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Fan engagement: Keeping them hooked

In the second of a series of three articles on fan engagement, we look at how clubs and rights holders get fans connected and add value to experiences during match days

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 04 Apr 2016 issue 117
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Smartphones now form a part of the match day experience for most fans / press association
Smartphones now form a part of the match day experience for most fans/ press association

How should sports clubs and venues engage fans while a game or event is taking place? Are activities which look to gain fans’ attention during a match intrusive or are they a welcomed addition to the live action?

According to Neil Smythe from Football Republic, a network of social media channels owned by global content company Fremantle Media, clubs should not hesitate to speak to their fans at any time.

“Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk’s Jab, Jab, Right Hook book explains the principle quite well,” Smythe says. “If you want to sell a product to your audience, don’t punch them in the face. You need to jab, jab and jab again. What that means is a consistent, continual conversation which offers something to your audience.

“From a fan engagement perspective, it means that you should have a constant conversation with your fans. Fans want to be engaged with – but they’d also like a certain amount of openness and honesty from their clubs. Jab rather than punch.”

PUTTING UP A SCREEN
While many stadiums now offer fast Wifi connections – allowing tens of thousands of users to engage in social media in real time by tweeting, snapping and posting about their experience – it is in the venue owners’ interest to encourage fans to not only transmit their own messages but to consume content during their visit to the venue.

For this, digital displays are providing an increasingly popular method of keeping fans connected. Advances in LED technology have made even the largest of screens more affordable, while the cost of installation can also be significantly offset by advertising revenue.

The Heat Group, owners of the Miami Heat NBA basketball team and the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, has invested in digital displays – and it has also found a way to use them to generate income. The company recently utilised an under-used smoking area, by turning it into a large fan-engagement space (see photo). Now known as the Xfinity East Plaza, the 23,000sq ft space creates a unique atmosphere for fans to enjoy during Heat games.

As well as a fully-stocked bar, the space boasts six giant LED displays – supplied by NanoLumens – suspended over the crowd. The screens offer highlight reels and interactive fan content, while also acting as a revenue generator for Heat through revenue from advertising sold to support the content.

UP OFF THE COUCH
Eric Woolworth, president of Heat Group’s business operations, said: “We’ve always been a technology-driven franchise and the new Xfinity East Plaza creates an oasis for ticketed guests to enjoy the Florida weather, while not missing a minute of the action. We can show guests what’s going on inside the arena with live action and instant replay, while offering other entertainment options, as well as showing money-spinning sponsor advertisements.”

NanoLumens’ VP of sports and arenas, Rob Jackson, adds that providing the action on the field of play is no longer enough for today’s fans. “Sport is more expensive to watch live than ever before,” he said. “Teams and venues not only have to create value for that big spend, but also have to compete against a great in-home experience.”

“The ‘man cave’ reference isn’t just a bad joke; the home television – combined with the ability to watch many games at once – makes for a competitive playground when trying to get fans off their couches. To combat it, sports teams today have to create an experience that fans will be telling their friends about for weeks to come – creating lifelong memories and lifelong fans.”

Jackson adds that the creating income from fan engagement is an added plus: “The solutions we provided for Heat are not only providing a ‘wow’ factor for the guests within the new Plaza, but also are creating entirely new streams of revenue for them.”

Saracens and eleven sport
Combining technology and fan engagement elements to secure advertising revenue is also making waves in the UK. Aviva Premiership Rugby club Saracens recently partnered with  Eleven Sports Media to create a stadium-wide digital communications platform at Allianz Park in North London. The Saracens StadiumTV and StatZone deliver live match stats and partner messages to fans during the game – while offering advertisers an opportunity to reach fans.

Saracens CEO Heath Harvey says developing fan engagement is priority. “The StatZone and StadiumTV products provide another key service for those enjoying the Saracens experience – within the physical stadium or online. They also provide a great opportunity for additional companies to join the Saracens family as clients.”

PART OF THE TEAM
While technology offers significant opportunities for engagement, there are a number of approaches which do not rely on tech but can create great interest and turn casual fans into loyal supporters. One of these is offering exclusive access to the focal point – the field of play and the facilities in which the sport takes place.

Anaheim Ducks of the National Hockey League (NHL) have taken this to a new level, offering fans the opportunity to buy tickets for quite literally the “best seat in the house” at their Honda Center arena. During the 2015 off-season, the franchise built a four-seat area between the two team benches, placing fans just inches from the action and both sets of players.

Meanwhile the Premier League’s Manchester City – often hailed as a pioneer in fan engagement – has introduced “The Ultimate Football Day Out” for its supporters. The behind-the-scenes experience aims to offer fans a glimpse into the life of a player during a match day and enable supporters to become an honourary part of the team for a day.

MAKING THE TEAM
When it comes to fans being part of the team, not many can rival the National Football League’s (NFL) Seattle Seahawks. The fans are famous for their vocal support and hold the official world record for the loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium. As a result the fans have become known as the 12s – for being the team’s “12th man”.

Such was the impact of Seattle fans on the success of the team in the 1980s that Seahawks president Mike McCormack made the decision that the number should be retired, meaning that no player should ever wear the shirt again. A special flag with the number 12 is now hoisted above the stadium during each home game.

CONSTANT CONVERSATION
But it’s not just when a team is winning that a club should talk to their fans. Football Republic’s Smythe says: “When a team isn’t doing well it’s the clubs which are most open with their fans who maintain most loyalty. They should keep talking to their fans, listen to them and make them feel close to the club,” he says.

Smythe suggests that fans whose clubs fail to engage with them will find another forum to communicate on – such as Football Republic. Most of Football Republic’s content is generated by fans, making it honest and topical – a sure way to engage the target audience.

When asked about how Fremantle plans to monetise the high level of engaged fans it has on Football Republic, Smythe says “We’re looking to work with brand partners who are excited to work with what is a very keenly contested area – young, passionate male sports fans.

“If you have a vertical market where you have potentially hundreds of millions of avid fans – and you know how to talk to them – it opens up a lot of opportunities. Creating an engaged audience around that demographic is very exciting for brands and for us. From our point of view, a strategic move into this space is well worth the investment,” he adds.

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