Coronavirus hit the sports industry hard. With no in-person attendance, leagues and their athletes were losing money, while fans lost the ability to support their teams in person. According to Forbes, it's estimated that the NCAA and the four major US sports leagues lost up to $14.1 billion as of March 2021. Despite this detrimental setback, the pandemic allowed teams to find new ways to interact with their fans digitally and develop new methods of fan engagement that will enhance the fan experience for when stadiums and arenas do eventually return to full capacity.
Interacting with Fans During Covid
To put on a facade of normalcy and regain a portion of lost revenue, a lot of teams, on an international level, packed their stadiums with cardboard cutouts of fans, but for some “reason”, the cardboard didn’t yield the same effect as actual fans. Because of this lack of personal connection and interaction between fans and their teams, we saw a gigantic increase in fan interaction and team outreach through social media. This shift was new and somewhat sudden and forced teams and leagues to prioritize their social media outreach more so than they had in the past.
One example of popular fan outreach during Covid involved teams crowd-sourcing their fans. They did this by asking them to submit pictures of themselves supporting the team or allowing them to interview players and coaches through a Q&A format. In a time where everyone felt isolated and scared, this method of fan engagement helped entertain fans and build a deeper connection between them, the team, and its athletes.
Social media has always been a prominent way for teams and players to connect with fans in the digital space, but we saw a huge spike in its use and importance, as it was the only medium in which teams could reach their fanbase in a more personal and organic way. In other words, Covid created new methods of fan engagement and forced innovation upon teams. Whether it was posting nostalgic highlights, providing platforms to directly interact with team athletes, or just sending encouraging messages, teams were finding new ways to remain relevant and connected to their fans. There is no denying that the pandemic throttled the sports world into a new age of fan interaction and engagement on social media and other digital platforms.
A team that capitalized on the shift to social media during coronavirus was the Detroit Lions on TikTok. With TikTok’s popularity booming during the pandemic, the Lions social media team quickly started taking over the TikTok world through constant content creation and fan engagement over the app. Fans of the Lions and sports fans actively sought out interactions with the team, with some saying that if they responded to their comment, they would do whatever the Lions told them to do an in some instances, even switch fandoms to become a Lion fan. Sure enough, their interaction and engagement rate was extremely high. The Lions were able to bring in more and new fans, generate wider brand awareness, insert themselves into the conversation, go viral, and prove that any team or organization can use social media as a successful tool for fan interaction.
Capitalizing on Momentum of Digital Interaction and Engagement
Covid’s reign of terror brought along greater fan engagement on social media and teams capitalized on this on all digital platforms, but how much were they getting from it in terms of value? Covid showed us that there is certainly a demand for personalized fan interactions over social media, and even though teams were taking advantage of this engagement, they weren’t maximizing its potential. Another popular form of outreach during Covid was organizations posting pop quizzes or fun little games for fans to interact with; still, for the most part, while the fans were engaged digitally, they remained essentially anonymous to the teams.
It is crucial to capitalize on the digital engagement and relationships that teams established during Covid. This is where Pico can bridge that gap -- Pico's digital activations allow for sports teams to continue their momentum of online interaction with fans, while gathering first-party data to better engage them in the future and optimize their marketing and data strategies.
Technology and social media savvy are the keys to being successful in engaging fans and creating the best possible fan experience. According to a report from the Capgemini Research Institute, “Nearly 70% [of sports fans] say emerging technologies have enhanced their overall viewing experience, both inside and outside the stadium.” Tech was already becoming a prevalent part of the fan experience both in and out of the stadium, but the emergence of coronavirus heightened its relevance and acceptance.
Some popular forms of social media outreach and interaction that teams used included Esports leagues and streams, merchandise giveaways, Q&As, fan polling, picture submissions of unique fan experiences shared across organizations’ social accounts, 50-50 raffles, and so much more. What they all have in common is that each developed substantial importance during the pandemic and can be used to continuously engage fans while safely collecting data to enhance the overall fan experience. Utilizing digital activations to collect this data is the only way to truly learn more about fans and maximize digital outreach. An example of how to transition an innovative idea implemented during Covid into present-day fan engagement can be the NBA 2K Player Tournament.
While the NBA season was temporarily postponed, the league gathered ten popular players to play in an eSports 2K tournament that was live-streamed and shown on television and YouTube, for fans to watch their favorite players interact with basketball content. This was a successful concept, so why end it just because Covid is (hopefully) nearing its end? Teams can take this idea and host tournaments with their players to provide additional content for their fans and further develop that personal connection to the athletes; they can include activations throughout the viewing experience such as voting on which player they think will win, to maximize the effect of this idea on all fronts. Overall, this enhances the fan experience, entertains fans, capitalizes on an event that was proven successful during the height of covid, and most importantly, provides the team with more information on previously hidden fans.
Using Technology and Digital Engagement In-Stadium
In addition to out-of-stadium engagement, digital and social engagement is also becoming increasingly popular and important for the in-game experience too. Swansea FC came out with an app designed to enhance the in-game fan experience, allowing fans to further experience the match, follow developing news stories in real-time, and even keep track of and store tickets as well as general information.
Another instance of in-game technology used to better fan engagement is the San Francisco 49ers pioneering a technological and data-driven in-stadium movement to enhance the fan experience. The 49ers started using “Executive Huddle” software, which is a tracking system used to analyze the complete fan experience and make adjustments in real-time. “We put on eight games a year...and we only have one chance to make sure that it’s right for the people coming in here,” said 49ers President, Al Guido to CNBC. “To have the data, to have the technology, to have the platform at our fingertips, to be able to react in real-time, and even more importantly proactively communicate to our fans, it’s made all the difference in the world.” The software can identify when an element in the gameday experience is operating at a subpar level so that the organization can fix it and implement new strategies to optimize the in-game fan experience. The 49ers have put together a model of success for professional teams to implement technology and utilize fan data to generate the best possible in-stadium fan experience; a model of success that will continue to grow in its popularity and use across professional sports, especially as fans return to stadiums and teams look for new ways to engage them.
Data from in-game activations and technology use is extremely valuable because it identifies fans who engage with the team both in-person and on social media. Fans who interact with a team over media and in-person, while also buying merchandise and utilizing their services, are the most valuable type of fans for teams and organizations to identify and market to.
As the sports world begins to return to the normal setting of packed stands and electric atmospheres, capitalizing on built-up social media success through data is paramount for teams looking to engage their fans once again and provide the best possible fan experience, both on and off the field.
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