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How Important is Fan Engagement in Sport?

Posted on May 20, 2024 by FEED Staff

Rules of engagement

In sport, a team is only as strong as its fanbase. With the rise of social media and extended reality, we explore how broadcasters and content providers can stay afloat by offering fan engagement solutions to a modern audience

Fan engagement is perhaps the most critical aspect of entertainment, and of sport more specifically; without devoted fans, our favourite teams would cease to exist.

Audiences naturally form emotional (and occasionally parasocial) bonds with their local leagues or favourite players, driving engagement and, consequently, financial investment.

This engagement can be either direct or indirect; the former includes purchasing a ticket or official team merchandise, while the latter is less concretely defined.

In recent years, engagement has evolved to encompass digital interactions between audiences, athletes, brands and other organisations, typically occurring on social media and streaming platforms.

No matter the activity, according to Allan Nicholson, Harmonic’s senior director of advertising solutions and strategy, fan engagement’s ‘objective is to nurture continuous support’.

More for the masses

When discussing fan engagement, two key words come to mind: interactive and memorable. “In its simplest form, fan engagement is making people notice your content and interact with it,” states Jonty Whitehead, president and founder of Sport Buff. Of course, any successful content strategy also makes consumers come back for more. “There’s a reason for building that community and loyalty: they will tune in again next week,” he says.

If only it were that simple. “With increasing competition from OTT and various other forms of entertainment, consumers are overwhelmed by the options,” explains Rémi Beaudouin, chief strategy officer at Ateme. “Content and service providers need to find innovative ways to attract and retain audiences so they don’t lose them.”

Whitehead – who comes from a background in sports broadcasting – echoes this argument. “Technology is moving quickly, and it’s incumbent on broadcasters to lean into it,” he shares. “The average viewer of BBC Sport – before they shifted to TNT – was in the region of 55 years old. That’s not sustainable. People from [a younger] generation may watch it on their parents’ subscriptions, but as a demographic, they’re not spending that money.”

With large portions of fanbases coming from Generations Y, Z and Alpha (in other words, those born after 1980), broadcasters, streaming services and other content providers should evolve to meet changing consumer preferences. “Engaging fans is the key to not only differentiating the content offering, but finding new revenue opportunities,” states Beaudouin.

Appealing to a younger audience means catering to their interests or finding ways to connect with new fanbases.

The Super Bowl LVIII – which saw the Kansas City Chiefs take down the San Francisco 49ers – was a golden opportunity for broadcasters, as the Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce brought Taylor Swift and her friends to Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium. “After the winning touchdown, the first cut from the director was to Taylor Swift,” recounts Whitehead. “That’s going to annoy [some] NFL fans because what’s she got to do with the game? It should be the coach; it should be the guy who’s picked that play. No.” 

He continues, “It’s extremely clever because it’s speaking to that whole new audience that might be watching the Super Bowl for the first time. That’s what fan engagement should try to do.”

That said, companies shouldn’t serve some fans while sacrificing others. “What’s important is that you’re not alienating a large section of the audience,” Whitehead contends. Rather, fan engagement should find a way to involve everyone for diverse yet tailored experiences.

All-you-can-engage

Fan engagement is multifaceted, encompassing everything from sports betting and shopping to player statistics.

The key is to identify what makes each fan tick. “At Harmonic, our VOS low-latency streaming platform ensures end users receive tailored content and ads related to their preferred sports teams,” introduces Nicholson. This opens avenues for innovative business models, such as in-game gambling and multiscreen support.”

Ateme’s fan engagement solution has a similar function. It ‘automatically detects and delivers the best content to the right consumer, while enabling innovative ways of monetising that content’, describes Beaudouin.

Although fan engagement relies on emotional investment, financial investment is equally critical. According to Whitehead, who’s exploring additional commercial avenues at Sport Buff, “engagement could be more focused on sales opportunities and that direct-to-consumer data [approach], which is something we’re building out now.” He also notes sports betting could mean a ‘small revenue share’ for content providers.

Sharing opinions (everybody has them) is another integral aspect of engagement – it can inform more passive approaches to monetisation.

Whitehead notes the strategic benefits of opinion-based content: “[It’s] valuable because it’s got data associated with it, it has money associated with it, along with sponsorship that could be used.” For example, when Whitehead watches a match, he generally turns to either social media or private messaging to voice his opinions and reactions – something which, in theory, could take place within that ‘first screen’, he argues.

