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3 Ways to Transform Fan Loyalty in the Digital Age

A new chapter is emerging in the sports franchise playbook because of generational shifts and technological innovation, with the difference between winners and losers in the quality of their execution.
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Paul Equale
Alex Tai
illustration of fans cheering with foam fingers on

AT A GLANCE

  • Digital access has heightened transience and the erosion of team loyalty, requiring franchises to evolve their product further.
  • Why would today’s fans love a team that doesn’t love them back? Franchises must love them back via digital reach.
  • Franchises that win will be the ones that invest in building fan victories.

The fanbase is the flywheel of the franchise. Regardless of the revenue model and its design across local and national channels, the franchise survives and thrives from how much its fans care and love the team, as evidenced by direct revenue like tickets and concessions and indirect revenue such as advertising and sponsorships.

Though once relatively captive, today’s fans are much more transient.

  • Physical transience, such as when fans move cities and towns
  • Attention transience refers to the preference for short-form highlights over full-length games
  • Loyalty transience, such as fans being loyal to athletes who also move cities and not franchises

The frequency of these changes – people moving more often, decreasing attention spans, and loyalties changing more rapidly – is a critical dimension that franchises need to address. Franchises can no longer rely solely on the product on the field to build and maintain fan trust and loyalty in this new era. As Spencer Johnson’s parable suggests, the “cheese” has moved, and franchises must adapt to find new cheese.

The rising cost of fan engagement

The competitive landscape of fan engagement has fundamentally shifted. Sports fans, once captive audiences, have an abundance of options at their fingertips to watch games digitally or surf a slate of games happening across locations and time zones. Even better, this digital optionality is convenient – fans can digitally jump into and out of games at their leisure – and this trend is growing with the array of choices reshaping what fans want and expect from their sports experience.

According to Morning Consult

The opportunity cost of physically attending a game has never been greater. The fan has a fear of missing out (“FOMO”) on what else is happening. This means fans are a less captive audience than ever, and capturing their attention is becoming increasingly difficult.

So, how does the franchise compete and win when it comes to fan engagement and sentiment? The franchise must further evolve their product to build their own FOMO effect. Present-day examples of doing this include exclusive merchandise like bobbleheads, jerseys, and hats, free food for performance milestones, and special ceremonies or guests. Still, there’s much more the franchise must do than exclusive rewards for game attendance. They must reciprocate the love to captivate audiences that are no longer captive.

Reciprocating every fan’s cheer and chant

Fans have long demonstrated a desire to be heard and recognized – holding signs, wearing face/body paint and costumes, engaging through social media, and more. Franchises reciprocate by showing fans on the jumbotron or responding via social media. They also “listen” to the fans using key metrics such as ticket sales, attendance, concession sales, concession queues, fan councils, and customer surveys. This largely results in fan engagement being measured via the number of views, clicks, posts, or purchases. Still, this transactional mindset fails to acknowledge the passion and feelings of the fan behind every view, click, post, and purchase.

How long can the franchise leave its fans with their hands hanging in the air, longing for attention & recognition when the competition for Gen Z’s attention celebrates their participation and is a core part of the product?

With the rise of live streaming, fans interact with their favorite performers live, providing input and direction on where the show should go, receiving direct contribution recognition and shoutouts along the way. Recognizing their contributions, such as arriving early and attending away games in a public and durable way, will become an increasing expectation of fans.

It’s time to rethink “spectator sports” and embrace innovations to capitalize on the participation of fans.

Building a relationship with your fans

Each year, Forbes publishes franchise valuations across major sports. A key component in the valuation model is what Forbes calls “Revenue Per Fan,” which Forbes defines as local revenues divided by metro population. Local revenues include game tickets, game concessions, and game merchandise. The U.S. census indicates an annual growth rate in metropolitan populations of approximately 1%, thus franchises need to grow local revenues by at least 1% per year just to keep this component neutral let alone accretive to franchise value.

The key is to move from a transactional connection with the fan to a relational one. The same digital access available to fans is available to franchises to help personalize their connection with a fan and build a relationship. The goal is to go from transactions to a personalized experience to a relationship. For example, rather than the franchise reaching out via email or text to say, “Hey Alex, don’t miss out! Buy your game tickets now!” the franchise could instead email, text, or call saying, “Alex, thank you for being part of our team! And thank you for wearing your jersey in attendance at last week’s away game! The team needs your help to make the playoffs. Please join us this week! I have seats available in your favorite section, “123,” and I’ve attached a voucher for you to get your favorite meal on us as a “thank you” for coming out.” By moving into a relational realm, the franchise can materially affect “Revenue Per Fan,” thus also operating income and franchise valuation.

Ensuring your fans always win

Whether the team wins or loses, the fans should always win. We call these “fan victories”. They are the foundation upon which the franchise can rack up wins off the field and move towards building relationships and epic memories for fans. Here are some examples of fan victories we have started to explore with clients:

Fan Record and games within the game

Every team keeps a win-loss record; every fan should have one, too. If fans are infatuated with advanced stats, then where are the advanced fan stats? Introduce ways for fans to participate and engage around the game and make that record count! Examples of advanced stats for fans:

  • Guess the play/score
  • Number of away games attended
  • Number of times arrived early or stayed late

Consider how your franchise can recognize the superstitions and rituals fans perform for their teams and introduce games within the game. Doing so increases the FOMO of missing a game. Your fans are no longer missing out on watching a game but playing in one where they are the starter.

Fan Profile

The foundation of the Fan Record is the Fan Profile. How can you allow the fans to announce themselves to the franchise and other fans by recognizing their status in the moment? Their status could be similar to:

  • Important game – leave me alone
  • Here with family – want a stadium tour
  • Quick in/out or visitor in an enemy stadium – would love some support

Your franchise can play matchmaker and engage other fans in the stadium to deliver those unique and collective experiences. Additionally, this helps build a FOMO of connecting with others or creating memories.

Fan Passport

Consider how you can extend your fan recognition beyond the franchise via partners. Perhaps the fans who stayed beyond the fourth quarter get a hometown discount at the local grocery store. Or, they get VIP treatment for having season tickets for the past decade. The best part is that this does not require integrations with “official partners.” All that’s missing is a badge or official recognition from the franchise that fans can flash, and local businesses can choose to participate independently.

There can be only one winner on the field at the end of the game. But, in the game of fan engagement, the final score isn’t the only measure of success. Off the field, victory is shared every day in every interaction we have with our fans. Together, we can create a winning experience for everyone, no matter the game’s outcome.

Ready to bring this vision to life for your franchise?

Let’s talk about crafting a fan experience where everyone wins.

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By Paul Equale
Vice President
Mr. Paul Equale is an exceptional leader with a proven track record of applying technology, alongside people and processes, to drive innovation and value for clients.
By Alex Tai
Principal
Alex is an energetic and passionate problem solver that loves taking on new challenges. With an eye for emerging technologies and current business trends, Alex enjoys helping organizations creatively craft solutions that drive business value.

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