SBJ/April 11-17, 2011/Opinion

Chance for teams, sponsors, vendors to reward fans? Just do it

As we contemplate the various labor situations and possible work stoppages in our American professional sports leagues, I am repeatedly asked whose side I am on. My answer is always the same: the fans. Fans buying tickets, watching on television, purchasing merchandise, visiting websites and patronizing corporate partners drive the multibillion-dollar sports industry in the U.S. and Canada.

As someone whose consulting practice is about reaching the fans and offering them a variety of products and services to make their experience affordable, enjoyable and hopefully repeatable (as well as being a fan myself), I am concerned about fan anger evolving into fan apathy and distraction if games are missed. Will fans find other alternatives for their time, resources and passion?

NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Fans of sports teams invest time, money and emotions. But with labor uncertainty threatening the coming seasons, that bond between fan and team could begin to fray.
On the business side, what happens to the sponsors that have created business plans and allocated resources to implementing those plans if there are no games to attend or broadcasts to view?

I was glad to find out I am not the only person concerned about what happens to the fans. I received an email from Marc Kolin, an old NBA team marketing and business operations colleague, who wanted to discuss his vision for an official National Fan Day, slated for April 30. Labor stoppage or not, Kolin wants to recognize and reward fans for their support and loyalty to their respective teams. He plans to use his company, My Fan Rewards, to provide fans with special deals, discounts and offers from a variety of national retailers such as Home Depot, Champs Sports, Foot Locker, Exxon and others. According to Kolin, “This approach can help put a little money back in the pockets of the fans so they can continue to afford making their own lasting memories at ballparks, stadiums and arenas throughout the country.”

Teams could integrate local corporate partners to provide them with an opportunity to reach their fans on this special day. Kolin pointed out that a number of teams, including the Bills, Lions, Raiders, Vikings and 49ers in the NFL; the Devils in the NHL; and the Cavaliers and Timberwolves in the NBA, have expressed support for the concept. Mark Shearer, director of business development for the Raiders, said that “the idea of a National Fan Day has some real validity. We are always working hard to recognize fans and reward their support but it’s not always that easy. In addition to local fans, we have fans across the globe that support us, and anything that would help reach out to them in a meaningful way would be a welcome addition.”

Bill Veeck pioneered the concept of audience-targeted days that culminated in a Fan Appreciation Day, and a number of baseball teams still offer this promotion during the last baseball homestand of the season. However, the concept of a National Fan Day goes further, as it is not limited to the stadium but takes place in the markets all across the nation. In theory, it could encompass anyone identifying themselves as a fan of a particular team if the national corporate partners and the respective team would share their databases.

But let’s take the concept even further. National Fan Day should also provide an opportunity for the vendors and providers who benefit directly from the activities and actions associated with fans to show their appreciation as well. Thus concessionaires, cable and satellite television providers, licensed merchandise manufacturers and retailers, sports publications and other related beneficiaries could also participate in Fan Appreciation Day. I am sure that a half-price beer, a free month of sports subscriptions from DirecTV or a trial subscription to ESPN The Magazine would be well-received by the fans.

I suspect that if the offers and gestures of appreciation are genuine and have appeal and value that the ROI from such a display of recognition and appreciation might be surprisingly profitable in both the short and long term.

Why is National Fan Day important? The interest and support of the fans is critical to the success of spectator sports at any level. When a fan invests with a team, it is a multidimensional investment. It is an investment of their time, often allocated at the expense of spending it in other ways that may be more productive or beneficial. It is an investment of their money, and in some cases they are choosing to spend on the team rather than a vacation or other leisure-time pursuits. Finally, it is an investment of their emotions and feelings, which include a high level of trust that their team will do the right things on and off the playing field. The emotional investment often becomes multigenerational, as the child chooses to support the team of his or her parents. Traditions and activities are woven from this multidimensional investment, creating a strong bond between the fan and the team. But this bond looks to become stretched and frayed in the coming months.

As I write this, the NFL and NFLPA are without a labor agreement and their future could be decided in the courts. These parties are involved in some drama over the involvement of college players in the NFL draft. These actions might affect the hoped-for experiences of these players on an important day. The NBA could follow suit in July, and MLB and the NHL have labor agreements due to expire later this year and next, respectively.

Each side has its issues and interpretations of the problems at hand. Fans merely want the games to remain affordable, accessible and delivered in a regular fashion. They don’t have the information to understand the entire argument, and their opinions are often shaped by what they hear from ESPN, their local media and the rumor mill.
But most fans are like an Eric Clapton band: They believe and hope with blind faith.

So isn’t a meaningful thank you from those that profit from the hearts of these poor souls the least we can do? Marc Kolin, I wish you well in this endeavor.

Bill Sutton (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu) is a professor and associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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