How Sports Teams Can Better Engage the Next Generation of Fans

March 22, 2018

Early last month I watched the Super Bowl the old-fashioned way: on a television screen in my living room. However, that wasn’t the case for all viewers. In fact, TV viewership dipped to a seven-year low as more and more fans chose one of many live streaming options to consume the biggest football game of the year. The same trend continued with the 2018 Winter Olympics, which saw TV ratings slip by seven percent while streaming time tripled. And now, it’s almost baseball season again and it’s a safe bet that Major League Baseball will tinker with its formula for content delivery, too.

Live streaming is just one of many ways the sports world is trying to adapt to the changing viewing habits and preferences of their fans – both young and old. Digging a bit deeper, it’s the young fan more than any other who appears to be the catalyst for much of this experimentation with new technologies and platforms.

At a recent sports fan engagement conference, one message rose above all others: teams and leagues are pouring their energy into figuring out how to attract and retain Millennial and Gen Z fans. That’s easier said than done, of course. Younger generations have so many other entertainment options at their fingertips that teams are fighting for attention and, in many cases, losing.

There isn’t one magical solution to creating lifelong loyalty and fandom. However, a few basic human truths might help teams and leagues forge a path toward stronger connections with young fans…

We are social animals.
It’s ingrained in our DNA to prefer clustering in groups to solitude. This characteristic is one of the key drivers of diehard sports fandom. Being part of a fan community at a live sporting event activates the bonding hormone oxytocin (the same hormone that prompts attachment between a mother and child) and very quickly, we become bonded to the experience itself.

So then, how can sports teams encourage this kind of meaningful connection?

First and foremost, I’d advise teams to offer fans more opportunities to gather. These events stir up civic pride, build excitement and sell a few more tickets, too. Teams with strong community ties tend to have a dedicated and consistently active fan base. While this is just one piece of the puzzle, aligning sport with our natural inclination to gather can deliver a massive leap toward a relationship with young fans. Sport as community-builder often works.

Teams can also tap into new technologies for stronger, community-building engagement, but the experience must be immersive. Social media is not enough on its own; most everyday interactions between teams and fans on social platforms still hold fans at a distance. High-quality VR content from a meet-up event, for example, can provide fans viewing from afar the sensation of being present, in some way, for the festivities.

We are addicted to winning.
It’s not a coincidence that the San Francisco Giants set a National League record for consecutive sellouts (530 games) during a period notable for not one, not two, but three World Series victories. It’s also not a coincidence that Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia was the hottest ticket in town between 2007 and 2011 when the Phillies rattled off five consecutive National League East division titles and a World Series win. It’s not happenstance, it’s science.

Winning, particularly when it’s unexpected, causes the release of dopamine in the brain and, in turn, the brain associates that positive feeling with sport. In that way, we begin to crave the win (and the game) more and more.

Here’s some advice for professional sports teams hoping to expand their fan base: win more games.

It’s not that easy, is it? Building a competitive sports team is hard. Building a consistently competitive sports team is even harder.

However, teams do have the power to create opportunities for fans to win even when the on-field product doesn’t cooperate. Some teams offer a certificate to fans attending their first game. Now, imagine if that fan instead received an audience with the team’s President for 20 minutes? These little victories – these “Instagramable moments” – can create an anything can happen environment that gives newer fans more reason to spend time at the ballpark. Doing so will lead to the evolution of more diehards. Over time, the bonds of fandom will only grow stronger.

We want experiences.
If you’ve ever heard younger fans ask questions of players and executives at fan events, it doesn’t take too long before you hear a variation of, “How do I follow in your footsteps?” Creating a meaningful connection with young people isn’t just about what’s on their screen. Rather, many young fans have a hunger for knowledge and experiences; they are still charting their course. Helping to piece together a roadmap that may even lead to a life in professional sports can go a long way.

One example of how this might manifest is a shadow program that gives fans the chance to engage with various members of an organization. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to sit with a regional scout for a few games; perhaps it’s a day with a team’s head trainer. Analytics departments, the hub of innovation inside most organizations, also provide a treasure trove of possibilities when it comes to fostering better engagement with the next generation of fans. Establishing a lifelong bond with a fan sometimes centers on what happens between the white lines. However, sometimes it’s in the experience offered outside of the playing field as well. Creating these moments for young people can have a lasting impact.

What do you think? Have you come across teams or leagues breaking new ground with their fans? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Chip Scarinzi is a vice president, account director in Ketchum’s San Francisco Technology practice, where he draws from more than 15 years of experience in consumer and enterprise tech. A dyed in the wool sports fan, he is the author of Diehards, a non-fiction book that explores the evolution of sports fandom.