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On game day, teams must set the tone, deliver the experience
Published October 25, 2010
Recently much has been made of the need to enhance the fan experience at sporting events. Much of this is a result of perceived competition among sports, appeal of the at-home experience and impact of the economy. However, this has been an issue for many years as teams and leagues have sought to increase revenue either at the venue or through technology. The fan attending the game has always been at the core of the sports business, but in many cases, has been taken for granted.
Setting the tone
The stadium experience differs from the at-home experience in that it allows the fan to experience all of the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Teams should tap all of these senses to create memories. Each fan has unique interests. Nobody will walk away from a sporting event having had the same experience.
The fan experience begins before an individual gets to the event. The NFL fan experience should start with team’s local television show being broadcast in a time slot when the fan is preparing to head to the stadium, and using that platform to promote the day’s happenings. Additionally, local radio pregame shows can provide fans with unique content and interactive elements as well as foreshadow what the fan will discover at the venue. The radio postgame shows are the natural extensions, providing news, interviews and analysis that trump the news cycle.
Traveling to the event and parking at the venue set the tone for the fan. Teams need to study game-day traffic, spending time in helicopters analyzing flows and using time-lapsed photography to study traffic patterns to alleviate congestion. The local traffic police are extensions of team staffs and often are the first individuals a fan encounters.
In the late 1970s, I attended games at Anaheim Stadium. That was one of the first venues in sports to implement a smile campaign. Fans were greeted with a smile and “welcome” at the parking lot gates and ticket turnstiles. Exiting, fans again were acknowledged with a smile and “thank you.” This should be standard operating procedure.
Every venue has significant numbers of part-time help, from private security staff to volunteer concession workers and customer service personnel. Their training is critical: They are on the front line. I always interjected myself in various levels of the training process to ensure that the plan was communicated properly. I wanted those part-time staff to know that I cared and acknowledged their importance.
Once inside the venue, fans should be able to receive everything available at home, and more. Why don’t NFL teams give injury information to the in-stadium fans? Why are baseball fans left in the dark on an umpire ruling? Meanwhile, TV viewers and radio listeners get thorough explanations. Concerns about imparting information that might be a competitive advantage to opponents need to be overcome by the fans’ needs.
There exist two key vehicles to enhance the fan experience. First and foremost is the sound system. Sound starts at the trolley stop, on the bus or in the train. Whether at the gates, concourses, rest rooms, concession stands or elevators, or in the bowl itself, fans need to be connected to what is happening.
Music plays a significant role in creating memories. Signature team songs are important. Direct music toward the tastes of the paying customers, not mix tapes provided by players. At the Super Bowl, we always stressed the importance of scripting “familiar” music into the day because it connected fans to personal moments that could not otherwise be tapped.
Equally important in enhancing the fans’ in-stadium experience are video boards. A video board manufacturer told me that teams are using only 25 percent of the capability of the existing boards. Too many teams now use them for advertising, simulcasts or static graphics. It is better to produce unique segments that are sponsored by an entity rather than have fans disengage. Why not enhance out-of-town scores with action from around the league or emphasize fantasy stats?
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently blogged about the fan experience. He wants his fans to never look down. He correctly stated that, at most events, your memory is the experience, not the score.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle once mentioned to me that since he could not rely on the Super Bowl being decided in the final seconds, it was imperative the league create memories that would overcome blowouts. The entertainment elements at the Super Bowl grew from this concept as did activities like the NFL Experience. Minor league sports further understood these entertainment needs, erecting fan zones and enhancing entertainment inside and outside venues.
Touch of tech; tasty treats
Having experimented with hand-held TVs and informational systems like Choice Seat, Kangaroo TV and WiseDV, I learned that for most sports, the in-venue matrix and video boards can provide the best fan enhancement. Technology advances have made it possible for fans to get information via phone services, too. Offering Wi-Fi coverage throughout the stadium and parking lots is a necessity for these. League-designed apps provide other game broadcasts, highlights and real-time stats. Teams must augment that information in-stadium. Developing a team- and venue-specific app or texting service that provides game information, but most importantly, traffic, parking, concession/merchandise specials, and emergency services information, is crucial.
Recently, Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis acknowledged he’d listened to his fans’ suggestions, striving to make 101 improvements. He addressed some simple requests, such as warmer pizza and colder beer. It’s these issues that detract from the fan experience.
Concession operations are critical to fans’ impressions. There’s a need for venue signature items. Concepts like the Georgia Dome’s Varsity concession stand is a value-add. Can you spend time at Dodger Stadium without eating a Dodger Dog? These items aid the ability to create a “smell” throughout.
The most important part of the fan experience is the team’s interaction with them. Walk around during the event. Dedicate time each day to call a handful of fans. Learn what they are thinking. The fans have the first-hand experience. A team’s true public relations department is its ticket office. Spend time in the ticket office or on the switchboard and anonymously handle the phone calls.
Everybody in the sports business should challenge themselves to attend games as a fan. Park in the hinterlands, pass through the turnstile, sit in the nosebleed seats, wait in line at the concession stands and rest rooms, tap into the video boards and sound systems, decide what it is that you want, and need, to make your game-day experience fulfilling.
Jim Steeg (email@example.com) is former executive vice president/chief operating officer of the San Diego Chargers and senior vice president of special events at the NFL.