Sustainability Challenges: Fan Engagement

June 01 2023

In 2023, the world faces economic, geopolitical, social and environmental crises against the backdrop of ongoing physical and mental health challenges among the general population. In the latest in a series of articles in which we turn to experts about the critical issues facing the sports industry this year and beyond, we look at the challenge of fan engagement.

Sustainability Challenges: Fan Engagement

It was Jock Stein, the first manager of a British team to win football’s top European club trophy with Scotland’s Celtic FC in 1967, who was widely credited with coining the phrase: “Football without fans is nothing.”

‘Fan engagement’ in sport, therefore, has been considered to be an important issue for generations, even if the term itself has only truly entered the vocabulary of the industry’s leading decision-makers over recent years.

However, articulating Stein’s actual quote, and not the more famous abridged version, goes to the heart of the increasingly acute fan engagement challenges facing sports rights-holders now and in the coming years.

Indeed, Stein was not to know that the vision underpinned by his direct quote – that “without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing” – would ultimately become a nightmarish reality several decades later. 

The pandemic-enforced social distancing restrictions of 2020 and 2021 led to sportspeople competing in front of eerily empty stands, from the historic sports grounds of the UK and continental Europe to sparkling new competition venues in the US major leagues and at the Tokyo Olympic Games. 

Long-term ramifications

This albeit temporary but damaging situation had long-term ramifications, highlighting the challenge facing sports organisations and enterprises by amplifying the importance of digital engagement and demonstrating how fan support could not be taken for granted any more.

According to the Sport on Social League Table 2022 study by global sports research, digital and creative agency Redtorch, Olympic International Federations (IFs) posted approximately 230,000 times in 2021 across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube – up 44% on the previous year. This led to a huge 92% year-on-year increase in video views, in spite of restrictions over coverage surrounding the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, driving a 99% increase in engagements across all Olympic IFs.

This came after the Sport on Social League Table 2021 by Redtorch showed that it was the Badminton World Federation, one of the smaller Olympic IFs, which registered the most impressive growth on Facebook in 2020, simply by pushing out on average more than three times as many pieces of content as its fellow IFs on the social platform.

Separately, digital transformation, accelerated by the pandemic, has raised the stakes when it comes to engaging younger sports fans. 

The increasing average age of sports fans has been a concern for rights-holders for years – long before the emergence of Covid-19. In the decade leading up to 2016, the average age of US network TV viewers increased for 22 of 23 top sporting properties, according to a study by Sports Business Journal.

However, the outlook appears to be getting more challenging. Last year it was reported by Morning Consult that around one-third of those who belong to the Gen Z age category – roughly spanning the ages of 11 and 25 – do not watch live sports in the US, in comparison with less than a quarter of all adults in the country.

Furthermore, research by the European Club Association in 2020 across seven key global markets in Europe, Asia and South America found that 40% of 16 to 24-year-olds have no interest in football, with only 28% considering themselves to be a fan – a percentage that leapt to 37% in the 25 to 34-year-old category. 

“To keep fans engaged, sports rights-holders must come up with creative ways to stand out and connect with their target audience.” Chris Argyle-Robinson, Research and Strategy Director at Redtorch

Capturing attention

Of course, one reason for this dip could be that digitally savvy youngsters discover a multitude of entertainment options at their fingertips when they reach their teens. Indeed, this is a potential challenge across other age groups, as well.

According to Chris Argyle-Robinson, Research and Strategy Director at Redtorch, a “huge competition for attention” is just one of the fan engagement challenges facing sports rights-holders.

“With almost 60% of the global population using social media and a wide variety of digital entertainment options available, sports organisations need to work hard to capture fans’ attention,” he tells Global Sustainable Sport. “To keep fans engaged, sports rights-holders must come up with creative ways to stand out and connect with their target audience.”

Argyle-Robinson also highlights the challenge of maintaining engagement as a key issue.

“While social media platforms offer opportunities for direct engagement with fans, they also present challenges in managing online communities,” he says. “Balancing authenticity, brand image and fan interaction is crucial in maintaining a positive online presence.

In terms of resourcing video content, while TikTok and YouTube dominate, these channels “require a significant investment to generate quality content,” with Argyle-Robinson outlining the importance of “allocating sufficient resources to create compelling and shareable content, while also ensuring a return on investment in terms of fan engagement and growth.”

Set against this digital backdrop, globalisation also presents a sustainability challenge for sports rights-holders seeking to “expand their reach globally while also catering to core fan bases… [and] …balancing the need to appeal to a diverse, international audience while maintaining a strong connection with core fans,” he adds.

Multifaceted approach

A proactive, multifaceted strategy is required to address such a range of challenges, with the aim of driving financial sustainability for sporting properties and sports themselves.

