Sports have long been an integral part of our culture, from the earliest form of football in ancient China, Cùjū, to the spectacle of the Colosseum in ancient Rome. Sports and entertainment leaders around the globe have long understood the importance of atmosphere and excitement in keeping fans happy and engaged. Fan engagement is central to driving these fans to the stadiums, convincing them to spend over $50 billion annually on their favorite teams and leagues, and developing bonds strong enough to push a fan from their first ballgame to a lifelong attachment. This engagement is a cohesive whole that encapsulates a fan’s experience watching games on television or through streaming media, and their experience interacting with teams year-round.
This article is derived by a study (n = 9,386) conducted that addressed each of the three individual aspects of fan engagement, which include the (1) stadium experience, (2) streaming and broadcast media, (3) and the year-round fan experience.
In 1989, Field of Dreams introduced us to Ray Kinsella and the belief that “if you build it, [they] will come.” Ray built his stadium, the team came, and the fans followed. Ray’s stadium was simple—a corn field with minimal seating along the lines, but it had a baseball game, a compelling team, and no obstructed views—and that’s all that mattered.
While stadiums have grown into hundred-million-plus dollar developments, with multistory videoboards, luxury seats and suites, and a variety of entertainment from mascot antics to fireworks, the basic tenets of the fan experience—a good game and clean views— have persisted since the time of Kinsella’s stadium. However, today’s stadiums face increasing competition from improved home-viewing options, powered by enhanced camera angles, the growth of AR/VR, and multiplatform, multimedia experiences. Simultaneously, the monetary cost and time commitment of stadium attendance remain high. As a result, while revenues for teams have steadily increased, stadium attendance has stagnated or decreased slightly across many of the leagues studied.
STADIUM GUEST EXPERIENCES
In today’s world, building it is not enough to make them come. In order to win fans today and to keep them coming back in the future, stadiums not only need to get the basics right, beginning with the core four expectations of fans, they should elevate the experience as stadiums compete with the home experience on attributes that make up “the playing field of today.” At the same time, stadiums should invest in the differentiators that continue to attract new generations of fans into the future.
This study suggests success across these elements ultimately could lead to more satisfied fans, who are more emotionally connected to the team. These emotional connections accelerate fan loyalty—pushing fans up the tiers of fandom assessed in this study, from casual fans who occasionally engage with teams, to “love it” fans and, ultimately, to fanatics. This loyalty, in turn, drives business results—increased ticket sales and increased in-stadium purchases.
To analyze fan engagement, we conducted a study of more than 9,000 sports fans from the United States on their experience across seven major leagues: Major League Baseball (MLB), Major League Soccer (MLS), National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), National Hockey League (NHL), and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and three types of fans: (1) casual fans, (2) fans that love the league, and (3) fanatics. Across this sample of fans, which was selected to be broadly representative of the United States’ population between age, gender, ethnicity, and income, this study included three phases that aimed to answer a series of key questions that address the three key forums of the fan experience:
- What are fan expectations of the stadium experience, including how teams and stadiums address the fan’s basic needs and engage the fan?
- What are fans’ current levels of expectation and perceptions for consuming the game, stats, highlights, and team news during a live game across channels (broadcast, over-the top/streaming media, and digital)?
- What are the key drivers of the fan experience when interacting with and staying connected with the team outside of the game, throughout the year?
In addition to these three core questions, we included a fourth phase of the survey, addressing the desired fan experience in the rapidly emerging world of eSports. This section included channels for consuming the games, interacting with players and teams, and connecting with fellow fans.
Fans—whether they are young or old, fanatics or casual fans, football fans or fútbol fans—have a “core four” set of expectations when they arrive at the stadium, complemented by a set of other basic needs. Success across these attributes is a necessary prerequisite for establishing a base of engaged and satisfied fans that repeatedly attend games in-stadium instead of watching games from the comfort of their own homes.
