Premier Sports Network Fan Engagement Conference on September 7 attracted the key international influencers from across the sector for a day of relaxed but informative debate and networking that zoned in on some of the industry’s key talking points.
The key takeaways from each speaker can be found below within the round-ups for all 12 sessions that took place on the packed schedule.
‘Invest in those who represent your club’
Stewards, security and catering staff – those who engage with fans on a match day – should “live and breathe” the values of the club if fans are to enjoy the stadium experience, delegates were told in the opening session of the conference.
Mark Bradley, Managing Director of The Fan Experience Co., spoke about how the quality of the experience can be enhanced by “looking after the hosts” and highlighted a strategy that has been widely adopted in the US – having a “recognition team” on site with the sole purpose of rewarding matchday staff if they are behaving in a welcoming way and representing the club’s values.
“There might be perhaps 14 to 16 per cent of stadium staff who do it in this country, but the rest don’t,” Bradley said. “I think we’re some way from improving the game-day experience, because clubs don’t invest in the people representing them on the day.”
AFC Wimbledon Commercial Director Ivor Heller, speaking from the audience, suggested that pairing up enthusiastic volunteers with other staff helps to avoid a “hot and cold” reception for fans.
Tom McCann, Head of Premium Sales, Services and Operations at Arsenal FC, explained how the English Premier League club attempted to rectify a “disconnection” between the fans and the staff five years ago.
“We established an invitation-only day where stewards and catering staff – about 500 people in total – come in and are basically indoctrinated in the values of the club,” he said. “They listen to speeches from club legends and by the end of the day they are able to live and breathe the values of the club.”
Danny Macklin, Commercial Director at Southend United FC, explained how the club had prioritised “putting football on people’s doorsteps” in the competitive London football scene.
He added: “We’re in a tired ground so we have to go the extra mile and really listen to the fans.”
As an example, Macklin explained how at a recent home game, Southend tested out not having build-up music before the game, allowing the atmosphere to build naturally.
“It was the best atmosphere we’ve had for a while,” he added.
Although the general consensus in the room was that goal music is not welcome at stadia, Sue Catton, Head of Events at England Hockey, explained how the sport has introduced a 40-second break after a goal is scored to allow music to play and goals to be “celebrated properly”.
She said: “It gives the players, as well as fans, a chance to pull together. We feel that it creates a better atmosphere.”
Catton added that the US has been ahead of the curve when it comes to the stadium experience.
“There are lots of opportunities for families in the leisure and entertainment industry, so for a sport like ours, we have to do things differently,” she said.
“The success at the Rio Olympic Games, where 9.3 million viewers watched the final (which was won by Team GB) has clearly lifted the visibility of the sport.
“We recently completed a three-week ticket ballot and 100,000 tickets were requested, with 45 per cent of the requests coming from new fans. It’s then about meeting the expectations of the new fans.”
‘Fans are moving from being viewers to participants’
The importance of embracing the second-screen evolution was highlighted by LOOP Co-Founder Jamie Mitchell, who explained how the white label fan engagement application is bringing various facets of the digital matchday experience into one place.
Whilst many clubs still deploy insufficient Wi-Fi technology and therefore miss out on the opportunities at hand, Mitchell explained how the use of mobile technology at a match is now too widespread to ignore.
“People are creating content whilst at the game and therefore fans are moving from being viewers to participants,” he said. “Fans are becoming the biggest online influencers.”
To back up his claims, Mitchell outlined how 89 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds will create videos when they visit stadia, while 71 per cent will take ‘selfies’ and a whopping 90 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds will post on social media.
“LOOP allows clubs through the divisions to have a fan engagement app without the up-front cost,” Mitchell added.
“The app allows the user to take pictures that will have frames branded with the event, as well as videos with branded frames.
“It brings all of the social media needs into the same place, as well as a gamification section and ‘appy hour’ – where fans can redeem an offer that a club can push to them when they walk past a particular part of the ground.”