With this in mind, Argyle-Robinson suggests an eight-pronged approach:

  • Be distinctive and consistent
  • Build and nurture superstar athletes
  • Build a strong community
  • Invest in the brand and the fan experience
  • Work with the network
  • Leverage increased digital spending by brands
  • Focus on the channels that deliver for their audience
  • Connect to culture to connect more people

Be distinctive and consistent

There is an onus on sports rights-holders to cut through the clutter of a highly competitive marketplace. That requires a subtle approach that builds an engaging narrative for the ultimate consumer – the fan.

“Sports rights-holders need to create compelling and easily consumable content that stands out from the noise,” Argyle-Robinson explains. “Embrace creativity and storytelling to deliver unique and captivating content.”

Build and nurturing superstar athletes

Sports fans – and especially younger fans – follow individual athletes, as well as clubs in team sports. This opens up exciting engagement opportunities that stretch beyond traditional scarf-wearing support by match attendees.

Indeed, as outlined by Rui Biscaia, a senior lecturer at University of Bath who specialises in fan engagement research: “It is easier for people (especially younger generations) to identify with the athlete, sometimes almost like an aspirational self, than with the organisation.”

Argyle-Robinson explains that building and nurturing superstar athletes “requires a combination of talent, opportunity and effective support from sports rights-holders.” He adds: “Creating an ecosystem that nurtures and promotes superstar athletes will increase the overall appeal and popularity of the sport, attracting more fans, sponsors and media attention.”

Build a strong community

Fans like to feel like they are part of something bigger – a common interest that connects a disparate group of people of different backgrounds and demographics.

“Establishing a strong online community around the team or sport is essential for fan engagement,” Argyle-Robinson says. “Sports rights-holders should prioritise community building as it fosters long-term fandom and strengthens the bond between fans and the sport.”

Invest in the brand and the fan experience

Engaging fans requires investment, as well as will. It is no coincidence that sport’s biggest rights-holders, with the biggest budgets, are typically able to drive the most significant fan engagement opportunities, both in and out of stadia.

“Sports rights-holders need to invest in platforms and technologies that enhance the fan experience,” Argyle-Robinson says. “Developing a comprehensive strategy that aligns with fan preferences and behaviours ensures a seamless and enjoyable experience for fans.”

"In order to expand their reach and engagement, sports rights-holders must collaborate with influencers, both endemic and non-endemic, as well as fan communities, as they cannot grow solely through their own channels." Chris Argyle-Robinson, Research and Strategy Director at Redtorch

Work with the network

Proactive sports rights-holders like Spanish football’s LaLiga have established online influencer networks that help to generate interest and engagement worldwide. This type of strategy can provide a roadmap for others to follow.

“In order to expand their reach and engagement, sports rights-holders must collaborate with influencers, both endemic and non-endemic, as well as fan communities, as they cannot grow solely through their own channels,” Argyle-Robinson says.

Leverage increased digital spending by brands

Digital has become a key battleground for fan engagement, requiring dedicated resources to connect with fans who are craving more personalised and tailored experiences.

“With a 15% increase in digital advertising spend in 2022 to US$667bn, and brands allocating more funds to digital platforms, sports rights-holders can attract additional investment and allocate those resources to enhance their digital output,” Argyle-Robinson explains.

Focus on the channels that deliver for their audience

The digital landscape, including social media, has become increasingly fragmented. However, equally, digital transformation has created countless datapoints through which valuable insights can be derived. It is therefore essential to identify the most effective digital channels for interacting with and engaging fans.

“Understanding the preferences and behaviours of their target audience is essential for sports rights-holders,” Argyle-Robinson says. “By identifying the channels that connect most with their fan base, they can allocate resources and efforts accordingly, maximising engagement and impact.”

Connect to culture to connect more people

Major sports events are increasingly accompanied by supplementary non-sporting experiences – such as with the hugely successful Birmingham 2022 Festival, which engaged more than 40,000 residents in active arts or cultural activities and attracted a total attendance of nearly 2.5 million visitors.

“When a sport connects with culture, it enhances its connection with people by tapping into their emotional and social aspects,” Argyle-Robinson says. “This leads to a more genuine and meaningful relationship with the audience, encourages community engagement, attracts new fans and participants. By embracing and celebrating culture, a sport can grow its reach, diversify its fan base, and nurture a sense of pride and passion among its supporters.”

Sport’s sustainability challenges extend across a variety of internal and external factors. There is little question that fan engagement has been brought sharply into focus against the backdrop of digital transformation and evolving consumer behaviours.

This stark wake-up call has led to a change in perception, and fans are widely considered to be stakeholders, rather than purely customers, by the most proactive and imaginative sports organisations and enterprises.

Indeed, by adopting a creative, digital and data-driven approach and by forging connections through cultures to personalise experiences, engaged fans can continue to be the lifeblood of any sport, and provide opportunities amongst the challenges.

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