rather, this is the event enthusiast who seeks the escapist benefits of leaving behind their work-a-day struggles and monotony in exchange for an experience that is less about placing them inside the huddle and more about creating memories with family and friends, unencumbered by any perceived outside influence or static. These include fans who reject political activism in sports…not necessarily because they disagree with the messages (though many do), but because sports, in their mind, is an oasis or sanctuary from all of the noise that they confront elsewhere.
It’s about simplicity, pageantry and the nostalgia of a perceived better and less complex time, fleeting though it may be. While the essence of marketing may seem antithetical to this pristine environment, those marketers that embrace it can subtly insert themselves as the prime facilitators of this valued refuge and similarly build a customer relationship.