With a recent and welcomed return to my heavy travel schedule, I’ve taken pause during airplane time to think about the ways in which the sports industry has changed.
Incessant pursuit of fan growth and an obsessive focus on younger generations have put us at a crossroads in how sports content is being served up, both in venue and across various legacy and new media channels.
Certainly the past 20 years have seen us pivot to a digitally driven, 24-7 culture, and that has opened the box regarding the breadth of available content.
A conclusion drawn by sports marketers and media is that it's no longer enough for us to simply watch games and read box scores, but instead to be immersed in the lives, cultures and even the values of athletes and properties. The concept of participatory fandom has morphed from the simplest of in-game activations to sports-driven reality video franchises, and of course, the proliferation of gambling services that are now filling the coffers of media rights holders with advertising revenue.
Interestingly, as sports researchers with a front row seat to this evolution, we’ve noted that traditional fans have rarely asked for these innovations. With sports’ wider diffusion, there’s a strong segment of fans who have resisted and sounded alarms. They lament that sports are becoming too mainstream and dumbed-down in their presentation, to the point of being undifferentiated from the culture’s celebrity worship and rampant fixation on shareable moments. Hype hinges on supersizing everything at the expense of substance and credibility for these “old-school” fans, who see diminished return on their investment in sports.
The pragmatist in all of us recognizes that this shift is inevitable as long as it brings in incremental revenue and plays to belief systems that sports needs to change to remain relevant to the next generations of adults. Certainly, short-term revenue numbers bear this out, and these are the ultimate arbiter. With media proliferation comes a never-ending fight for dwindling attention, so we anxiously develop products and services that seek to capture it.
I don’t resist this. While my personal sports affinity is grounded in the mindset and experience of the fan cohort we’ve dubbed “Old-school Athletes,” recent years have spawned new segments of sports fans, with varying levels of engagement and connection points.
There are the “Event Enthusiasts,” who we’ve found to be enamored with being in the right place at the right time. Sports has played to them by creating ancillary activities surrounding the field of play. There are “Gamers,” the fantasy sports and betting enthusiasts who are now part of the action, often with a voracious appetite for analytics and statistical content. We’ve even seen a burgeoning group we call “The Oasis Seekers,” who still see sports as a release and respite from day-to-day craziness.
Each of these segments has different levels of engagement, needs and approaches to form enduring connections. Today's challenge for sports marketers is to balance these approaches -- or recognize that you can’t be all things to all people and carefully pick your spots.
Then there’s the question of which segments will be there for a sports brand long term, and who will move on to the next shiny new toy.