I always wanted to be a professional athlete when I was young and restless, but injuries stopped me from getting there. I know one thing for sure: To hard-core sports fans, it is not just a game. Their devotion is cemented in unconditional love, and they are faithful for better or worse. They connect at a level where the excitement of the game alone is enough to swallow them in an emotional swirl that is both sacred and indescribable. Their team’s championship victory blinds them with exhilaration, while the loss of even one game can be devastating.
So why would sports organizations need to bother with anything else? Can we not fill every seat with hard-core fans? Do we even need to pay attention to the fan experience? As I focused on the relationship between sports and analytics in the first series beyond the Moneyball like analytics, questions such as these led me to pursue the current series.
When I started mapping out pieces of the fan journey, I found that many of the answers appeared to be simple and obvious on the surface, requiring no further discussion. However, I quickly realized that the path to achieving them was complex and challenging because a successful fan strategy compels a smart design that also requires integration of technology.
I strongly believe that the success for building a world class operation depends greatly on the depth and perspective we need to gain from our own experiences as a fan, not as a professional. We must experience it as a fan first–stripped from our insider privileges, professional experiences, biases or opinions, no matter how strongly we may want to hold on to them. We must do so before we design, develop or consider anything. In design thinking, I refer to this as the “empathy principle,” a practice that involves opening up our nerve endings, so to speak, and increasing our awareness, so we can feel what it’s like to be in the actual fans’ shoes. You can’t do that from behind a desk.
We need to be able to live the experience as our fans would, not just observe it from a distance. We need to get frustrated just as they do so we can understand the pain points, to look out from inside, and not from outside in. And most important of all, we need to capture the essence of their fan journey so we have a chance to form an emotional bond that is resilient. I see the empathy principle as a prerequisite for fan-centric products or solutions.
Here is a reality check: Although winning is the measurement that counts most in sports, there will be only one team hoisting the championship trophy at the end of each season. Injuries, roaster changes and other unplanned or unexpected developments can quickly change the assumptions of our strategy and impact the dynamics of our execution. This can leave our operation vulnerable.
Success can breed complacency, leading to lost opportunities. Just as tech giants like Apple or Google have to constantly reinvent themselves despite their past successes, sports teams have to constantly elevate their games to the next level with fan experience.
A team that has seen nothing but sold-out seasons may suddenly find themselves struggling with attendance. Although hard-core fans may represent a significant portion of any fan base, there are other reasons why people show up at a game (a topic for a future post). And just as the airlines can’t survive solely by their frequent flyers, sports franchises or leagues will be short-sighted to neglect or ignore casual fans. Moreover, fans today can easily be lured away with a plethora of alternative entertainment options (starting with the couch), making the return on our investments (ROI) ever so more competitive and taxing.
I subscribe to the notion that everything we do with fan experience must start and end with the fan. More precisely: It’s about understanding who our fans are, driven by leadership and ownership with an obsession that fuels a fanatical desire and passion to deliver excellence in every aspect of the fan journey—just the same way coaches and players would feel about winning. It goes beyond storing the name and address of a ticketholder or rudimentary metrics about fan profile data that’s deprived of rich multi-dimensional analysis, lacking both depth and actionable insight.
Simply put: the time you spend at a sport venue has to be the most awesome experience each time you are there, whether you are a season ticket holder with courtside seats or a first-timer in the nosebleed section.
If applied correctly, actionable insight gained from data has the potential to provide invaluable opportunities for our fan experience strategy.
Data alone can’t capture the essence of fan journey, but design for a world class fan experience almost always starts with data-driven decisions.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the Fan Experience Matters series.
The Fan Experience Matters Series: