Sports clubs are discovering that fans are not just interested in their team’s performance on the pitch, but also how they are treated online and with social media, writes Chris Wheal. Getting this right can win the hearts and minds (as well as wallets) of fans. Going too far can turn fans off for good.
Competition in sport is as fierce off the field as on it. Clubs, team owners, sponsors and traditional broadcasters jockey for the digital hearts and minds of sports fans. And they squaring up to new players all the time.
Fans are the focus of attention in the stadium, on TV, online, on social media and even when playing e-sports – a sector that has not just taken off but has soared.
The recent (August 2017) DOTA2 international championships saw USD$10 million as the first prize, with the winning team’s five players pocketing USD$2 million each.
Growth of e-sports
It’s little surprise everyone wants a piece of that action. Curt Marvis, CEO of QYOU Media, has been packaging YouTube and GoPro-style sports videos into TV packages for broadcasters around the world but is currently working on e-sports versions.
These are likely to be customisable to focus on the e-sports most popular in different countries and regions. “It’s top of the list. There is nothing getting more attention in the programming and show side than e-sports,” he says.
The audience is every marketer’s dream – Generation Z and millennials, who have spending power, plus even younger under 18s. Within the 18 to 24 year-old sector e-sports is popular with both genders and has some passionate, bordering on obsessive, fans, Marvis says.
Consultancy firm PwC included e-sports in its Global Entertainment & Media Outlook for the first time in 2017. It admitted that, as South Korea built an e-sports stadium back in 2005, it wasn’t all that new, but it said revenues more than quadrupled between 2013 and 2016 and could triple again by 2021.
The report states: “Most who livestream e-sports do so on sites such as Twitch, which was acquired by Amazon in 2014 and hosts 2.1 million unique streamers per month. In the US, where colleges are starting to field e-sports teams, pay-TV networks are getting involved.
“Time Warner’s Turner broadcasted the ELeague on TBS and its digital platforms for the first time last summer, averaging 228,000 viewers per episode. And ESPN has begun covering major e-sports such as Defense of the Ancients 2 on its streaming and broadcast channels.”
According to PwC, e-sports revenues fall into “four buckets”:
- Ad spending on streamed events
- Sponsorship revenue at events and for teams
- Consumer spending on tickets to attend e-sports events
- Consumer spending on passes to virtually attend events
The PwC reports says: “E-sports is a great example of a fancentric business. It’s reaching fans who are not spending as much time with traditional sports or other entertainment and media. The spending per fan has significant potential to grow, given that it is very low compared to per-fan spending for established sports leagues.”
Its research confirmed that of those with the highest awareness of e-sports, 69% were 18-34, with the median age being 28. e-sports enthusiasm is gender neutral and racially diverse. Fans are likely to own multiple tech devices and spend more time on their screens.
Threats to traditional players
Separately in the report, PwC warned that traditional sports TV providers face mounting challenges. Once the core of pay-TV subscription models, traditional sports broadcasting risks becoming peripheral. Subscriber numbers are in decline as viewers migrate to digital platforms, streaming and apps
It warned: “The shift to 5G wireless networks and IPv6 protocols will pose a significant threat to cable companies’ reliance on revenue from wired broadband.”
PwC found virtually all sectors of the media were in decline, with just four areas growing and one of those only marginally. The three main success stories are:
- Internet video, up 6%
- Internet advertising, up 4.3%
- Video games, up 2.7%
The goalposts have moved
Fans have taken to producing their own ‘TV’ shows on YouTube. A lack of professional quality has not stopped them, with the BBC’s Match of the Day this year even including an item from Arsenal Fan TV.
A single show of Arsenal Fan TV can be watched by 500,000 people, prompting serious TV production firms to try to establish copy-cat operations at other clubs.
But the clubs themselves are realising they can tap in directly to their fanbase while in the ground, by providing better internet connectivity and by offering content. A football crowd is big enough to swamp standard mobile networks, meaning fans in the stadium get a worse mobile experience than fans watching highlights from home.
Don’t want to go to Chelsea
In July 2017, leading London Premiership club Chelsea signed up mobile phone technology giant Ericsson as “connectivity partner” for Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home stadium in Fulham, West London.
Under the deal, Ericsson will design, build and operate its Small Cell as a Service connected venue network to provide free wifi to fans throughout the stadium. The better technical provision will allow Chelsea to offer fans “a richer experience that enables them to interact digitally with each other, the club, friends and family”.
Chelsea are by no means the first to tap into their fan potential in this way.
Saints go marching in
Tom Dougherty, UX director at consultancy Delete, was involved with Southampton football club. The technology was crucial, but was no substitute for content. “Exclusive content, high-quality video, in-depth features are all used to entertain the fans 24/7. The goal is to ensure fans increase their engagement on site, return frequently and are prone to commercial offers and promotions,” he says.
There are many goals, according to Dougherty. “The strategy for the club is to use the power of the fan data they are able to extract, combined with a modern technology platform to target segments of fans with tailored promotions, including tickets and merchandise products to increase revenues.
“These benefits are also available to official brand sponsors to tap into through the delivery of targeted display and native advertising – creating a new revenue stream for the club.”
Dougherty says every sports club can better target their fans and better monetise them using digital technologies and tailored content.
“Fans are seeking a constant stream of content ranging from news, live scores and social updates. Clubs have realised that investing in their own platforms – whether it’s a new fan focused website or club app – brings with it opportunities to monetise the fan base and drive revenue growth,” he says.
Dougherty makes it sound easy but there have been a few examples where the fans have cried foul. Manchester City announced a new head of ‘fan relationship management’ who used his LinkedIn page to explain he was "creating direct relationships with fans worldwide, learn about their interests and behaviours, and better engage them, serve them and monetise them". A screengrab of that then circulated among Man City fans and they weren’t happy.
That led to details leaking on how the club segmented fans into 33 categories, monitored when they arrived and left the ground, and calculated how to get them to spend more money.
Fans are happy to spend more money, but not when they feel they are being manipulated. The challenge is to tap into that revenue without alienating the customer base.