SBJ/Aug. 4-10, 2014/Opinion

How teams can satisfy fans’ craving for greater involvement

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I am fascinated by the recent move of U.S. professional teams to more of a membership model (similar to the EPL) in the hopes of forming deeper and broader relationships with their fans and extending the calendar of their sport to 12 months.

I applaud this movement for several reasons. First, it recognizes that fans are assets each with a potential lifetime value to the organization. Secondly, it is an acknowledgement of the power of the secondary market and a measured response to providing experiences and sharing assets with the fans — aka members — that secondary providers cannot offer. And thirdly, it is an acknowledgement of the threefold investment that a fan/member makes with an organization when they become members — investing time, money and emotion. In any case, the act of reaching out to the fans and asking for their involvement must be genuine and sincere. George Killebrew of the Dallas Mavericks reminded me that when Mark Cuban first took ownership of the team, he provided his email and told fans he wanted to hear from them, and according to Killebrew he responded to each one.

Involving the fans in decision-making has a rich history. Bill Veeck’s Grandstand Managers Day in 1951 allowed 100 St. Louis Browns fans to make out the lineup and make decisions during the game by holding up placards with “yes” or “no” in response to questions such as “Should we change pitchers?” A modern-day example is the Seattle Sounders Democracy in Action program, whereby the general manager is employed at the will of the membership. But both of these examples are probably not what most teams would be willing to do, although both were very popular with their constituents. (And did I mention that the Grandstand Managers managed the last-place Browns to a 5-3 victory in a game that only lasted two hours and 11 minutes?)

A Warriors T-shirt design contest netted more than 370 entries and 150,000 Facebook impressions.
Photo by: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

One of the fan involvement devices that I particularly enjoy involves letting fans develop ideas to demonstrate their creativity. It doesn’t always need to be designing a logo or choosing a name for the team — those types of events are unique and may or may not occur frequently, if at all. For example, could you envision an iconic brand like the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees asking fans to help design a new logo for the team? But you could involve fans in developing a concept to be shared with other fans, such as designing a T-shirt for a giveaway promotion.

That was the opportunity that the Golden State Warriors created for their fans with the Adobe Creative T-shirt Design Contest for their Fan Appreciation Night. The contest offered fans who submitted designs a creative and fun experience, and presented a unique T-shirt for fans who received the giveaway. According to Nicole Rios, manager of partnership development for the Warriors, the Warriors received:

More than 370 T-shirt design submissions.

YOU MAKE THE CALL

Examples where a team’s fans/members have been involved in decision-making:

Choosing/determining a logo: Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, New York City FC, to list a few.
Choosing a name for the franchise: Kansas City Royals, New York Mets, Atlanta’s new MLS team, Miami Dolphins, to list a few.
Stadium: Field design — University of Oklahoma; Location — Barcelona FC.
Uniform: Cleveland Browns, Kent State (which uniform to wear for basketball opener).
Hat/Cap: St. Louis Cardinals fans decide on road cap.
Rule: Harlem Globetrotters ask fans to propose a rule to change the game/outcome.
Opponent: Floyd Mayweather asking fans to vote to determine his next opponent.
Play: Portland State University football. Fans submit plays and are compensated $10 for every yard gained if their play is selected.
Pairings: Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Fans could vote on one of three choices as to who would be paired with Dustin Johnson.
Food: Milwaukee Brewers let fans submit recipes and vote on concession items.


More than 150,000 Facebook impressions.

More than 5,000 promotional URL views.

More than 460 Twitter and Instagram mentions.

New insight on fans and the marketing that draws them.

“For us, it was about exposing our platform around creative tools and the new innovation in the Creative Cloud. There was a great opportunity for us to leverage the Warriors relationship to deliver,” said Lambert Walsh, vice president and general manager at Adobe Systems. “I think the plan that we took to work together yielded fantastic results.”

This is just one example of fan involvement that involves all fans, not just those who purchase tickets. And as we move forward with these membership campaigns and other programs, let’s not lose sight of the concept that fan involvement may lead to fan development and ultimately result in fan engagement.

In an era where Doritos and other brands are asking consumers to create content for their brand in an engaging and nontraditional way, shouldn’t that be what we are doing with sports? And to do it during the Super Bowl with the largest audience and the largest investment, doesn’t that convey that involving consumers to create content that is both advertising and entertainment might be a good thing?

So what could we be doing?

Contests to design opening introductions for teams (and players).

Food Network-type cooking challenges for the best tailgate, or the next great concession item.

Advertising campaigns for season tickets by fans who are season-ticket holders.

Fan-designed theme days.

Special uniform designs for theme days — NBA Christmas Day, MLB Opening Day, Veterans Day and other tribute days.

These ideas all have one basic premise that is a valuable lesson in 2014: Fans are no longer just spectators. They crave opportunities to be intimately involved with things that interest them. If you don’t take the time to involve them in a meaningful way, someone else will.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

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