OPINION: To Russia with Love?

16 Oct 2017

By: Sport Industry Group

Owen Laverty, director of Fan Intelligence at Ear to the Ground and a recently announced Sport Industry NextGen Leader, looks ahead to next summer’s FIFA World Cup, and why the agency’s latest research suggests fans could be ready to switch the stands for the sofa…

It’s now less than 12 months until the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and the competition looks set to continue the upward trend of its predecessors in generating more excitement, more anticipation and more attention from both audiences and brands (whether good or bad!).

However, what’s clear is that the landscape has shifted considerably since Brazil 2014 both in terms of fan behaviours and on a broader cultural level. Ultimately, Russia presents a unique challenge when compared to previous tournaments, and if brands fail to respond to these changes they run the risk of simply getting lost in the noise or worse still, alienating fans.

England fans run during clashes with other fans and the police ahead of the game against Russia at Euro 2016

Over the past 18 months, our Fan Intelligence department, Fanatic have been tapping into our global network of over 3,000 influential fans and listening to what they have to say about the competition, tracking changes in fan behaviour and sentiment in the lead up to the tournament.

By far the most significant change we have seen is that right across the fan scale, from passives through to obsessives, there is a much greater level of apathy towards attending the tournament than ever before…even within those segments where we usually see fans putting everything aside to attend!

Ultimately, whilst excitement is slowly building towards a month of national pride, the idea of Russia as a footballing destination is not resonating with fans, in particular, ‘Carnival’ or ‘Big Eventer’ fans – those whose fandom is motivated by the social aspect, the spectacle and atmosphere of big events rather than the sport itself. Whilst 80% of these fans said they were already looking forward to the tournament, 76% said that the idea of attending a FIFA World Cup in Russia did not appeal to them and 64% said that watching the World Cup from home would be a better experience.

Indeed when speaking to fans individually, a regular sentiment was ‘Brazil 2014, and France 2016, were the last big tournaments worth attending for a decade’. This coupled with negative headlines across global mainstream media, makes for a challenging job for the tournament. Whilst we’re used to hearing media hysteria that a tournament won’t live up to expectation, it’s unusual to be coping with worries over of homophobia, racism, sexism and violence towards fans.

Work continues on the construction site of the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Russia, ahead of the FIFA World Cup next summer

With this in mind, it’s strikingly clear that the opportunity for brands, more than ever, is not in Russia, but in the gap created for fans in local markets where excitement and passion will be as high as ever, with ‘Big Eventer’ and ‘Social’ fans looking to recreate the FIFA World Cup atmosphere and experience in their homes and hometowns.

From a brand perspective this brings certain approaches to marketing and activations around the FIFA World Cup to the forefront of planning. From viewing parties and mass screenings, to the development of VR, AR and social screening and the potentially vital role of influencers on the ground, knowing that fans are viewing the experience of the 2018 FIFA World Cup as being better in the own home nation, than being out there in Russia completely changes the tone and approaches that brands can take to connect.

The acknowledgement that the experience is better at home by fans across the board means we know fans will be expecting broadcasters, brands and the rights holders themselves to be allowing them get closer and more connected to the tournament, teams and players than ever before. 

Ear to the Ground’s Fan Intelligence team, Fanatic, has written a white paper exploring the challenges presented by a FIFA World Cup in Russia, and ultimately how brands can look to take advantage and tap into the billions of fans tuning in. For more details contact [email protected]

Image: ©Getty Images