This is what inspired him to co-create Sport Buff. “What we do here is we provide a layer of interactivity – because all content should be interactive – in such a way that you can get your opinion on anything you see. It allows you to not have to go elsewhere.”

Developed by Whitehead and co-founder Benn Achilleas, ‘the fundamental idea was that precise notion – where Benn would be watching a game in the UK, I was still [in LA] at the time and we’d be chatting about the same game but watching it on different stations’, recalls Whitehead. “[We thought] we could ‘unify the experience’, if you like,” with all their engagement taking place on a single platform, boosting the sense of community among fans.

“Those engagements come in the form of quizzes, polls, ratings, announcements, fun facts,” Whitehead continues. “Everything you would normally do while watching a sporting event, you can do within that one-screen environment.”

Beaudouin adds a few additional examples of fan engagement, including ‘interactive experiences where fans can click on overlays to find out more about their favourite player’ as well as ‘shoppable TV experiences, where shopping becomes an extension of entertainment.’

Digital and in-person experiences don’t have to be mutually exclusive; rather, our mobile devices can enhance live matches, ‘blurring the real and the digital’ while providing immersion over distraction at the same time. For Ateme, its solutions include ‘in-stadium experiences that enable fans to view replays from various angles on their mobile devices; sponsors to interact with fans in more captivating ways; and venues to deepen their understanding of their fans while finding new revenue streams’, shares Beaudouin.

Transformative tech

Social media has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in promoting fan engagement. “Until recently, sports enthusiasts had limited chances for direct interactions with their favourite athletes due to geographical constraints and exclusivity,” begins Nicholson. “Access to meet-and-greets, games, conferences, autograph sessions or training facilities was privileged, leaving many fans excluded.” Social media has, in many ways, lifted this hurdle. “With the influence of platforms such as Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok and Facebook, athletes now have direct channels to communicate and connect with fans, breaking down geographical barriers and fostering a more inclusive sports experience,” Nicholson concludes.

As of September 2022, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi had the most Instagram followers of any athlete, with 481 million and 361 million, respectively. Now, those numbers are even higher at 622 million and 500 million.

Millions  – if not billions – of fans from all over the world are able to indirectly engage with their favourite footballers – something which, just a few decades ago, was unheard of.

Currently, we are in the midst of yet another revolution: extended reality (XR) is more prevalent and technologically advanced than ever before.

In 2016, Niantic changed the game with Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality (AR) mobile app that placed Pokémon in real-world locations via a user’s camera and GPS. Pokémon Go caused a frenzy dubbed Pokémania, as players flooded areas which served as virtual Pokéstops, but the app was ultimately praised for popularising AR – and arguably boosted Pokémon’s fan engagement in the process.

In 2023, Apple unveiled its own mixed-reality (MR) headset, the Apple Vision Pro.

Largely marketed for their potential to revolutionise at-home entertainment, the goggles offer an immersive experience for wearers and a wealth of opportunities for developers.

By embracing new technology, content providers can remain relevant and add yet another tool to their toolbox.

“By offering immersive experiences, [XR] brings spectators closer to the action,” asserts Nicholson. “Fans can wear headsets, virtually entering stadiums and watching live games from prime seats or their favourite players’ perspective. This not only includes remote fans in the action, but also provides an unparalleled viewing experience.” And it’s just one example of what the Apple Vision Pro can do.

Ateme has developed a solution specifically for the headset, with applications in sport as well as music, film or TV. “Encoders that deliver 3D stereoscopic video [can] enable immersive experiences on the Apple Vision Pro, with viewers watching their heroes as real-life characters performing right in front of them,” describes Beaudouin. Rather than simply following their socials, fans can feel like they’re actually on the pitch with Ronaldo or Messi.

“XR also transforms fan interaction,” Nicholson adds. “AR overlays real-time stats and player info onto live games, enriching the experience and deepening understanding. MR applications allow fans to interact with virtual athlete representations, offering learning opportunities and simulated competitions against professionals.” He concludes: “It’s a groundbreaking shift in how fans experience and interact with sports.”

Indeed, fan engagement is everything.

By offering innovative means of connecting fans, players and teams, content providers can maximise both views and revenues, while giving audiences an experience that leaves them craving more. 

This feature was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of FEED.

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