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Fan relationship management – exploring digital strategies

Sports entities looking to secure ROIs and ROOs based on the fan relationship must apply ‘engaging ways’ to build a richer relationship with their audiences. The worst strategy is a ‘lean back and enjoy the ride’ attitude where sports entities mirror a degree of arrogance due to the popularity of the sport in which they are involved. When dealing with today’s sports fans, sports entities (and their stakeholders) cannot take things for granted, not even the fact that a particular sport (e.g. football on a global scale or rugby in New Zealand) generally may appeal to massive amounts of people. Contemporary sports fans are simply TOO CRITICAL.

Sports fans and the application of the right strategies concerning ‘fan relationship management’ may very well be the approach, which can create a ‘turnaround’ for sports organizations and their stakeholders, i.e. sponsors, media partners, investors etc. Sports fans are motivated by all-embracing paths to engage and intermingle with sports organizations, sports events and sports stars (and thus their stakeholders). To lift this task, sports entities must adapt to the rules of cyberspace and acknowledge that this is a ‘24/7 task’ given the fact that there is no ‘off-switch’ in cyberspace and the digital frames surrounding the world of sports are ‘ever-changing’. If sports entities succeed (and I will list some successful examples later on in this post), the world is open and innovative digital thinking may present a ‘highway to new growth and revenue potential’.

So, the first step to success is to recognize and understand the importance of the changes and potential of the digital technologies. Sports entities must learn to constantly produce ‘shareable’ content in order to reach large audiences. This is a strategy, which is a MUST for all sports entities. These technologies are an integral part of our contemporary societies and even niche sports, which may find it tough to build an audience via traditional mass media, have a higher probability to triumph through digital strategies and it is one of the best (if not the BEST) and most cost-effective way to connect with sports fans across geographic markets. At the same time, cyberspace provides the width and depth to win the hearts of sports fans whether we are aiming for fans at local or global levels. The key is to share highlights and information with sports fans and vice versa, i.e. let the fans interact with the sports entities as well. Fan-generated footage and content is easy to leverage due to the impact of iPhones and other devices. That way, sports entities create room for meeting the sports fans, which is important in an era where there is not only technological change to account for; sports entities must also create room for the social change, which is present in terms of the needed changes in the ‘sports entity-fan relationship’ where sports entities must create space for behavioral changes that can move fan engagement in the direction of improved revenue streams for sports entities.

Basically, the young generations of sports fans cannot wait. They are living in a mental mode characterized by the prominence of NOW so ‘real time’ is a MUST. Sports entities cannot wait but must interact with fans 24/7! Sports consumption is ‘social’ from a general point of view due to the fact that an interactive exchange process takes place but the social aspect (and the service offering) differs for what reason sports entities can leverage vital improvements in their business models if they understand and apply these aspects from the strategic to the operational levels. Therefore, sports entities should always ask themselves ‘what are the best ways to communicate socially’ and ‘what happens if we change our way of communicating’? When applying digital strategies, sport entities must still ‘leverage in harmony with the brand promise’ so the digital experience must also reflect that the sports entity wants to deliver ‘entertaining sports experiences’ and unfortunately that is not always the case. In American football, the NFL has done a fantastic job regarding the ‘live stadium experience’. The new or renovated NFL stadiums offer extensive parking, all-inclusive shops, comprehensive food options, ‘state-of-the-art’ technological equipment (Jumbotrons, wireless, sound-systems etc.) and pre-, in-, and after-game entertainment and the league and its teams have found a ‘sound’ roadmap for what it takes to connect with fans. That also goes for the league’s digital platforms. Sports entities must scan the environment and take advantage of whatever lies in front on them, e.g. digital technologies and strategies.

What’s important here is to ‘stick to the brand promise’. Sport entities must live up to or aim to raise above fan expectations with new digital opportunities.

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The two photos are taken from the Internet and reflects what the MLS (Major Soccer League) does in terms of relations with fans through digital platforms. The league and its teams are fully aware of the fact that they have a position behind other major sports leagues in the US, e.g. NFL, MLB etc., so they know the vitality of connecting with the younger generations via digital platforms. To grow the sport of soccer in the US at the professional league and club level, the MLS and the clubs must work intensively to produce ‘shareable’ content online and that’s what they do! The reality of the MLS is that the league portrays a goal from a league game online 7-9 minutes after the goal happens; the goal is to reduce the time gap to 3 minutes. The league also wants to involve fans to a larger extent due to the fact that it builds a relationship – people around professional sports are always talking so there is always ‘content’ to show and it is vital to respond to this fact. The league shows the significant meaning attached to the fact that it is not enough to upload a video and then walk away. Sports entities have a role as educators and they must engage. The ‘Kick TV’ digital platform – see videos below – is a fine example of football as a global lifestyle brand. Today, it is no longer enough with ‘pure football behavior’. The most popular digital content is not necessarily football highlights but ‘entertaining elements of the game’, which go beyond the rules and expectations of the game.

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The German Bundesliga has reached more than 22,000 subscribers for its YouTube-channel in a couple of weeks. The channel presents a blend of historic and actual content and that opportunity is a strength of some of the biggest football leagues in the world. If you take the derby between Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund as an example, it is a fact that it does not entail as many local players as years ago and that increases the importance of the ‘showing the historic legacy’. The German league and (especially Dortmund) created a lot of buzz digitally in relation to this year’s UEFA Champions League Final at Wembley where Bayern Munich faced Borussia Dortmund. Borussia Dortmund built an emotional connection with football fans by the rhetorical application of #fairytale so in that sense Dortmund took advantage of the emotional element of success in professional sports and the fact that ‘the underdog’ went all the way to the final. Borussia Dortmund appeared to ‘have fun’ in terms of ‘online behavior’ and the club was very strategic in that regard. The Bundesliga helped to produce content and also saw a huge benefit from the ‘German’ final at Wembley. Still there is much potential within the digital sphere if you look at the amount of members of the clubs and compare that with the total amount of subscribers to the Bundesliga’s YouTube-channel. The numbers speak their own language when taken into account that Bayern Munich has more than 200,000 members (see more). That reflects a cultural problem concerning ‘digital fan behavior’ in European football. The football world has been conservative and if there is not enough understanding regarding the mix of football and entertainment there is no way of maximizing the revenue potential related to the young generations of fans.

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Talking about Danish football, AaB/Aalborg BK had success with its campaign ‘Opturen’, in which the club asked fans for support to go through a tough time where the club faced a threatening relegation from the Super League. The club asked for help from fans and for fans to join the ‘turnaround’ of the club. Now, the club (a couple of years later) are placed second in the league with a team full of young players, who are educated in the club’s own youth system. That adds a high degree of ‘authenticity’ to the club although this is a dynamic phenomenon.


Borussia Dortmund on Twitter, see here.

Official YouTube-channel of the Bundesliga.

MLS games via Apple TV, see here.


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