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What if Cities Engaged Citizens the Way Sports Teams Engage Fans?


Valued at $100B globally, the sports industry is one of most lucrative businesses in the world. But it’s not just about money; it’s also about engaging people like never before – finding an audience and sharing some of their most passionate moments with friends and family. Technology and social media have had a profound impact on the industry. Successful sports teams now operate like small cities whose ‘citizens’ are the passionate fans. What if cities and governments engaged with citizens in the same way that sports teams engage with their fans?

According to Don Steele, Head of Audience Development at Tumblr, “the expansion of social media has helped create two shifts in how people experience sports, both of which have a huge impact, especially during major sporting events. First, there is the globalization of fandoms where people no longer need to live in a specific region to follow and support teams, players and events. Secondly, social media platforms have increasingly made it possible for athletes to build one-to-one relationships with fans and supporters.”

These two shifts are clearly exemplified by the three European football clubs that are both the most valuable and most popular sports teams in the world. These clubs are successful businesses and have mastered the art of building fandoms that are larger than any city or even most countries. Barcelona boasts over 100 million followers on Facebook and Twitter, Real Madrid has almost 100 million, and Manchester United has over 70 million.

Clubs like these have used social media to expand on a fan base that was fiercely tribal and loyal to begin with. Now, athletes and teams can engage directly with supporters impacting fan perceptions, creating strong bonds, empowering brands and driving discussions about everything from socially unacceptable behavior to lifestyle trends. As noted by Anthony DiMoro in a recent Forbes article, for example, Twitter is the virtual sports bar that fans flock to before, during and after the games making it an incredibly powerful tool that can influence social behavior and buying decisions.  You don’t have to look further than the commentary on the recent NFL playoff games for proof of this. 

What can Public Sector learn from the sports industry?

Mega-trends like hyper connectivity, supercomputing and smart technology are changing every aspect of society and business. Sports is a digital business and it’s using technology to change the game. Sensors and wearables have revolutionized how teams prepare, perform, analyze and improve performance and manage injury risks. Data analytics and other state of the art tools help teams better manage their operations, their players and their fans so they can become more profitable, more effective and more popular. 

These same trends are also impacting cities in a big way – how they run and how they engage their citizens. Some cities like Buenos Aires, Boston, Toronto and Birmingham, to name just a few, are already using IoT technology to make smart decisions that will impact future generations and help manage urban matters in a more sustainable way. Some cities are also using technology to engage the population through Citizen Portals that allow people to provide feedback and help drive better services for the community.

But most city operators have not yet found a way to capitalize on how passionate citizens are about their cities, much less get them as engaged from that passion as they do their sports team.  

The birth of the ‘city fan’

Consider those millions of sports fans cheering for Manchester United or Barcelona. Those fans contribute to the economy in many different ways. And they have the potential to create the most powerful ‘city’ in the world! Technology enables them to be always at the center of the action, no matter where they are, putting them in the driver’s seat. 

Imagine the entire of population of Manchester (550,000) and its surrounding metropolitan area (2.5 million people) engaging in local urban matters with the same passion. Imagine them interacting with politicians in the same way they do with their favorite athletes, creating bonds, influencing decisions, makingthe city more livable, more affordable and more sustainable simply by voicing their opinions through social media tools that are easy to access and available to all citizens.

And finally, imagine if government entities began using tools and technology that help them run more simply, more efficiently, more like a digital business.  Imagine if they use these tools to learn about what’s important to their citizens, to service and support the people, and create the safest and most frictionless place to possibly live. 

Technology as our lifeblood

Citizens and fans across the world want to engage passionately in causes that improve their lives and the economy so they can secure a better future for themselves and their children. 

The reality in today’s digital economy is that every sports team, every city and every business, large or small, must consider the impact of technology and social media on their organization, their engagement with people and the effectiveness of their operations. Those entities that want to thrive and not just survive must start thinking of themselves as a technology company because it is the key to a sustainable future.

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