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As the Fan Experience Evolves, Can Teams Keep Up?

The experience of rooting for a professional or college sports team is changing in profound ways.

But that’s actually not a new phenomenon. Almost a century has passed since radio first transformed fandom by broadcasting live games for people who couldn’t be there in person – or weren’t satisfied by reading the box score in tomorrow’s newspaper. TV broadcasts would take it a step further by the 1940s. With teams needing to mitigate on-field performance, the live experience has also improved with the addition of DJ’s live bands, elaborate half-time shows, and theme nights, to name a few.

Today, the changes are happening much faster. Modern technology and data collection enable richer, more customized relationships between fans and their favorite teams. And those relationships can be leveraged to add to the bottom line.

The heart of a fan doesn’t change.

People will always seek emotional bonds with their teams and the thrill of watching live games surrounded by their tribe. But the definition of what we call a fan is broadening. Today, anyone can personalize their fan experience exactly the way they want it to be – whether they’re at the arena, on their sofa or somewhere in between.

That could mean staying home with a huge HD TV, watching multiple games on NFL RedZone, with one eye on the fantasy league scoreboard. Other fans prefer to trek to the stadium, but only when it’s not raining. And they’ll need great wi-fi to post their game selfies. Maybe they’re more interested in the great music and dance shows during intermission, or the big half-time performance. And some fans may prefer to tailgate in the parking lot, then watch the game at a bar inside the stadium. In Atlanta, for example, the stadium operator found that reducing food and beverage prices by 50 percent actually led to a 16 percent increase in total revenues.

A good example of what the future looks like is the Rams new stadium in Los Angeles, which will be surrounded by a 298-acre piece of land on which the team can engage fans of all levels. It’s a sports theme park – three times bigger than Disneyland. And once a fan is on the property, the team can deepen its connections with guests, presenting its messaging on signage or mobile apps.

A dizzying mix of opportunities and challenges await sports franchises.

The opportunity, for example, to reach more casual fans and to market to them more effectively. You may not have attended Notre Dame, but your spouse drags you to a game and even buys you a Fighting Irish jersey. Can we get your email address or cell phone number to keep in touch?

Perhaps bigger opportunities lie at the other end of the spectrum, with the most passionate fans. Red Sox Nation would love to get a text message announcing their latest offseason free agent signing – before it’s on the news. And hey, that’s a good reminder to buy some World Series commemorative gear, or Sox pajamas for the kids.
Among the challenges, a big one is the shrinking attention span of today’s fans, and not just millennials. We have an incredible assortment of new sports to watch – the AAF spring football league, pro rugby, and women’s pro sports, to name a few. With the simultaneous explosion of sports programming channels, sites and streams, it’s more difficult than ever to keep eyeballs focused on a four-hour baseball game.

That also means you need to be ready when your fans come looking for you.

If they want to hit your app at midnight, you better be online. If they want to buy a jersey, you better remember their address and jersey size, and get them through checkout quickly.

The difference between success and failure is what we do with the data. Our ability to consume and make sense of it all is the key to seizing the new opportunities. Do you have the right technology and analytics programs in place? Do you know who is at your stadium bar and what they like to buy? Can you be sure you’re not cannibalizing stadium ticket sales by promoting that stadium bar? And how do you know what pricing works best?

The quality of your data and insights can make or break your messaging. The right tools will help you gauge your audience better and personalize your messaging. Otherwise, you could waste time and money on ideas that just miss the mark.

And the value of quality data isn’t limited to sports teams and games. Better insights into any large audience – at a rock concert, a convention, or a dog show – can help the venue owner or event promoter supercharge the entertainment experience.

Over the next few years, the way we think about, define, engage, and market to sports fans is going to drastically change.

Technology is changing the way people connect, consume entertainment and shop. Sports franchises better change the way they do things, or they will fall behind.

Keeping up with the rapid pace of evolution takes diligence and commitment. It is not a one-off. Successful organizations have teams of people, and systems in place that help them stay ahead of the trends. Teams, franchises, and conferences face massive disruption, but they also have a chance to control their own destiny – if they have the right view into their fan data.

Fans will reward the teams that get it right. People are always searching for the communal moments that sports provides. When they can come together and cheer on their team, while still using their phones and devices to enhance that experience, they get even more value for their money. That’s the formula for building a loyal fan base, with fans that come back for more.

It’s time to take a deeper look at the big changes happening now – issues ranging from eSports and legalized gambling to the wired arena and the decline of season ticket sales. We’ll unpack those topics and more in a seven-part series in the weeks ahead.

COMING SOON – PART 1 Don’t blame Millennials! – Technology is changing how all of us consume sports.

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