The Fans’ core four expectations are:
- Fans expect the stadium to be safe, comfortable, and clean.
- Fans want the view from their seats to match their expectations.
- Fans desire a high-quality game.
- Fans expect an exciting atmosphere within the stadium.
While these four attributes are unsurprising leaders in fan importance, what is striking is the extent to which they outpace other elements. This study suggests each is 50 percent more significant than the next closest aspect of the stadium experience. The good news for teams is that fans are relatively satisfied with these core four experience elements—they are four of the only five attributes in the study that achieved more than 75 percent satisfaction at the aggregate level. While the core four have the highest satisfaction level we found, teams and leagues still have a significant opportunity to increase satisfaction on these attributes through continued development and focus.
While the core four attributes remain the most important attributes across all sports, fan types, and age groups, casual fans place relatively higher salience on these attributes. For casual fans, this study suggests the core four are 75 percent more significant than the next closest attribute. Yet satisfaction for this group is lower across the board, suggesting that teams have work to do to nudge casual fans to the higher attendance and spend levels seen in the fanatic group. Notably, the gap shrinks to a mere 31 percent for fanatics. This suggests that some of the smaller, more nuanced elements of the stadium experience stand out to the fanatic more than the typical fan (figure 1).
Among the remaining basics are concessions, a favorite for fan complaints, and the source of some of the lowest satisfaction scores within the data set. Sports have historically seen high concession prices at stadiums, though there are several examples that challenge this norm, both in and out of the industry. For example, Amazon Prime challenged the concept of high unit prices and shipping costs, but has seen sustained revenue growth. Amazon’s solution in retail, and some early examples in sports—the Atlanta Falcons’ reduced concession prices [see callout], for one—suggest that improvements to satisfaction across the basics can increase incremental revenue and margin.
Despite their high relative importance to fans, the basics are just that—the table stakes that set the foundation for the stadium experience. As the Falcons’ example shows, there are ways to improve the basics and increase both fan revenue and satisfaction simultaneously. However, in and of themselves the basics are just that—basics. They are necessary, though not sufficient on their own to create a cohesive fan experience that will consistently win out over the out-of-stadium opportunities, and draw fans to purchase tickets and attend games in person.
TODAY’S PLAYING FIELD
Once stadiums have enticed a fan to come to a game, it is important to go beyond the basics, delivering a fan experience that will keep today’s fans returning to the stadium, as well as spending their time and money on other associated channels. The next level of experiential elements—the playing field that stadiums compete on today—includes:
- Personal identification with the team.
- The ability to have experiences that are unique to the stadium.
- Experiences that match their personal interests.
- Live entertainment options before, during, and after the game.
- The opportunity to sit with fans who share their interests.
Out of these elements, our research shows that fan identification with ”their” team stands out as the most important. This does not hold true for all fans equally. For example, fans in the Baby Boomer generation, who grew up pre-Internet in an era of lower mobility, place higher relative importance on identifying with their team. Their millennial counterparts, however, place approximately 28 percent less value on this metric. This gap is particularly pronounced among both casual fans and Baby Boomer fans.
The implication here is that stadiums should consider the future generation in the modern experience, adjusting to a changing, younger fan base, buoyed by millennials who have a seven percent higher likelihood than Baby Boomers of being fanatics, which places relative importance on a different set of experiential attributes—the ability to have unique experiences within the stadium, having experiences that match their personal interests, live entertainment options before, during, and after the game, and the opportunity to sit with other fans who share their interests—while maintaining loyalty among the older generation. On aggregate, the attributes that makeup today’s playing field of the stadium experience are emerging in importance, yet lagging in satisfaction, providing a key opening for innovation. This research suggests that current efforts to deliver on these experiential elements are not sufficient to satisfy fans. On average, satisfaction across these elements is approximately 55 percent.