‘Clubs should celebrate their international fans’
Clubs have to strike a balance between ensuring their local fans are appreciated whilst exploring new markets and catering for fans from further afield, an international panel of experts explained.
AC Milan Chief Commercial Officer Jaap Kalma outlined how only five per cent of the Serie A club’s fans are actually based in Italy, presenting a global challenge when it comes to connecting with the fan base.
“For European clubs, expanding abroad is a key priority and one of the challenges facing top-level European clubs is maintaining that connection,” he said.
Peter Rovers, PSV Eindhoven’s Commercial & Marketing Director, spoke about the challenges of marketing the club abroad when the Dutch Eredivisie is dwarfed in terms of international exposure by the likes of the English Premier League and LaLiga in Spain.
“We have 2.5 million fans in Holland and 16 million fans worldwide – much less than AC Milan or EPL clubs, but that’s due to the visibility of the Eredivisie,” he said.
“For that reason, we do focus on the domestic market at the moment. However, you have to think about what you can create internationally and plan ahead accordingly.
“Internationalisation for a club like PSV can come from a player arriving from a different market, for example.”
Rovers added how merchandising income has doubled for the club over the past three years.
“However, the big challenge is to pinpoint which part of your programme is contributing towards your success,” he added. “Is it your marketing team or is it success on the pitch?”
EFL Commercial Director Drew Barrand spoke frankly about the highly-publicised recent Carabao Cup draw, which was held at 4am UK time in China.
“It wasn’t a decision we took likely and we just decided that we cannot stand still and the opportunity outweighed the risk,” he said. “At least we’ve never heard so much talk about the Cup draw!
“But club owners have been asking us about new markets, including China, and we have to try to grow our international presence.”
One major recent development that will aim to do just that is the launch of a new EFL OTT service, which will allow fans of the league’s 72 clubs who are living abroad to watch the vast majority of their games live through the relevant club websites.
“We considered how we could protect the value of our overseas TV rights deals and identified the ‘dark’ games that are not covered by the existing 148-game package. We asked our broadcast partners about this and they believe that it does not threaten their business.
“At the heart of our strategy is the fact that the clubs come first. We’re telling the clubs’ stories, not the league’s story.
“The best examples of engaging international fans have been when clubs have actually celebrated their international fans and highlighted individuals who have gone above and beyond to support their club.”
‘Structured content opens up opportunities’
Tom Blake, the Commercial Director of Imagen, explained how his company established a content distribution network for the English Premier League in double-quick time – and how the model could be adapted for fans.
Imagen was hired to create a premium archive service for the Premier League’s global broadcast partners, with the network being established in just three months.
After having migrated more than 4,500 matches to a cloud service, the network gives broadcasters the opportunity to search for any on-field incident in Premier League history.
“The system is optimised for self-service of content to augment the live coverage,” Blake said.
“It delivers a consistent global performance and broadcasters can jump to any points of interest.”
Such a content structure can be rolled out for other purposes, with Imagen having completed a project for the World Curling Federation at the same time as the Premier League cloud distribution network.
“Anyone with a video archive can use a hub like this, and this can be part of the fan engagement conversation,” Blake said.
“Could you enable fans to create their own highlights reel? All of that becomes possible when your content is structured.”
‘Be brave and listen’
Club executives should put their faith in younger experts at the cutting edge of social media and prepare for some bumps in the road on their fan engagement journey, according to Sports Digital Consultant Richard Clarke.
Clarke, speaking on a panel alongside Base Soccer Digital Commercial Manager Jess Cohen and McLaren Group Digital Director Rob Bloom, insisted that taking calculated risks on social media will reap rewards in the long term.
“It’s important to be brave,” he said. “Often the people who are creating great content are in their early 20s, and they will be the first ones to be told off by their older bosses who don’t really understand the platforms if something goes wrong.
“However, they (the managers) have to listen to younger people and allow them to make a mistake or two, otherwise they won’t be as brave again.”
Cohen said that it was essential to “understand your audience and tailor your content”, with “behind-the-scenes content always working well”.
