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"Sports fans are no longer anonymous punters sitting in the bleachers who just ‘show up’."

A few decades ago, sporting events were marketed around the notion of ‘build it and they will come’.

Like the lead character in Field of Dreams – from which this line comes – sports organisations focused on providing a venue, hosting an event, then hoping the fans would show up.  It was a straightforward, transactional relationship.

However in 2015, sports fans are no longer anonymous punters sitting in the bleachers who just ‘show up’.   Sport marketing in the new millennium is now propelling sport fans to centre-stage – and working hard to ensure they stay there.

Dr Adam Karg is a senior lecturer and course director of Deakin’s sport management program. Recognised as one of the nation’s leading researchers on fan development, engagement and loyalty, he explains there’s been a ‘massive shift’ in the way sport is managed and marketed.

‘Twenty years ago, it was about an organisation creating a product, putting it to market and expecting people to buy it. But driven by shifts in marketing globally, there is a greater focus on working with consumers to create and share value from sport products, creating deeper relationships and customising consumer experiences,’ he explains.

One of Dr Karg’s key research areas is ‘sport fan equity’ which, he says, is an umbrella term for measuring the worth of a sport fan.

‘Basically, if an organisation understands its brand, value proposition and how to build relationships, it enables them to build assets around their fans or customers.  Over the past 10 years, our research has been around satisfaction, brand measurement, relationships and understanding how people attach and build loyalty to teams. Fan equity is a term that describes the parts of this overarching relationship.’

The developing concept of sport fan equity is linked to the growth of sport organisations in structure and professionalism.

‘Previously they were amateur, "kitchen-table" organisations with less developed governance, organisational structures and frameworks,’ says Dr Karg. ‘But over the past 20 years – at state and national levels – sport organisations have become much more professional and better resourced. They’re able to capitalise on understanding their customers and build relationships with them.’

Despite its relatively small population, Australia is globally-recognised as a nation with a high level of interest and participation in sport.  So it’s not surprising that the study of sport management and marketing is an increasingly popular field of study. 

‘Education in sport management in Australia is very strong … Deakin has delivered programs for 25 years and is consistently ranked in the top 10 sport management programs globally. That indicates the standard of programs and training for Australian sport managers,’ says Dr Karg.

He estimates that across Melbourne, there is a Deakin graduate working in almost every national or state sporting organisation or team.

‘Sometimes we’ll find a dozen or more Deakin grads in an organisation. And with our master’s program ranked so highly at a global level, our footprint across the industry will continue to be very strong.’

While Australian sport isn’t able to boast global brands such as Manchester United or the Dallas Cowboys, Dr Karg says the nation’s marketing – particularly across the top tier sports – is very strong.

 ‘We used to think of North America as a clear leader because it’s an enormous and visible market. But now, if you look at what’s being done by our top level sport marketers, it’s absolutely in line with what’s happening in other global markets. We’ve really closed the gap.’

For example, he says that the ability of AFL clubs to secure over 800,000 signed-up members across the league as part of a ‘relationship package’ demonstrates strong management and marketing.

 ‘Given Australia’s population, the conversion of fans to paying customers is excellent. The role of sport marketing is to create systems and structures that can support and sustain this at a high level.’

From a management and marketing perspective, the more people who go to a sport game or watch it on television, the more commercial interest it generates.  And that’s where Dr Karg’s fan equity research is valuable.

‘We can help an organisations understand its scope and fan base and develop services that enable it to build better relationships.  There is great value in visualising and cultivating fan or member bases as assets which can then leverage commercial interest from sponsorship, broadcasting, advertising and other revenue viewpoints’

Deakin’s sport management researchers are working with a large number of sport organisations and have undertaken hundreds of studies of sports teams and fan bases. One of the papers produced by Dr Karg’s team provides a scale/measurement tool that was used by more than 40 professional sport teams in Australia and New Zealand in 2014.

He says that the next stage for their research is about embracing analytics.

‘It’s a buzz word at the moment but these are sophisicated tools and techniques – which much like their adoption in production or other areas of marketing – can be used in sport to assist in predicting behaviours such as attendance and renewal, or providing different ways to quickly translate the sentiment attached to a product or organisation.  For us, it provides opportunities to use metrics and variables with more power and accuracy.  This can help sport managers develop new marketing techniques and we can build models to help them refine products and communicate more efficiently with fans.’

One of the ways a sport organisation can demonstrate ‘professionalisation’ in the digital and information age is through the use of data. An organisation’s database - combined with insights collected through surveys and social media – helps build a valuable, 360 degree view of the sport fan.

‘From one line in a data set, you can see how many games they go to, what else they buy and use, how connected they are, how they are feeling about their purchase decisions and so on. Once a picture is like that is established in data, you can start developing and offering customised communications, packages and incentives,’ says Dr Karg.

He adds it’s about understanding how fans perceive the brand, how they extract value and how they use and evaluate the product.

‘Managers can then use that information to create a product that builds loyalty and enduring relationships – even when a team performs poorly on-field.’

Measuring and managing satisfaction is one of the key tools in strengthening customer relationships.

‘If a team loses a lot of games, that’s a core part of what is assessed by members so this can have, what we call, a halo effect over other aspects of what an organisation delivers. Fans may then (negatively) assess every operational aspect of the club – even if they’re not directly related to on field performance’

However if sport managers have access to this data and refine the operational aspects of what they deliver, it is possible to build a barrier to on-field performance.

Creating products and offerings that promote and foster long-term commitment can potentially prevent membership attrition – which is the key to building fan and member bases as assets.

Dr Karg is hoping to soon begin working on a way to communicate complex data analysis through an interactive digital platform that delivers a narrative – rather than data and statistics.

‘My vision is to see sport managers with a platform that displays all the key metrics around database insights, survey data, social media feedback, sponsorship activation and media coverage in one place … within a tool that provides a complete picture of what’s happened over a weekend or season in terms of their team.  The focus here is going beyond how the game was won or lost, but looking at the consumer side of the business through a powerful, one-shot engagement platform that delivers a story. That’s the kind of project our research can deliver.’