However, increasing the satisfaction score across these elements may not be as simple as bringing in bigger entertainment names, facilitating more interesting giveaways, or establishing specialized fanatic sections in the stadium. Rather, what stands out about these attributes is the focus on personalization, and truly knowing and understanding the individual fans in their stadiums as well as their specific interests.
Given the relative importance and dissatisfaction with these experiential attributes, particularly for younger, next-gen fans, teams should prioritize building a robust understanding of their fans’ behaviors, creating a single view of the customer that can be leveraged to deliver personalized entertainment options as well as mechanisms to foster in-stadium communities of fans. Furthermore, teams should communicate these options in a cohesive and coherent method that speaks to each fan as an individual, emphasizing the true personalization of the experience and offer that is being presented to them as part of their time in the stadium.
CASE STUDY: FALCONS’ CONCESSIONS
Responding to feedback from fans, Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank decided to drastically reduce concession prices at their stadium in 2016. After cutting prices by 50 percent, the Falcons experienced an increase of 16 percent in overall fan spend within the stadium.
Additionally, the number of fans entering the stadium two or more hours before kickoff increased by a median of 5,843 per game, demonstrating the power of addressing key areas of fan dissatisfaction within the stadium.
Going forward, the Falcons are doubling down on these price cuts—cutting $1 from a number of “premium” items for the 2018 – 2019 season, representing a further 12 percent decrease in concession prices.
INNOVATE ON DIFFERENTIATORS
With the high importance for basics; personalized, unique entertainment; and a desire to identify with the team the fan is watching, there are several attributes such as mobile use and apps, Wi-Fi access, and personalized attention from staff members that are conspicuous for their absence from the lists of highly important attributes covered thus far. Notably, attributes related to mobile use in stadium—for other forms of entertainment, fantasy, and in-game statistics, among other uses—as well as knowing and being able to act upon fan preferences, were consistently placed at the bottom of the importance list. This remains true even among the Millennial fan base. At the same time, satisfaction across these attributes was among the lowest found in the survey—averaging approximately 40 percent.
Instead of throwing out these attributes as unimportant to the fan experience, and therefore not worthy of investment or focus, this combination of low importance ratings and low satisfaction suggests that the mobile experience has not yet been properly developed. It provides an area where teams innovate and differentiate their experience, creating the basis for engaging fans and encouraging them to continue coming to the stadium for years to come. Teams and leagues have the opportunity to innovate for a fan base that may not yet know exactly what they want to receive, and helping occupy the significant downtime between plays, during timeouts, and between periods that exist in stadiums across sports can add value to the time that might seem unused otherwise.
Additionally, there is significant room for innovation to elevate the connected, mobile experience to link fans, helping them with some of the “basics,” as well as introducing new, unique experiences captured in today’s differentiating attributes that they care most about [see callout]. These innovations could include areas such as connecting fans to others who share their passions, tapping into the important attributes covered as the playing field of today by providing access to the unique activities and entertainment options that match their personal experiences, and providing access to unique in-stadium experiences. The key for each of these innovation areas will likely remain to integrate seamlessly with the remainder of the stadium experience without encroaching on the excitement of the stadium atmosphere.
To incorporate these differentiators, teams have developed seating sections for specific groups of fans, AR/VR experiences within the stadium, improved wireless access, customized mobile content, and competitions for fans in the stadium. While each of these individually are likely to raise fan satisfaction levels marginally, real improvements can be made through the creation of an integrated platform across the unique experience elements. This would further the integration of mobile to develop and foster social fan connections and communities within the stadium while enabling teams to learn key details about individual fans and their preferences. Such learnings permit teams to direct fans to experiences they could identify with in the moment. Moving forward, these innovations will be critical to the continued success and viability of the in-stadium experience as out-of-stadium competition grows stronger, and as the younger fans that are growing into increasingly large percentages of sports fans over the coming years identify less and less with the individual team that they come to the stadium to watch.