She also highlighted the reactions to the creative ways some clubs announced signings this summer and said that it shows that fans “want to be a part of it”.
She added: “Sport is changing and it is important to remember that these social platforms are free-to-use, so make the most of them.”
Bloom echoed Cohen by saying that listening to fans on social media and not just offering a one-way conversation is crucial.
“The moment a Tweet is posted is not the end of the activity. You need to listen to fans and check out their responses. It’s about understanding what the fans want to hear as that will help you to understand how content should be handled.
“Facebook Live and Instagram Stories are new tools for rights-holders. We’ve been agile in adapting our strategy – on Facebook it’s about entertainment, on Twitter it’s about news and conversation, but you can also get a lot of brand value on Instagram.”
Several athletes have slipped up with social media posts that have provoked controversy and, on occasions, led to punishments being handed down by the relevant sport’s governing body.
However, Cohen believes that the tension that surrounded the explosion of social media earlier this decade has started to ease.
“You can only educate and brief players to be careful about what they post,” she said. “However, I think clubs are relaxing a bit more now and are happy to give the players more freedom.”
‘Sponsors are getting more interested in data’
Accessing fan data is becoming so important to sponsors that the issue is likely to be the key trigger behind some renewals in the future, UEFA’s Head of Marketing, Peter Willems, revealed.
Willems, speaking alongside BetVictor’s Head of Brand, Shane Stafford, and Jonathan Levy, Head of Sponsorship at Clipper Ventures, said that “data and working out how we can deliver data to sponsors” is the biggest challenge facing UEFA as it works with its commercial partners on brand activation.
“There are legal issues with data, but hopefully soon we will sign an agreement with a European internet company that will be completely based on data,” he said. “We suddenly have several big companies that are asking us about data, and with some companies, the renewal trigger will be data.”
Disseminating and understanding granular data is becoming increasingly important as traditional viewing figures appear to be going down.
Willems added: “Brands want to be understood and the question is, how do we replace those eyeballs? Engagement with fans is therefore becoming much more important.”
When questioned about the change in approach from UEFA in a major market such as the UK, where Champions League media rights have been sold exclusively to pay-TV broadcaster BT Sport with no action on free-to-air television, Willems explained that significant value can be derived from a concentrated audience.
“An audience of six or seven million viewers on free-to-air television might look a lot better than an audience of about one million on pay-TV, but those one million viewers will have tuned in because they are 100-per-cent engaged with the game, whereas many of the seven million might just have watched the channel anyway,” he said.
“Some partners don’t like the move and will try to negotiate the fee down. But on the other hand, the brands are shifting in their approach.
“For example, Heineken wants to know everything about those million viewers and in pure marketing terms those viewers are very valuable if there can be a deeper relationship with them.
“Heineken has been very creative in building their brand on a global level – just like us – with initiatives like the trophy tour, which can be a really effective global campaign that can be adapted locally. In terms of fan engagement, they are masters in how to go viral.”
One event that is clearly global in nature, but requires tailored brand activation for local markets, is the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, operated by Clipper Ventures.
Levy explained how the event adopts a different approach to activate partner brands, with its participants being “normal people” who have been trained up to participate in the event.
“Our event is about human adventure and our sponsors want to engage with that,” Levy said. “The days of simply having a brand on a boat are gone. Now it’s a mixture of destinations and brands and it’s about bringing alive brand values with the human angle.
“We also make sure there’s a huge cross-fertilisation between the different brand audiences and we’re increasingly looking at understanding our audiences more effectively.”
Stafford delved into the relationship BetVictor has forged with Liverpool FC and the balance that needs to be struck between ensuring his company’s brand receives sufficient exposure whilst respecting the English Premier League football club’s own profile and heritage.
“My job is to get our brand out there in front of people so they can engage with it,” Stafford explained. “We’re obviously very respectful of the club’s brand, although we are keen to get as much time as possible with our brand on camera.
“We have to respect Liverpool’s fan space as we could create social pieces that might alienate a lot of fans. However, we couldn’t ask for a better club to have as a partner.”
