4 Mission-critical Actions for Sports Leagues and Marketers to Engage Fans

Sports marketing

As we continue to seek to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affects consumers’ day-to-day realities, we conducted qualitative research with sports fans to dive deep into their feelings, actions, and attitudes. Our research focused on uncovering deep-seated emotions that sports fans are experiencing, and how those impact their viewing habits and other ways of engaging with sports.

Globally, sports have been put on hold. Whether it’s MLB, NHL, NBA, Wimbledon, Premier League, or local children’s soccer leagues, COVID-19 has left sports fans missing their entertainment mainstays. We interviewed sports fans across the US during the week of April 20 to get a glimpse into how they’re adapting to uncertainty around their favorite pastimes.

It’s clear that leagues and programmers risk losing viewers and customers as the sports shutdown continues. Fans are adapting to the loss, finding new ways to spend time and new shows that entertain. Without intentional efforts to re-engage with fans through compelling content and behind-the-scenes analysis, the economic implications of the sports shutdown may be long-lasting.

Cultural Context

As any fan knows, sports represent more than competition. Fans follow teams and watch matches to be drawn into stories and cultures that epitomize ideals and bring meaning to life. Fans we met spoke about the ways that teams and players personify tenacity and drive, excellence and transcendence, courage, and overcoming odds. Professional and amateur sports connect us with our potential for greatness and our desire to exceed our limits.

Sports is also a key nexus for community and connection. For many we met, team loyalty is family loyalty and community loyalty! Fans I interviewed talked about watching games with dads, brothers and sisters, or extended family. Team love connects people to their communities and provides a sense of belonging.

Content serves as a conduit to those meaningful experiences sports has to offer. Sports fans tune in to be connected with these greater stories, and to see them play out in real time. They are captivated by the potential that a game can change in a moment. They’re thrilled by the prospect of seeing a breakout play or a game-changing moment. They’re connected to meaningful relationships and community.

Sports fans feel disengaged from content offerings

Sports fans are mourning the loss of their normal source of connections. They generally report finding current programming, heavy on recent reruns, uninteresting and unexciting. Many in the US are anxiously watching for signs of what will happen with the upcoming NFL season, and tuned in to last week’s NFL Draft in record numbers. Yet with the prospect of long-term cancellations and postponements, many are turning away, unsure of how they’ll re-engage in some distant return to normal.

Sports leagues and programmers can re-capture viewership using these four tactics

Based on our research, we believe that programmers and sports leagues have an opportunity to re-capture viewership and fan engagement. This will come through expanding content offerings and introducing new topical analysis, commentary, and content to help fans see “inside the front office.”

1. Inspire them with greatness with legendary historical matchups.

Current programming skews heavily to games played within the past 10 – 12 years. Yet many of the sports fans I met don’t connect with this content and aren’t watching; they either remember these games (and the outcomes) or feel they’re too easy to look up online for all the information they’d want to know. For those we met, the known outcome and familiarity with the content makes the reruns less-than-satisfying.

Yet many fans know of iconic historical sports moments that they’ve never seen or experienced: great Olympic performances, iconic underdog victories, moments of personal greatness. Fans I met are interested in this content and would particularly value it with commentary and analysis from current players in the sport (even better with analysis from the athletes or players who were actually playing). As an example, the US’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has introduced this with Dishing with Julia Child, interspersing original footage with commentary and explanations from current chefs.

Successfully executing this isn’t easy, requiring complex licensing agreements between leagues and networks. Canada’s TSN and Sportsnet have done this with recent Toronto Raptor’s games to great success. Leagues and networks should see this as a win/win in our current cultural context.

2. Engage fans with curated collections from their teams.

Fan loyalty runs deep, whether it’s to a hometown college team or pro franchises. Current programming is a challenge because it may be hit-or-miss with favorite teams. While NFL content, for example, is heavy on high-profile recent Super Bowl victories, Tennessee Titans fans (guilty) or Oakland Raiders fans find engaging content hard to come by. Leagues and programmers can deepen fan engagement by offering curated collections of games, profiles, and analysis focused on iconic team players, season-changing games, colorful media moments, etc. Offering super fans deep content for their teams gives them a mode to more deeply connect with the sport and the franchise. Content spanning decades helps them engage with the “historic struggles” of the team and reminds them of what they love.

3. Remind them of what inspired them as children.

Fandom is often multi-generational, and fans I met talked lovingly of watching games with dads, siblings, and friends growing up. Their love of the sport and loyalty to teams is often an extension of those experiences. Leagues and programmers can help them re-engage with those memories with long-form content focused on dynasties and crucible games. 30 for 30 (ESPN+) offers some of this in episodes running under 2 hours, and the joint ESPN-Netflix produced The Last Dance does this masterfully. Sports fans are looking for more.

]Programmers should consider other opportunities for in-depth content highlighting key seasons or even key games or teams from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, such as the 1992 US Olympic gold medal-winning “Dream Team,” or the 1972 Summit Series (with Paul Henderson’s “Goal of the Century”). For avid sports fans of all sports, these are often fond childhood or family memories that prompt nostalgic connections with their teams and the sport itself.

The key to success here is to anchor the content in the bigger narratives that make sports so engaging: overcoming adversity, coming together as a team, prevailing against the odds, and down to the wire performances.

4. Inspire them now by showing them how the elite players and organizations stay top of their game.

Beyond the games, many sports fans are engaged by the allure of athletes at the peak of their form and organizations engaged in deep strategy. The drama of conflict between the “best of the best” is the attraction to any game, and fans are pining for connections with these champion athletes and organizations.

Programmers can deepen longer-term engagement by featuring elite players working to stay at the top of their game in this COVID moment – authentically, despite challenges of boredom, injuries, or uncertainty about their season. Fans are also looking for access to organizations’ thinking behind roster moves, game day strategies, draft plans and scenarios, trades, etc. This “inside the front office” content keeps fans engaged even while no games are happening. Content of this kind has made HBO’s Hard Knocks so compelling and successful, and sports fans we interviewed report re-watching key episodes as they pine for connection to their sport.

It’s time for sports marketing and leagues to get creative

There are numerous challenges to maintaining fan engagement, from complex licensing agreements to production timelines and programming challenges. These are compounded by uncertainty about how long the shutdown will continue.

Yet marketers can optimize digital properties for quicker content and look for quick wins by doubling down on the programming that is working, like 30 for 30 and The Last Dance. Much of the analysis and commentary fans are looking for is already out there, and networks can look to regional affiliates and podcast commentators for partnerships to bring fans the analysis and insider commentary they’re looking for. In the US, Comcast SportsNet recently aired the 1987 Fiesta Bowl to regional viewers, with viewers’ Tweets and social media commentary scrolling across the screen. Sports fans we met are looking for more examples of ways to engage nostalgically and still feel the excitement of the game.

As the shutdown continues, fans are reminded that sports are “non-essential.” Leagues and networks face a significant risk of reduced fan attendance at live events and reduced home or mobile viewers in the future. Now is the time to find creative, nimble, and fan-focused ways to reconnect.

Maru/Matchbox is keeping a finger on the pulse of how businesses and consumers are managing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Be sure to visit our COVID-19 research hub for more insights.

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