Understanding what fans want involves more than just asking

What do fans want? The question is almost as intimidating as the eternal quandary of “What do women want?”

In sports, it is easiest to say fans want to see a winning team, and while that is true and most organizations strive for just that, the very definition demands that other teams must lose in order for someone to be victorious.

If it were really just the winning, we all know that some teams would not consistently be sold out while other more successful teams struggle to fill their stadiums. If women just wanted the nice, polite guys, accountants would reign supreme and movie stars would be on Nothing is that simple.

So what do fans want?

Here is the rub: Fans cannot specifically tell us what they want, and those of us who work in the sports industry are the worst people possible to try to figure it out.

It is not our fault. We have the best of intentions in trying to understand our fans, but the problem is that fundamentally, we are no longer fans. We have crossed to the other side, and it is almost impossible to go back. We are the middle-aged folks planning the high school prom: Try as hard as we might, we are going to host a pretty lame dance if we just guess what is “cool” these days or, even worse, put on a prom that we would enjoy.

For those who work for a specific team, when was the last time you arrived at your own stadium/arena/ballpark right in the middle of the pregame rush from the major highway? Did you park five blocks away with the other fans? Did you study your own seating chart online before arriving and then stand in line hoping seats were still available in that special section you picked out? Did you go through your own security and need to follow signs to find your seat? Did you stand in line for concessions or the bathroom?

I think most of us have to say “no” to almost all of the above. Yet, aren’t we the stewards of our fans’ experience?

Experiencing game day from a fan’s perspective
can help teams anticipate needs, responses.

Just to compound our challenge, when do we go to a sporting event elsewhere and not receive preferential treatment from a colleague in the industry? One of the perks of working in sports is that we are usually able to get really good tickets, free tickets, parking passes, etc. This is not the experience of regular fans.

Then, when we are at games, we talk to our friends and family about how we “just can’t enjoy a game for what it is anymore.” We are so caught up in identifying sponsors, networking with our peers and, if we are honest with ourselves, critiquing the game-day presentation, that we completely lose sight of what regular Joe Fan is experiencing.

We do not cheer for our favorite teams, buy their merchandise or read their websites the same way as others because we are forced to see it through the eyes of a sports businessperson, not a fan.

We try, though. We survey our fans, take customer feedback, maybe even run focus groups. However, people in general have a hard time understanding why they do what they do. We are poor predictors of our own behavior; we must benchmark everything, and we are limited by our own frame of reference (i.e., I never could have told Apple I wanted an iPod, but I am certainly glad they figured out it was exactly what I wanted).

Most people want to be rational, so they answer surveys as if they have and will behave rationally, but our emotions and feelings dictate most of our behaviors, and the decision-making lies primarily in the subconscious. That’s a bummer, but it can be overcome.

Ethnography and depth interviews are both effective tools to create a robust understanding of fans. Ethnography in the context of market research is the study of people in their “native” environments, essentially jumping directly into the shoes of those we want to learn about. It is crucial for uncovering exactly what people are doing and finding new opportunities for innovation. A trained researcher can learn so much about fans through astute observation as well as accompanying fans through their game-day experience.

Depth interviews dig at the subconscious and pull those instructional emotions to the surface. Using pictures, metaphors, stories and more, various depth interview techniques lead interviewees into their emotions to get at the heart of their behavior.

Customer insight tools enable your organization to anticipate fans’ needs and responses. Decisions can then be made off a deep knowledge about them, not from gut instinct or an average on a survey.

Empathy is key; we must do everything we can to get into the heads and hearts of our fans. Numerous customer insight tools are being used at consumer packaged goods companies all across the world to understand what we buy in stores and how products can be improved. It is time for the sports industry to step up and put the effort into understanding our fans. Once we understand what our fans want and need, we can sell more impactful sponsorships, create long-lasting experiences for fans and better ride out the weeks when it was the other team’s turn to win.

Elizabeth Cunningham ( is the associate director of marketing in the Northwestern University Athletic Department and was trained in behavioral research at the Kellogg School of Management.

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