When asked what his response would be to recent calls from some UK political circles to ban betting on sport, Stafford added: “You can take away the structure, but it would still happen underground and then it wouldn’t be regulated.”
‘Our best content creators are the fans themselves’
Copa90 has burst onto the scene in recent years as a sprawling fan-focused digital network by getting to the heart of where the fans are, according to the company’s Chief Product Officer, Barry Flanigan.
In an interview with Josh Tinch, Data Solutions and Strategy and Head of International Sales at Umbel, Flanigan explained how Copa90 provides a platform to represent “how football feels”.
He said: “Key to our model is creating our own formats and own our IP, and we have created the definitive youth media brand for football.
“It requires a deep understanding of young football fans and our best content creators are 19, 20 and 21 years old – they are fans themselves. They can provide a genuine understanding of fan culture.”
Differentiation from traditional football coverage platforms is at the heart of Copa90’s appeal.
“We’re now getting rights-owners approaching us about streaming live coverage of matches, but it’s important for us to be different from a traditional broadcast platform,” Flanigan said. “I don’t think it will be possible for every single OTT platform to survive, so there will be consolidation.”
Flanigan went on to explain what he believes are the reasons behind Copa90’s impressive growth.
“What has helped us to scale up from just being an interesting YouTube channel to something global is that we take the content to platforms where the fans are, rather than trying to take them to our own environment,” he said.
“Copa90 lives across about 200 platforms and partner platforms worldwide, from OTT and broadcast channels to a network of fan influencers and publishers.
“Additionally, data has been crucial in informing us how we create content and how we integrate brand partners.”
‘Tailor your environment’
Meshh, a piece of technology that allows companies to see where fans are physically moving around a stadium, fan zone or store, is providing a crucial insight into consumer behaviour, according to Anthony Ganjou, Head of Technology and Innovation at CSM Sport & Entertainment.
Comprising sensors that are able to tell where people’s mobile phones are moving, turning and lingering, Meshh provides instantly-accessible data to enable the client to understand people flows.
As a result of the data, clients then have a better understanding of where they should position facilities and stalls to maximise fan engagement and generate revenue.
“It helps rights-owners and brands to understand how well the brand experience is working,” Ganjou said.
“For a specific product – for example Johnny Walker – we can tell how many people who come to the bar at a Formula One event are converting. With Niketown in London, we can show them how people are moving around the store and how long they have been in the store.
“Working with Nielsen and UEFA, we showed how people moved around the fan zones at this year’s Champions League and Europa League finals.
“This technology allows a brand to discover the popularity of different zonal environments by providing granular data.
“It is simple, cost-effective technology that allows any rights-owner or brand the opportunity to understand the analytics of how people are moving around their space.”
‘Incentivise fans to grab data’
Fan zones provide an ideal opportunity to retrieve valuable data whilst offering supporters an engaging and entertaining experience – whatever the size of the club.
However, according to Max Barnett, Global Head of Digital at Nielsen Sports, it pays to incentivise fans in order to gather their data at such spaces.
Speaking alongside Geoff Wilson, a Consultant who works with the likes of FIFA and UEFA, and Josh Tinch, Data Solutions and Strategy and Head of International Sales at Umbel, Barnett acknowledged that “fan zones are really about data capture”.
He said: “The event has to be fan-first in order to keep them there for longer, but the data capture can be passive – tracking how fans are moving through Wi-Fi hotspots – or active, by registering them on Wi-Fi or engaging with them on social media.
“You can incentivise fans to provide data by asking them to post a picture to appear on the big screen, for example. Fan zones can merge an offline and online journey and we are seeing rights-holders offering more offline as well as online experiences.”
Tinch added: “You have to be transparent and make it permissible for the fans to share their data.
“They key part is giving them value in exchanging that data. Brands are getting a lot more specific about what they offer in fan zones.”
Despite acknowledging that the concept of fan zones really started in the US major leagues with ‘tailgate parties’, Wilson said that the size of the club should be no barrier to hosting an effective fan zone.
