A New Way of Understanding Sports Fans

A lot of sports organizations think about their fan base in terms of subscribership tiers. Their business strategy is largely about moving fans up those tiers, converting them to higher levels of monetization. Accordingly, they ask themselves questions like: what would it take for a fan to upgrade to a season ticket holder, an ESPN+ subscriber, or a daily reader of sports news? 

This approach makes sense. After all, a company is in the business of monetization. But to get a fan to upgrade, they must first and foremost be engaged with whatever it is you’re offering — be that a product, a team, or the game itself. To bring them up the tiers is essentially to ask them to increase their level of engagement with you. And if you want fans to engage deeply, you have to deeply understand what it is that they want.  

In other words, the better you can understand the crux of a fan’s engagement — how it is shaped, how it’s maintained, and how it grows (or stagnates…) — the better you can cultivate their inspiration to upgrade. Getting to this level of a fan identity requires an intimacy with their beliefs that goes beyond the details on an account subscription. 

A fan-centric view of sports

As mentioned, while there is clear value in analyzing subscription trends, it is inherently top-down and corporation-centric, placing fan behaviors primarily in relation to their monetary value for the company. If this is the key variable by which segments are sliced and diced, it can limit the organization’s ability to surface the most meaningful characteristics and variations that define their fan base. And, subsequently, limit the organization’s ability to serve such needs, and get the very upgrades they are after.

What many sports companies could use is a complementary bottom-up approach to segmenting and analyzing fans. This approach would start by understanding how and why a fan engages in a sport. Is it all about supporting a particular team? Is it a larger appreciation for the sport? Is it about the culture? Belonging? Nostalgia? Hometown pride? Is it about going to games because all their friends do? Starting on the ground to understand attitudinal and behavioral differences across fans can set organizations up to learn something deeper and more important about that fan than their subscribership status — things that ultimately do more to determine how they can serve each segment. 

Stories from the stadium 

In a previous project, a major sports league asked us to overhaul their mobile app. Their goal was to get fans to spend more time on the app so they could generate more ad revenue. When we started doing research on their fan base, we uncovered surprising trends that ended up influencing the league’s overall engagement strategies. For example, there was a significant portion of the fan base who were what we called “adopted fans.” Instead of inheriting a team from traditional family ties, they adopted a new team when they moved to a new state, or adopted one based on its underdog status. As newer fans, they looked to national news for sports intel. Diehard fans, on the other hand, primarily went straight to their local beat reporters for sports news. This stratification uncovered opportunities for the league to serve each group differently and personalize their experience on the app, increasing the engagement opportunity for each group. 

In another project with a major sports team, the avidity level of a fan turned out to be among the most important characteristics to analyze. We uncovered, for instance, a segment of the population we called “tag-alongs” — those who attended a sporting event because someone had invited them. Many of these tag-alongs didn’t know much about the sport to begin with, but loved the experience of going to a live game and rooting for the team. For this sub-group, the atmosphere and amenities at the stadium made a big impact on their likelihood to return. Once this group was uncovered, the team was able to do more to convert these tag-alongs into fans in their own right. 

Doing the “field” work: meeting fans where they are

Let’s assume your organization has bought into the value of uncovering the unique fan archetypes within their population. What comes next? 

One important way to research fan attitudes is, of course, going to games. Observing fans interacting with their sport or team, and also observing them in community with one another at games, is not to be overlooked. 

But fans are not only fans during sports games. They are also fans when they are reading the news, keeping up with players or stats or the league at large. They are fans when they’re out at a bar with friends and see their favorite player’s jersey on the wall. They are fans during off-season as well, even when there aren’t as many ways to show it. 

Understanding a fan means understanding the rhythm of their fandom, the ebbs and flows in addition to the moments of peak excitement and engagement. How they stay connected to their team or sport when games aren’t going on can be just as informative as how they behave during a game. There are cadences to the experiences of different sports fans, and understanding that richness of detail is key to understanding how their needs can best be met. We’ve found that understanding these harder-to-capture aspects of fandom require different research methodologies — for instance, perhaps you need diary studies to check in on fans during off-season or lulls in action. Perhaps you need to post up in a sports bar and catch people stretching out the emotion of a game by connecting over it. Perhaps you need data points from people as they read sports news throughout the week. 

Sports mean a lot to people. For some, their fandom is a key piece of how they see their own identities. Taking the time to understand these segments with multidimensional attributes with care can pay off greatly for fan satisfaction as well as overall engagement metrics.

Looking to better understand and serve your fans? We’d love to hear from you!