Simon Dent: why it’s wrong to view sports fans as undemanding turnstyle fodder

Sports marketing is a hot topic these days. Both Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympics recently generated record amounts of sponsorship income. The Premier League is famously awash with cash. Traditional sports like cycling, tennis and Rugby Union are booming like never before while pursuits like UFC, Formula E and E-gaming are bringing in new fans, sponsors and revenue streams alike.

Now, all of this is distinctly encouraging for someone like me, who’s just put his mortgage on the line to set up a sports marketing agency! But I’m not one to believe the hype. Because, above the sound of bumper crowds and ringing cash registers, I can hear a few alarm bells going off.

Let me give you a few examples. The other day, I saw an industry expert refer to sports fans as “a captive audience”. Not long afterwards, I heard someone say that “supporters can’t get enough content about their team.” And this morning, I read a piece where somebody opined that “the normal dynamics of brand-switching and loyalty do not apply here.”

The people behind these statements were all smart, well-respected individuals and of course we all know what they mean. Sports marketing is different from selling baked beans. Supporters are more engaged and news-hungry than customers in a traditional category. And yes, they do have unusually passionate relationships with their teams. None of this is controversial. However, even though these conventional wisdoms should all be rather pleasing to someone like me, I’d argue that when we take them too far, they become quite problematic.

The truth is, diehards account for a very small proportion of any sports organisation’s base. For instance, we recently commissioned a survey of 1000 football supporters and found that only 14 per cent felt that their lives revolved around the game. So while most would never dream of switching to their local rival, almost all followed other sports (98 per cent) or foreign leagues (57 per cent) or simply had other demands on their leisure time (80 per cent). It’s simply not true to think of them as undemanding turnstyle-fodder: in our survey, only 25 per cent felt understood by their club and 65 per cent felt taken for granted. Those are figures that should be worrying to any industry.

The truth is that sport conforms to the model proposed by Professor Byron Sharp, whereby light users remain key to growth. Most challenges require us to win over casual viewers, boost attendances among occasional followers, attract fans from new geographies or demographics, sell tickets to less popular fixtures or less prestigious tournaments and compete with other leisure activities for share of wallet.

While we can all celebrate the wonderful role that sport plays in people’s lives, we mustn’t assume we’re the only ones vying for their time and attention. We need to work hard to get on their radar. We need to entertain them. We need to make it easy for them to participate.

Above all, we need to avoid the complacency that comes all too easily to a multi-billion-dollar industry. Because as any athlete knows: the minute you think of yourself as the favourite, you’ve lost the race.

Simon Dent (below) is the founder of new sports marketing agency Dark Horses. Dark horses is backed by Lucky Generals.


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