Referencing the Ulster Grand Prix, he said that the outlay by organisers on a fan zone that attracts 50,000 people is just £2,000, with the bulk of the attractions and offerings being provided by partners of the event.
“Even if you are small, you can engage the local council and the community in order to get sponsors on board,” Wilson said.
“The fan zone should always complement and enhance the experience for the visitor.”
Barnett added: “They can work at any size. Do families go to the pub before a game? Probably not, but a pub was probably the ‘fan zone’ in years gone by.”
‘Meet technology expectations’
Organisers of the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England are contemplating the fan engagement strategies that have been deployed at multiple events in order to devise a winning approach to the tournament in two years’ time, according to ICC Managing Director Steve Elworthy.
The boss of the 2019 event revealed that organisers have considered strategies and feedback from a variety of tournaments, including previous editions of the Cricket World Cup, as well as the 2017 Champions Trophy and Women’s Cricket World Cup, both of which took place in England.
“We are looking at how events have engaged with fans and unwrapping that information, even though the audiences were different.
“The Champions Trophy this year was the first one to be dubbed a ‘smart ticket’ event, but the Women’s Cricket World Cup – for a completely different audience – featured our first ever ticketing ballot, which provided an insight into demand.
“Having a full house for the Women’s Cricket World Cup final was a key aim, which we achieved, and there were some matches during the Champions Trophy, such as England v Australia and India v Pakistan, which we could have sold out five times over.”
Cricket’s carnival atmosphere and regular stoppages ensure that there are significant engagement opportunities within the stadia. However, that brings connectivity requirements, according to Elworthy.
“During the Champions Trophy there would be spikes when between 13,000 and 15,000 people would be online at a time during the big matches,” he said.
“From an engagement point of view there’s an expectation that you need connectivity if you’re going to spend eight hours somewhere. Wi-Fi is probably going to be rolled out across all competition host venues in 2019.
“Every single major tournament moves further and further into the digital world. A few years ago, there was a lot of entertainment around the periphery. There weren’t high-definition replays screens, for example.”
With regard to fan zones, Elworthy is keeping an open mind.
“We learned a lot from the fan zone we had in Birmingham around the India v Pakistan match during the Champions Trophy, but that was an inner-city takeover rather than a fan zone,” he said. “We needed to understand what we and the other stakeholders wanted to get out of it.”
The tournament’s organisers are still experimenting with ideas with the main event still nearly two years away, but the advent of day-night Test matches has provided timely food for thought.
“It was first trialled a year ago in Australia and we’ve just had a match here in England, and the numbers are hugely positive,” Elworthy added.
“It’s about understanding and analysing what fans want and we have always got to be thinking one step ahead in order to understand trends and movements.”
‘Club dialogue is being shaped by fans’
Fan-created platforms such as Arsenal Fan TV and Redmen TV, which covers Liverpool FC, are becoming essential viewing for football fans of those clubs, with a degree of genuine fan engagement that would appear to be tantalisingly out of reach of the clubs themselves.
Ben Gallop, BBC Sport’s Head of Radio & Digital, acknowledged that platforms such as Arsenal Fan TV are “a fantastic example of how the whole dialogue around a club has been shaped by what the fans have been saying”.
However, he added that there remains a place for “straight delivery of sports news” to viewers, while suggestions that clubs could muscle in on fan-created platforms received a lukewarm response from the panel, which also featured Arsenal Fan TV Presenter Robbie Lyle and Paul Machin of Redmen TV.
“Redmen TV was a pitch to Liverpool FC several years ago as we told them that they weren’t engaging enough with the fans,” Machin said. “I don’t think we would have accomplished what we’ve been able to if we had been in-house at the club. There’s no point in the platform existing if it’s neutered.
“Football coverage can be very po-faced and not reflect the passion fans feel when they go to a match. We wanted to create content that reflected our love for the game.
