Sports Club Fan Engagement: Avoid the Relegation Zone

Fan Engagement: Avoid The Relegation Zone

We recently saw a dramatic demonstration of Fan Power and the cost to football clubs who don’t communicate and engage properly with their fans.

Liverpool Football Club Fans had been engaged in a 13 month debate with the club’s owners over a proposal to raise match day ticket prices to £77 each and £1,029 for a season ticket. At the last minute the door was slammed in their faces. As a result at the recent Sunderland vs Liverpool match an estimated 10,000 Liverpool fans staged a mass protest and walk-out of the stadium at the 77th minute. Fenway Sports Group (FSG), American owners of Liverpool Football Club, realised the awful publicity and risk of permanent damage to their carefully nurtured global brand. With faces as red as their team player’s kit, they were forced into a very public capitulation. A public letter of apology was issued and general admission prices have been frozen at 2015/16 levels for the next 2 seasons.  It’s a victory for fans that might just mark the start of a change in the way that clubs engage with fans who up to now have been too often taken for granted.

FSG’s own communications underlines the gap between what FSG are saying and how the Liverpool fans who pay them are thinking and feeling: The very corporate ‘Subway Case Study’ on their website talking about the business benefits of having Subway as the team’s Official Training Food; their own website talked about “turning fans into customers” after they announced the price rises earlier this month. (This has subsequently been updated to read “Transforming consumers into fans”.) This just adds to the impression that many of the Premier League’s club of overseas owners often appear to inhabit a world apart from their fans. And it was mis-communications like this which added fuel to the fires burning in the angry fans’ hearts.

Football clubs could learn a thing or two from the other brands who are better at engaging with the football fan community: Carlsberg (the official beer partner of the Premier League and Liverpool); Puma; Barclays, and Subway. The Premier League offers brands a unique opportunity to encourage year-long engagement around a sport fuelled by tremendous levels of passion, loyalty, and ritual. Those that manage to weave their identity into the culture of the sport can achieve the kind of awareness and loyalty that all brands can only dream of. The huge irony seems to be it’s the owners of the football clubs themselves who seem to be finding this the greatest challenge. Engagement in football, or indeed any sport, has to be about building deeper connections with fans, and a need to create a never-ending conversation in all channels that builds loyalty and extends lifetime value for mutual benefit for the club, its partners and the fans.

If sports clubs around the world don’t start to invest in fan engagement they’ll find themselves in the relegation zone with their own supporters. Clubs need to start to engage a global fan base and ensure that the fan of today is also the fan of tomorrow.

The Champions League of Fan Engagement

The Philadelphia Flyers ice-hockey team in the USA, an example given by Paul Greenberg, are champions of fan engagement. The Flyers know that there are two things they have to do:

  1. Retain the fans they have, and if fans renew their season tickets early then the Flyers get revenue in the bank, and they can start planning for the next season.
  2. Get new season ticket holders. The Flyers wanted to convert the casual game goer to a season ticket holder.

The best thing, of course, is to have a winning season. But every sports club knows you can’t have that all of the time. So to do this The Flyers have two fan engagement programmes:

  1. “How You Doing?” programme

Every fan is personally greeted by a Flyers member of staff when they enter the stadium and are asked if they need anything. Every single member of staff is responsible. The fans then rate the results, 1 to 5, 5-star being highly satisfied.

97% of fans gave five out of five, highly satisfied.

  1. Early Bird programme

The Flyers have all of their fans rated one through five stars, based on their propensity to renew. Fans get great benefits for early renewal. For example, if you’ve got child they can go on the ice during a live game, and as the team’s coming out, they can high-five the team. Regardless of your propensity to renew, you get invited to the team barbeque to just hang out with the players all day. The results from a three-year study 2010-2012: One star: 83.7% renewed early; Two stars: 84.7% renewed early; Three stars: 82% renewed early; Four stars: 89% renewed early…

Five stars: 92% renewed early

92% is fan engagement, it just doesn’t get better than that.

What’s more if you’re an employee of this team, you want to do things to help the team. But you’re also self-interested; you want something for it too. You can get high ratings as an employee from these fans. If you’re really good, you can get a $1,000 bonus. You can get a free holiday. So, everybody is engaged, employees, and customers, and management, and staff. This is true engagement.

The Flyers are now looking at new fan engagement initiatives to understand each fan’s behaviour to treat them uniquely, such as texting them ticket offers or deals for a favourite players’ jersey. The team are looking at new wearable technology for the players to again enhance the fan experience and new interactive stats mean fans can focus on their favourite players and compare their team to others in the NHL.

The fans at Liverpool who claim “You’ll never walk alone” would really love the way the Flyers want their fans to feel like they’re part of the team, and how they let their voices be heard by asking for and sharing reviews and embracing user-generated content.

However the key to the trophy cabinet lies in the data the clubs could have about their fans. Fans are living, breathing, real people, not a 2D persona. Clubs need to recognise local fans vs overseas fans, new first-time fans to loyal families of generations of fans. And having recognised them then offer relevant, personalised moments and experiences for each individual fan. As a result clubs need to have real-time, actionable journey insight, which show the real picture across every channel and point where a fan could come into contact with the club’s brand. Real-time actionable journey insight would enable club owners to:

  • Understand who their fans are, what they need and where they are on their journey to meet that need.
  • Have an intelligent and connected conversations with those fans as they interact across any channel, device, irrespective of whether it was a quick look at the league table on the mobile app, listening to the latest podcast interview with the manager, researching a stadium tour on the website, or trying to buy the latest kit in their shop at the stadium.
  • Build a relationship with fans which is built on something much stronger than the lottery of a penalty shoot-out or hit-and-hope emails.
  • Find out for each fan their player preferences, match and competition preferences, retail and hospitality needs, geo-location and interaction with player content – then converse with fans in person, online, by email, over the phone with features, offers and messages which are relevant to those preferences and needs.

All this creates an effortless bond with the fan. Every fan feels valued and has enriched interactions with the club and the club understands exactly who they are and what they want. Value to the fan means value to the club. Engaging fans, or customers, is all about creating value for both. After all, it’s a game of two halves.