They Think It’s All Over, it is Now; Connecting With Sports Fans In a Post-COVID World

Sports – like most industries – is changing.

UK fans aren’t as connected with sports, especially football, as they were four months ago. The break in the season and the on-going impact of social distancing measures appears to be having a negative influence on our sporting consumption.

According to the latest Maru/Matchbox data, a sizeable 70% of fans have paused their paid-for TV sport subscriptions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. And perhaps more worryingly for some, 1 in 5 (22%) sports subscribers have stated that they won’t return to paid-for sport once the season resumes.

It’s not all about the money

Whilst the financial impact of the pandemic is the leading culprit behind this squeeze on subscriptions, free access to sport is not a leading influencer to audiences re-connecting.

Implicit Maru/Matchbox research into how sport subscription providers can re-engage with audiences found that just 45% would instinctively act to re-start their sport TV packages if games were shown free-to-air; similarly, just 43% would impulsively act if providers offered a lower subscription cost to previous subscription fees.

Sport providers need to move beyond just price if they’re to entice back a lucrative audience and grow their fan base.

Sport is a social game

Engaging with any type of sport is, implicitly, a social activity.

Think back to last summer’s Cricket World Cup, England’s bid to achieve the seemingly impossible during Russia 2018 or Andy Murray’s first Wimbledon championship win in 2013; chances are, we were all surrounded by friends and family as we savoured these sporting moments.

And for UK fans, no sport quite stirs our senses as much as the national game; football.

Football fans view watching live football as an inherently social activity. Match atmosphere, regulation battles and VAR decisions are all viewed implicitly by fans as a social part of the football experience.

This poses a huge problem for subscription TV providers.

The 2020 Premier League season has changed forever. The lack of crowds and match atmosphere has been a key talking point across Europe where football games have already restarted.

The change in atmosphere, for many, is impacting the viewing experience. 40% of sports subscribers said that the restart of the Premier League season without live crowds will not encourage them to restart their subscriptions, 25% of whom felt strongly that the re-starting of matches will have no influence on them whatsoever.

Connecting with super fans has changed

Providers need new ways of connecting with fans.

In-depth research with US sports fans found that many expect a more engaging experience once leagues re-open. They want a more immersive, in-depth, personalised experience. Instead of appealing to an audience’s social sporting needs, providers need a way of engaging with viewers on a more personal level.

Personal experiences are driven by emotion; how we feel about an event or experience will greatly impact our behaviour. Understanding emotion and how sports fans feel about watching football without some of their favourite social elements is key to uncovering how best to engage in the new footballing paradigm.

Fan Engagement: getting up close and personal

System 1 research techniques allow us to tap into consumer’s emotions and understand what actions will instinctively drive behaviours.

By asking sports fans which aspects of football viewing they see as implicitly social or personal, as well as which elements of the game they find most exciting, we’ve been able to map which aspects will resonate most with audiences at a time when some of their favourite fan experiences (watching at the pub or with friends and family) remain firmly off-limits.

Clearly, all aspects of football are exciting to a degree. But by evaluating aspects using a choice-based exercise where respondents are asked to choose by one against the other, we’ve uncovered which drive a higher personal fan engagement than others.

There are three distinct areas providers must engage on – beyond price alone – if they’re to effectively reconnect with sports fans;

1. Watching my favourite team*: A personal attachment to our favorite team is a key emotional driver and is very likely to influence behaviour, as supported by recent in-depth qualitative results with US sports fan. Results demonstrate the power of club ‘brands’ in creating an emotional connection with audiences, driven by a sense of belonging to ‘family’ and like-minded community.

Any data held by subscription providers or sports brands on team preferences should be used to target and personalise content in the coming weeks.

2. Watching the skills of individual players: Emotionally connect with lapsed or new customers by utilising access to world-renowned players; fans perceive watching highly skilled players as something emotionally engaging that could still be enjoyed despite social restrictions. This was also a key insight from our qualitative work in North America where respondents discussed how attractive the prospect is of seeing the ‘Best of the Best’; everyone wants to see champion athletes in their prime.

3. Watching top teams: Data shows that fans often engage with top-draw matches and don’t need it to be a social experience to enjoy this element of the game. Both this research and our recent qualitative results are aligned in the power of the ‘legend’ of past encounters of top teams, so it’s no surprise that these fixtures drive interest and engagement. Use popular teams, along with the rich heritage of the club brand, as a way of engaging with lapsed customers, highlighting the number of prime-time games being shown

*And on that note, I’ll be settling down on the sofa this Friday night to watch the super Saints take on Norwich.

Results were taken from Maru’s Feel, Behave, Think Covid-19 tracker.

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