2020: The year fan engagement took centre stage
The pandemic has upended all of our lives in one way or another. While some industries pivoted to limit disruption, others are struggling as Covid-19 continues to take its toll. The sports industry is one area which has been severely impacted, and it’s hard to imagine a return to how things were at the beginning of the year.
The physical connection of sports clubs and their fans has been shattered, and ticket sales and other streams of revenue have evaporated. With rising Covid cases and the introduction of a new three-tier approach to lockdown, a spectator return to stadiums looks unlikely for the foreseeable future. In the absence of match attendance, football clubs are turning to fan engagement in an attempt to generate revenue in this time of crisis.
The evolving fanbase
Much of today’s fanbases consist of engaged, tech-savvy individuals from the younger generations who want more from their club in terms of access and content. In response, clubs are jumping at the opportunity – and why wouldn’t they? Manchester United has a global audience of 120 million and yet, Old Trafford has a maximum capacity of 76,000 – that’s just 0.06% of the fanbase that can actually attend a match. The drive to digital represents an opportunity for clubs to engage with those fans unable to attend matches, and capture valuable data in a way match attendance simply cannot compete with.
Technology has changed the way we consume media. Streaming the action digitally with social media commentary on a connected mobile device now complements live televised events – the rise of the second screen is expanding the sports content ecosystem and a direct-to-consumer approach is transforming broadcasting. This has seen many clubs invest in corporate studios to produce exclusive content around matches and players – as the potential beyond the stadium becomes clearer, expect to see more clubs take similar steps to engage with their fans.
Proving the value of fan engagement
Fans won’t be the only beneficiaries of clubs’ focus on fan engagement, as it also serves to increase the value of potential sponsorship deals. No longer happy to be a passive partner, the pandemic has risen the bar when it comes to the expectations of sponsors. They have become increasingly sophisticated with their marketing and have higher expectations when signing deals – it’s therefore up to clubs and federations to demonstrate value.
Access to credible, granular data on an engaged fanbase in a GDPR-compliant way is one vector through which this value is achieved – gone are they days where clubs competed solely on the pitch. Sponsors are attracted to clubs that demonstrate large followings of identified fans and quality fan engagement. They want to be embedded in the whole experience, with high expectations of reaching fans directly as part of that partnership – they’re now far more interested in putting their name to a piece of likeable, shareable content rather than a static billboard seen on TV.
Examples of success
At the heart of a successful fan engagement is the ability to convert a casual follower into a loyal, paying fan. A well-operated club can easily offer data analyses to prospective sponsors and deliver a target audience relevant to a brand. Olympique Lyonnais, for example, has been able to demonstrate to a global car manufacturer which fans were thinking of purchasing, their timeline, as well as their specific needs.
Beyond this, countless other clubs have driven considerable success by deploying successful fan engagement and digital transformation strategies. Inter Milan achieved a compound annual growth rate of 39% and a 10.8% rise in revenue from sponsorship and hospitality between 2015-2018, as well as a 21.5% increase in season ticket sales for the 2018/19 season. Meanwhile, Everton Football Club saw a 96.7% retention rate for season ticket holders and an estimated £1.6 million worth of email conversions for the 2019/20 season, noting a 33% increase in conversion rates compared to the 2018-2019 season.
Clearly, there is potential beyond the stadium. These clubs have shown how technology is able to unlock new ways for brands to engage fans. By employing successful fan engagement strategies, some clubs are now becoming fully-blown digital media companies in their own right.
Looking beyond the pitch
In an open letter to supporters, English football’s governing bodies recently called for Government clarity over when fans can begin returning to stadiums. The reality is we’ll likely see matches played behind closed doors for the foreseeable future, and when they do return, it’s hard to imagine them taking place on a similar scale. When Belgium’s national team welcomed fans back to stadiums on a socially-distanced basis, only 6,200 of the 11,000 tickets available were even sold – reason enough for clubs to consider fan engagement as a viable way of sustaining revenue.
Clubs can do much better at monetising fans beyond ticket sales. There’s huge opportunity to deliver fantastic experiences beyond the action on the pitch, while also increasing the average revenue per fan. In the digital age, if you own the data you own the fan. If you own the fan you own the engagement. And if you own the engagement, you own the future.