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Volume 21 No. 1
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Research explores the passions of fans

By understanding what motivates fans, sponsors can be sure their marketing is on target

Companies and teams long ago began trading and analyzing data on attendance, TV ratings and other measures showing how fans spend their time and money on sports. Such numbers will always be compelling and important, but now industry executives are seeking answers based on a question that, at first blush, sounds like a mushy concept: How do you feel?

A question that long ago became a sign of banality among newscasters resonates with sponsors, leagues and franchises because it can provide valuable insight on when, why and how fans form attachments to their favorite teams and players.

The Philadelphia Eagles use a season-ticket advisory board to gain insight from fans.
Photo by: Getty Images
Researchers point to more expensive and more time-consuming focus groups, open-ended surveys and one-on-one interviews as key methods for exploring what triggers fan loyalty — and what threatens it. Those findings hold different but valuable insights for franchises and corporate backers.

“Why do people care so much about sports, music and entertainment?” said Simon Wardle, chief strategy officer at Octagon, which distills fan preferences through its Passion Drivers research product. “Historically, we haven’t had an answer to the question why.”

More and more, however, Octagon and other agencies, franchises, leagues and sponsors are doing their homework to find out why fans like what they like and what motivates them.

For a team, it becomes vital to recognize that a lapsed season-ticket account involves more than a straightforward transaction, for example.

“If you’re a Vikings ticket holder, you’re not happy with the way the team is performing,” said Steve Seiferheld, Turnkey Intelligence senior vice president, picking a team at random. “If the Vikings continue to fail to meet my expectations, the team has to win me back. If I decide not to renew my tickets, it’s not just a purchase decision, it’s a break-up. That’s the part that gets overlooked.”

On the corporate side, Seiferheld said that deciphering the links between teams or leagues and their fans can be vital because it offers a better gauge to decide whether a sponsorship makes business sense.

Referring to the recent three-year title sponsorship extension between Sprint and NASCAR, Seiferheld said there are

obvious research questions involving fan attitudes that supersede ticket sales and TV audiences. “I want to know what role the sport plays in their life, how these fans interact with smartphones and what I have to do as a partner to take advantage of the equity of the NASCAR brand.”

Octagon and Wardle count Sprint as a client, working with the company on the NASCAR sponsorship and a new NBA partnership. Sprint spent its first couple of years treading lightly as title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series, but learned through research that personal, human connections with the drivers mean more to getting fans’ attention than even the drivers’ performance on the track. The company’s marketing approach shifted accordingly.

“It’s getting to the head and heart and how you as a brand can play in that emotional territory,” Wardle said.
The Philadelphia Eagles rank among the ardent believers when it comes to sifting through constant interviews and surveys to learn more about why and what their customers adore and abhor.

Most recently, the Eagles formed a season-ticket advisory board to gather opinions and suggestions on various aspects of the organization. After receiving 1,000 applications to serve on the board, the Eagles selected 35 people, emphasizing diversity in all aspects, from demographics, to seat locations, to where the fans live. Monthly meetings and regular email correspondence raise awareness not just of issues surrounding game day but also feedback on possible marketing plans and other strategies.

“It’s been a great source to do a gut-check before we go forward with something,” said Tim McDermott, Eagles chief marketing officer. “If they were in our shoes, what would they do differently? Tell us how we should improve, that’s the big thing.”

Insurance company Travelers uses fan surveys to come up with improvements for its PGA Tour event.
Photo by: Getty Images
Changes backed or suggested by the advisory board in recent months include check-in and video-on-demand features on the Eagles’ phone application, increased replays and fantasy football stats on the stadium video board, and a slew of local food options added at concession stands.

Major brands in sports offer varying examples of using surveys and other research to sharpen sponsorships.

Insurance company Travelers, title sponsor of a PGA Tour stop in Connecticut since 2007, conducts fan surveys with tournament organizers each year to make upgrades. To put fans closer to the golfers, Travelers led the planning for an overhauled practice tee area that includes grandstands nearby. For top guests — clients or prospects — Travelers created a limited number of honorary observer badges, allowing inside-the-ropes access to walk near the players on the course.

Andy Bessette, Travelers executive vice president and chief administrative officer, said the sponsorship resulted from research showing golf would be the best fit for an insurance company, and to accomplish an internal goal of including a significant charitable component.

A thirst for beer among hockey fans, who are shown to index higher than audiences for other sports leagues, led MillerCoors to become an NHL sponsor starting this season. “Research helps us make choices,” said Jackie Woodward, MillerCoors vice president of media and marketing services.

Fans who are aware of a sponsorship buy the company’s product at a rate three times higher than the average consumer and recommend it twice as often, said A.J. Maestas, president of Navigate Research, an industry consultant. A prime example: electronics company LG, a Navigate client that decided to continue with a varied promotional push as part of its March Madness NCAA partnership.

LG, citing findings from Navigate from the past two years, maintains a blend of narrow, face-to-face marketing at the Bracket Town fan festival as part of the Final Four, paired with broader TV and online advertising throughout the entire tournament. Bracket Town displays have included not only flat-screen TVs but also LG kitchen appliances through cookoffs featuring coaches such as Pitt’s Jamie Dixon and Villanova’s Jay Wright.

Despite ample evidence supporting more extensive research into what motivates sports fans, Seiferheld, the Turnkey Intelligence executive, still sees room for improvement.

“This is the element of research that is missing most in sports,” he said. “This is the part that gets left out. It’s not hard to figure out why. It costs more.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.