CASE STUDY: 49ERS MOBILE APP
The San Francisco 49ers recently introduced a new mobile app specifically intended to address several of the key pain points for fans within the stadium. The app helps fans before they arrive at the stadium, integrating parking access, before serving as the home of the mobile ticket and providing directions to seats and other key areas in the stadium.
Beyond saving time getting to seats, the app addresses the common concern regarding waiting time for concessions, providing an option to order through the app for express pickup, in addition to the in-seat delivery option—something that 60 percent of fans said would significantly improve their likelihood of downloading the team’s mobile app.
The app has led to $2 million in increased revenue for the team along with adoption, greater than six times the industry standard, providing the team with improved data to go alongside revenue improvements.
CULTIVATE A DEEP UNDERSTANDING OF INDIVIDUAL FAN BASES
As teams look to facilitate increases in repeat attendees and season ticket holders, while broadening their base of fanatics—the groups responsible for the highest levels of spend on tickets and in the stadium, increasing fan satisfaction is paramount through the creation of a cohesive in-stadium experience. As our survey has shown, fans who are more satisfied attend more games relative to their level of fandom. For the WNBA—the sport with the highest level of satisfaction across the board—fans attend approximately 40 percent more games per year at each level of fandom compared to the average across the other leagues studied. Not only did those fans attend more games, they spent more per ticket, showing a strong overall correlation between satisfaction and total season spend on tickets.
To allow teams to achieve this benefit both in terms of in-stadium support from fans and for teams’ bottom lines, teams must first ensure that they have addressed the basics. They should place a compelling, high-quality team on the floor, in a clean, safe, and comfortable stadium with seats that have quality views matching fans’ expectations, and they need to foster an exciting, energetic environment. Once they have addressed the core four attributes that dominate fans’ relative importance, teams can focus on addressing the rest of the basic needs and building a team persona through their in-stadium, broadcast, and year-round engagement strategy that fans feel they can identify with.
By addressing these basic attributes, teams could cover the fundamentals of in-stadium fan engagement, encouraging fans to come to the stadium. As broadcast and over-the-top streaming channels continue to improve, though, teams will need to go beyond these foundational elements to elevate, personalize, and connect the disparate elements of the in-stadium experience. They will need to compete across the attributes that make up the stadium playing field of today, and differentiate with new experiences such as mobile to continue to draw fans in the future. To truly develop these offerings, teams should cultivate a deep understanding of their own individual fan bases to personalize sets of offerings to individual fans—continuing to lift the experience of the stadium above that of the home.
Across sports we observed several additional key differences in relative importance and satisfaction:
- WNBA fans are 20 percent more satisfied on aggregate compared to the rest of the sports surveyed.
- NASCAR fans put nearly 20% greater relative importance on being “delighted” in the stadium before, during, and after the race through tailored and unique experiences and other entertainment options.
- NFL and NHL fans put significantly less importance on pre- and post-game activities—in spite of the popularity of tailgating before NFL games.
- Fans of the NBA, NFL, and MLB put the lowest relative importance on elements related to mobile usage during the game, while NASCAR fans ranked these the highest of any sport.
- Baseball fans had the most stratified importance rankings of any sport, with their most important attribute—the view from their seat matching expectations—26 times as important as their least important—stadium staff knowing their preferences.
- WNBA, MLS, and NHL fans are the most satisfied with the basics in the stadium, with each achieving satisfaction ratings of over 62 percent.
- While all sports scored over 80 percent in satisfaction for an exciting stadium atmosphere, NHL and NFL led the way at 87 percent.
- While fanatics average nearly 12 percent higher satisfaction compared to the full fan-base, NBA and WNBA fanatics have the largest difference, at 16 percent and 17 percent higher respectively.
- NFL, MLB, and NHL fanatics are particularly satisfied with how they are able to identify with the team they are watching, with satisfaction scores for all three groups over 87 percent.
- MLS and WNBA fans are nearly 10 percent more satisfied than fans of other sports with their ability to sit with fans of similar interest levels.