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Volume 21 No. 2
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Displaced fans remain connected – and valuable – to teams

Stating the obvious, we live in a world that’s more globally connected, both socially and technologically, than ever before.

As intuitive as this statement is, the implications of this new world have yet to affect many sports organizations’ fan engagement strategies. That needs to change, since this connectivity is resulting in the democratization of fandom, which is both a risk and reward for teams everywhere. It benefits all teams to recognize that the value of a fan is no longer tied solely to the dollars he or she spends on tickets.

The geographic dispersal of fans and the massive shifts in the way fans are consuming information characterize the democratization of fandom. This movement is a direct result of developments with flat-screen televisions, the Internet, social media and rising ticket prices. What’s important to note is the result: There is more competition for a fan’s time, attention and loyalty. Sports teams today are being forced to compete for their fans’ loyalty by using a combination of various forms of entertainment, content and technology.

Fans’ viewing behaviors are changing as they engage online or with friends across social media or use smartphones or tablets to access the second-screen experience. According to a recent Pew Internet Report, “The Rise of the ‘Connected Viewer,’” 52 percent of U.S. adults engage with their phones while watching television. When looking at young adults (age 18-24) that number jumps up to 81 percent. Even when people stay home to watch the game, their attention is increasingly fragmented.

Beyond diverse media options and their changing viewing habits, fan bases also are increasingly dispersed geographically. There are rabid Yankees fans living in California and loyal Los Angeles Lakers fans in Minnesota. By looking at the volume of merchandise shipped outside of a team’s local market, Fanatics (the online store that sells licensed apparel for the NFL, NBA, NCAA, MLB and NHL) has determined that the percentage of “displaced fans” is significant. They’ve identified that 74 percent of NFL fans, 69 percent of NBA fans, 67 percent of NCAA fans, 63 percent of MLB fans and 54 percent of NHL fans root for teams that do not play in the state where they reside. Think about that: More than half of every major North American sports team’s fans are not local.

Yet, despite their location, these dispersed fans are extraordinarily valuable to a team. These fans buy merchandise and are extremely vocal about their team via social channels. This social connectivity helps create powerful brand ambassadors and generally helps raise excitement around the teams they follow. And beyond their individual contribution, we know that behind every fan is a long line of friends.

Beyond engaging fans at the stadium, the Miami Dolphins have created a club that rewards fans for off-site activities.
So how can teams adjust their strategies to better engage their fans? The first step is recognizing these changes for the new opportunities they create and displaying a willingness to adapt their approach to the new engagement landscape. According to the same Pew study, mobile device users in households with an annual income of $50,000 or more are much more likely to engage in “connected viewing.” Not only are fans connecting with their favorite teams in more ways and in more places than ever before, but many of them have money to spend. Just as traditional retailers have adapted to the increasing role of e-commerce, sports teams need to evolve their thinking about fandom beyond simply attending games.

The Miami Dolphins offer a prime example of how to embrace fragmented attention and fans’ increasingly scattered presence, turning both factors into a positive rather than a negative. They recently launched the Fin Club (created on the CrowdTwist platform), which rewards fans for every interaction they have with the team. Dolphins fans can now earn points for buying season tickets, ordering a beer at the stadium, buying a jersey, engaging with content on the official website, tweeting about the team, and more. Fans can then redeem their points for unique rewards, making them feel appreciated, which fuels even deeper fan loyalty.

The Dolphins realize that every fan has value, whether at home, in the stadium or in another city, and they’re taking proactive steps to recognize their most passionate fans. By treating their most loyal fans well, they are building a stronger community that grows and gives back.

In MLB, the Los Angeles Dodgers also are realizing the importance of leveraging fan engagement across multiple channels. They recently polled fans to gather feedback about a new program that would reward fans with points for interacting with the team via Twitter and ultimately aim to build loyalty across more than just ticket sales.

To adapt to this new world, teams must rethink the way they understand, calculate and recognize fan value. In addition to rewarding season-ticket holders, suite members or luxury box owners, all of whom are vital to the life of the team, teams can expand fan-base engagement to other groups as well. The father and son sitting in Section 401 using binoculars, or the family that’s sitting at home 1,500 miles away from the stadium watching on their iPad, can represent as much value as the folks who spend thousands of dollars to ensure they have a seat at every game. It’s important to connect with both types of fans.

In today’s world, every fan matters more than any fan has ever mattered before.

Irving Fain is the CEO and co-founder of CrowdTwist. He formerly ran digital marketing and social platforms for Clear Channel Radio Digital. Follow him on Twitter at @ifain.