“Liverpool has adapted its approach in recent years to drive fan engagement and has got a lot better at it, but it’s good that there’s that separation with Redmen TV.”
Lyle added: “There’s respect on both sides, but I wouldn’t say there’s a close relationship between Arsenal Fan TV and the club.
“However, I think it’s really important for clubs to talk to the fans and not to try to hide away from difficult situations. I love to see clubs try new things and embrace social media to try to engage with fans. If you don’t have fans at a football game, it’s dead.”
Fan-created platforms have emerged in a vacuum created by clubs failing to listen to their fans and give them a voice, Lyle added.
“All we’re doing is giving fans of Arsenal FC a voice that they haven’t had over the years,” he said. “Football clubs have ignored fans and there have been a lot of clubs that haven’t listened. With the advent of social media, ordinary fans can now be heard.
“If clubs work with fans it can be a positive thing for them as well. There is positive as well as negative stuff. I don’t agree with the opinions of every fan on Arsenal Fan TV, but I think every fan should be able to voice their opinion.”
Whilst the quandary over how clubs and official organisations can move into this ‘unofficial’ area in a credible manner remains difficult to answer, the importance of such platforms is beyond debate.
“Traditionally a broadcaster would put stuff out there and people would consume it, but that’s not enough anymore,” Gallop said.
“We try to find new, fun ways that aren’t boring and sometimes we can only do that by giving the fans a voice. For example, we asked fans to sum up their club’s transfer deadline day in a gif and we got some brilliant responses.
“You should take creative risks, as long as you don’t go too far with it.”
‘The ticketing experience should be aspirational’
Sport is finally following other industries by shifting over to a paperless approach to ticketing, but the upselling options and aspirational tone of the experience should not be ignored, according to a panel of experts spanning football, horse racing and rugby union.
Richard Harris, Head of Ticketing at the RFU, outlined how ticketing often serves as the first point of contact with a fan, and therefore should form part of the marketing and communications strategy.
“We’re looking at a number of things over the next 18 months,” Harris said.
“About 60 to 70 per cent use contactless payments, but it’s about finding the right technology. When purchasing something from England Rugby, you want to do it in a way that isn’t invasive.
“With hospitality sales, we are taking things in house as there has in the past been 500 different ways of buying in. This will also allow us to collect as much data as we can.”
Data was again the key word as Tom Rowell, Hull City FC’s Marketing, Communications and Ticketing Manager, explained the club’s shift towards paperless ticketing.
“The technology has been there for a while, but now clubs are moving across to it,” he said. “We have membership cards that can be scanned at the turnstile and we can upload cup games onto the cards, so we just post it out once, and that’s that.
“When someone books a ticket, we currently email them the confirmation with information about other activities and upselling opportunities.
“We want the data and because we don’t have enough turnstiles to manage a late flow of people walking up to buy tickets on the day, we are trying to get the fans to change their behaviour slightly.
“We have two-year plan to become a cashless stadium and the owners are very keen on that, but the next step would be to get an app as it’s currently all through the club’s website.”
Jockey Club Racecourses CEO Paul Fisher said that having tangible data to offer to partners and sponsors is becoming increasingly important.
“It allows us to personalise messages,” he said.
Fisher acknowledged that horse racing had in the past been “slightly behind the curve” when it came to exploring opportunities through ticketing, but added that the outlook had changed for the better.
“We see it as the first interaction with the customer and therefore it should be aspirational if the ticket drops through your letterbox,” he said.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve been experimenting with variable pricing – something industries like the airline sector have been doing for some time.
“With a music night, which we know will sell out, we can put a couple of quid on the usual ticket price. All of the income we generate is reinvested into the sport.
“However, it’s not all about maximising revenue. We let kids in for free. It’s important to think about the long term.”
Harris echoed those thoughts in his conclusion by saying: “If you don’t have a full stadium, it cuts away at everything else you try to do – reputationally, commercially and so on. It’s got to be full.
“It’s not about offering discounts; it’s about getting your prices right in the first place, but a lot of clubs still focus on revenue.”