Sport Industry Spotlight: Key Learnings on Fan Engagement

23 Apr 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

The fourth Sport Industry Spotlight session - a new series of interactive, insight-driven, online panel sessions to aid those wanting to upskill in sport business - saw a diverse panel join together to explore the topic of fan engagement from the point of view of brands and rights holders as well as teams, leagues and fans.

Each Sport Industry Spotlight session is based on a category at the Sport Industry Awards 2020 and the third panel cast a spotlight on ‘Fan Engagement’, with input from Rich Adelsberg, Managing Director, Ear to the Ground; Katy Bowman, Head of Sponsorship Partnerships - Football, Barclays; and Neil Smythe, Operations and Media Director, Hashtag United.

As with all Sport Industry Spotlight sessions, the subject matter was led by attendees, through a series of interactive polls and questions from the floor, and directed the panellists to discuss a range of issues such as understanding what fans want and the importance of listening to what fans really want.

Hosted by Alex Coulson, Managing Director, Sport Industry Group, Sport Industry Spotlight is driven by genuine insider insight, and with interactivity built in throughout, the sessions make learning about the industry’s finest work both easy and accessible.

Target Audience

Across all sports, the need to understand your fan base is crucial in order to engage with them properly. It impacts the content clubs, teams, and leagues serve as well as providing an insight into those who follow your channels.

The panel, however, broadly agreed that - from a rights holder perspective at least - there’s often a lack of knowledge about the fan at the heart of their content.

Ear to the Ground’s Adelsberg said: “From a rights holder perspective, most of our work with those guys is about engaging new audiences. Generally speaking, the people we speak to at rights holders have no idea about the people they’re trying to hit.

“Most are traditional in their marketing and fairly traditional in their fan engagement historically, whether it’s female, youth or global audiences. The reality is, when actually you dig beneath the surface there’s very little knowledge away from maybe the people who have season tickets or that core fanbase they’re currently speaking to.”

Bowman added: “There are a couple of different schools of thought for the women’s game as to who we target as an audience. 

“If you talk to the FA, it’s very much about the existing football fanbase and about football families, which are families who engage with football in some form. Whether that’s kids playing football, or adults playing football or watching football. 

But if you talk to some of the clubs they are talking about engaging a completely separate audience to the ones that follow their men’s game. So Chelsea, for example, are looking at a whole different set of people when they target new fans.

The audiences we’re looking at is around people who are already engaged with the sport , and with the women’s game, we’re already in connection with them through the men’s game which was always the plan: to leverage our authenticity in the men’s game to help promote and push forward the women’s.

Adelsberg added: “The starting point is who they’re trying to hit, and who they’re trying to engage with, but as a starting point, generally opening up the information around who those people are and how they can start engaging with them as well. 

“There’s generally a lack of knowledge of new audiences and those grown audiences that everyone’s trying to hit, but from a brand perspective they’re way ahead in terms of engagement and knowledge of those fan bases.”

Putting fans first

Once that audience is defined, the panel agreed that the best pieces of fan engagement centre around putting them first.

Whether that’s by talking directly to the fans and listening to what they have to say, or whether it’s by ensuring that the link between fans and athletes isn’t lost.

Hashtag United’s Smythe spoke of how important his organisation’s content is : “Unlike probably almost every other club in the world, we don’t exist without our audience and without our content, so content always had to come first. 

“In some traditional rights holders it’s very much still a cost centre and some people are asking what is the value of content. We know very well if we don’t create content we don’t have an audience, if we don’t have an audience we don’t have sponsors and don’t exist. So content has always come first and I think that’s a slightly different way of thinking about it at our end than, perhaps, in other clubs.

“But just because players are amateurs doesn’t mean I can do anything i want with them but we are able to perhaps be more honest than bigger brands can be - we let cameras into the changing rooms for example - and it’s that unfettered honest real access that I think fans like.”

Adelsberg added: “The brands and rights holders that are successfully engaging at the moment are the ones that are listening and adapting to the current environment. There are some who have just buried their head in the sand and are waiting for it to go away. 

“The way that Formula 1 have pivoted - they’ve raised money, which is a key part of the activity that’s been out there - but it’s really important to stress that the fans we’re speaking to need this entertainment from brands and rights holders more than ever.”

Despite the lockdown, there was some positive news for rights holders as Bowman outlined Barclays' approach to the cancellations and postponements that have impact its sponsorship rights in recent weeks. 

“As a sponsor," she said, "we’re being incredibly sympathetic to our rights holders, letting them have the time to work out what needs to be done and then we’ll figure out what that means for our rights and what happens down the line.

“The most important thing, when it’s safe to do so, is to get football up and running again and they’re working tirelessly to do that.”


Join next week for Sport Industry Spotlight: Cutting Edge Sport, to talk gamechanging formats, new initiatives, and the innovation that is driving sport forward.