Grant Campbell the co-founder and Creative Director of The nvisible Agency, which specialises in supplying white-labeled creative and production services for live sports and entertainment events, believes that fan zone experiences suffer from a lack of creative thought and insight. In this exclusive feature for Sport Industry Group, he offers some ideas...
I first visited a major fan zone at the FIFA World Cup France 98. Nike dominated the event with a giant fan village at La Défense in Paris. The place was packed with fans joining in, buying up merchandise and taking photos (on film back then) it wasn't groundbreaking, but it was the talk of the fans in Paris. And the most interesting thing to note was that Nike weren’t even the official sponsor, Adidas were. Nike had ambushed the World Cup with a fan zone.
Years later, when I started working on fan zones I very quickly realised that most of these experiences hadn’t evolved much. They were still more like large village fairs than thought through experiences. Fan zones which had such promise, were by default inconsistent and uncreative add-ons to the main event.
So, just why should fan zones be built with more creative thought and insight?
Well, where traditionally, fan engagement has focused on digital communication to drive ticket sales and boost social followings, the rise of the experience economy has increased sport attendance globally. Last year in the UK, live sport attendance figures even surpassed the Olympics year of 2012.
So it stands to reason that more and more sports brands, properties and rights holders are looking for ways to make the experiences around their matchday count for more. There’s even evidence that everyone’s favourite target market, the Millennials, will spend up to 40% more on a sporting event than a Gen X season ticket holder because they buy into the surrounding experiences, merchandise and F&B more. So it’s not just about engagement, it also makes financial sense. As such, today there’s a lot more focus on fan zones, but it’s still rare to see creative thinking applied.
I’ve led creative and design teams on a lot of fan zones and sport activations for the likes of The Premier League, NFL, ATP, Rugby World Cup, Qatar 2022, Formula 1 and more.
And I’ve developed some creative principles to apply to the narrative environments of fan zones. The aim is to tell deeper, more engaging stories through these events. To bring new fans to the sport and to reward the committed fans with more opportunities and access to the sport they love.
TELL THE STORY PHYSICALLY
First, divide the physical experience into clear parts of the narrative. Give your fan zone a beginning, a middle and an end.
This means the approach might begin with elements of the team or sport’s earliest history, leading the fan through a physical timeline that educates and engages through any number of mediums. This could be banners, sculptures, live acts, screens, audio or even AR.
For the middle, always make the most of the reveal of the site, this means the noise, the familiar sounds and sights and excitement of the sport should build to this moment. Make the fan zone feel like the home of the sport.
By the end, your fan should have experienced as much of the sport as possible and have been fully immersed, you should be directing them to the finale, the experience of the sport itself whether live or on a giant screen.
You can reveal this kind of narrative through linear or non linear builds:
For example a motorsports linear experience might feature a racetrack path around the fan zone, the fans would enter at the starting grid, before making their way around team garages, pit stop game areas and then a finish line and podium photo opp. It would take them on a circuit directly relatable to the sport and the narrative would play out at the pace the fan wants to set.
Another example could be the field of play experience. This layout replicates a field sport and could feature an entranceway reminiscent of entering a stadium before revealing the field, a central area with opportunities to play surrounded by activations that create a terracing effect to close off the “stadium” and then a screening area and the end of the pitch where the game would finally be shown.
USE THE SENSES
Never underestimate the power the senses have to enhance an experience, so appeal to as many as possible. Multisensory moments should be overlaid on the experience wherever possible. Audio like classic commentary, cheering crowds or famous tunes, scent machines and the right food and drinks, we all know that each sport has its own sounds and smells.
Sport is an emotional experience, for some people it’s their weekly outlet, where they can scream, cheer, sing and shout. So transpose this emotion to the fan zone. Map out the experience with the same journey and emotion a fan goes through at the game to your fan zone. Anticipation, excitement and celebration.
LET PEOPLE PLAY
“Ball in hand” is the closest you can get any fan to the sport. It’s the most effective way of all to win over and reward fans. By letting them try the sport, to test their skills on simulators or in challenges gives the deepest possible engagement experience and if their result can be measured and compared, even better, as they can share the experience and show off a bit.
USE AUTHENTIC ACTIVITIES
If you’re including entertainment, make sure it’s authentic to the sport, the same goes for photo opportunities, games and activities. Where possible everything should be rooted in a deep truth about the sport or a famous time or place in the game’s history.
When it comes to a tone of voice, make sure you get this right by using staff who understand the sport you’re celebrating. There’s nothing worse than a brand ambassador who has no idea about the sport, trying to explain something to a fanatical follower.
New and younger fans might not know much about the sport so there should be opportunities to learn more about the sport and the science behind it through activities. This is also a great way to give more engaged fans some social currency to share with their fellow fanatics, some sports are ideal for these stat lovers.
If you’re featuring a trophy and a fan photo opportunity, a hall of fame is a great way to take fans through the history of the teams, heroes and the sport before finally showcasing the trophy and letting them get closer to it. It’s also a great way to enhance the inevitable queuing.
USE OTHER PASSIONS
The Millennial sports fan is there for the experience, so think beyond the core of the sport and use their other passions to enhance the experience. These are food and drink, fashion, art and of course music.
MAKE IT SHAREABLE AND SIMPLE
Add a simple digital overlay, there’s nothing worse than a journey being slowed by log-ins at each touch point, fortunately there are a lot more seamless systems to get fans sharing their curated experience now. It’s also wise to audit the site for user generated content opportunities, so check line of sight for prominent branding and messaging that they might naturally include in their posts.
KEEP THE LOOK AND FEEL CONSISTENT
Where possible, partner activations should be planned into the experience. Even if they have a different aesthetic, the messaging and branding around their build should integrate them. This is the big village fair watch out.
CREATE A BEHAVIOURAL SHIFT
The end result for any live activity should be to convert a fan, whether a new fan or a newly engaged fan. From here they should change their behaviour to the sport or team, whether that’s following on social, sharing the experience, buying up merchandise or of course, buying a ticket for the next game.
Have fun with your fan zone. The most satisfying thing about creating fan zones is that you’re creating memories, you’re bringing families closer, fans together and a sport to a new audience.