Now more than ever football clubs need to welcome new fans, as well as maintain and build relationships with their current fanbase. In a post–COVID-19 “new normal” world, sport will play a crucial role in inspiring, building and generating hope within communities. As discussed by Nicole Allison (NA Sport Consultant) “Sport has a beautiful way to momentarily forget your problems”.
When it comes to sports, football is one of the most popular in the world. Evidence shows that following the Women’s World Cup in 2019, the women’s football fanbase has increased. It was then announced that the viewing figures for the tournament hit 1.12 billion – the largest viewing numbers in history. Not only focussing on the growing attendance figures but the ground-breaking broadcasting deals, international successes have boosted participation and engagement from fans. Aside from the international success, the FA Women’s Super League has also continued to grow. According to the FA last year, in WSL 1 the average attendance was up by 5%, in WSL 2 there was a 30% rise in spectators from 2015.
This has provided a rationale for clubs to come out of this painful period with a sustainable commercial model. Women’s sports are now facing a fight, with majority of international games cancelled, including the Euros 2020 and men’s domestic leagues sustaining a nearly $300 million hit. This means less money will be distributed to the 55 national teams, leaving women’s teams and national associations treading water. The current COVID-19 crisis has magnified the underlying issues caused by the short–term strategies within women’s matches – match day revenues are an essential source of income as broadcasting rights aren’t yet bringing in money and club sponsors are relatively low/ non-existent. Hence now emphasizing the need for new business models and strategy, which is vital for not only the women’s football industry but for all female sports in general.
Having analysed multiple articles about fan engagement and the selected methods of strategy, they can be categorized into the following…
- Understanding the Fan Base
- Use of Sponsorship & Brand Activations
- Utilizing appropriate Marketing Channels
- Putting Fans at the Centre of commercial strategy (Club Engagement Strategy)
Before we can focus on the communication, strategy, and marketing channels, it is crucial for clubs to firstly understand who their fans and spectators are.
Understanding the Fanbase
According to a study by Neilson Sports (2019), Women’s football fans are more likely to be female than Men’s football fans. Recent research contradicts this, with 54% of women’s football fans being male, and mainly consisting of those aged 25 to 44. For some, this information and data comes as a bit of a shock. However, the reasoning for this has been shown in a recent sports article written by the Women’s Sport Trust about meeting the needs of the modern football fan. Chris Hurts explains that amongst the growing audience and interest, 44% of fans feel like the women’s game doesn’t pop up enough on their radar via social media (this being the main point of consumption and preferred communication channel). This can be faulted by two things: clubs not understanding their fan base, and therefore not personalising their communication and marketing channels, and secondly not being represented with media brands as well as the men’s equivalent, which leads us onto the next point.
Use of Sponsorship & Brand Activations
Fan data can show sponsorship impact better than ever before. It can be used to illustrate success, influence purchases, and convert sales. As discussed by Hill & Knowlton Strategies, there is an increase in the scrutiny and financial pressures which are allied to new technologies, meaning that the data is more plentiful and closely interrogated. Commercial teams are investigating customer insights that include who is watching or engaging, where are they located, how old are they and most importantly how they reacted to a brand or event. Now is a significant moment for brands and rights holders to develop new habits – propelling them into an industry that is excelling and developing into the most exciting chapter yet, not just in women’s football but sport in general.
Nicole Allison highlighted that marketing experts are calling for brands to access their long-term strategy. It was discussed that advertisers should invest their money into long-term brand building as a part of the recovery process of COVID-19 and not just for now. Furthermore, brands are encouraged to always think outside the box in order to maintain loyal fans and a connection with their audience. Thus, highlighting the importance of the investment in brands long-term goals, revenue generation and building a fanbase.
Utilizing appropriate marketing channels
Customer Relationship Management systems have played a crucial role in allowing clubs to embrace the customer–focussed characteristics. An insightful tool, CRM’s enable clubs to understand strategies, target the core needs of a customer fanbase and, the most efficient methods of communication. Failure to invest in business intelligence technology can cause significant failure and missed opportunities to engage with fans, leading to a loss of revenue. Engaging and communicating via the right channel at the right time drives and increases revenue and overall engagement. Business intelligence has understandably become more popular over recent years and should not be too cost prohibitive for smaller clubs as they look to build a sustainable strategy.
Club Fan Engagement Strategies
As stated by Nicole Allison at NA Sport, sports clubs are trying to convert their fans into long–term customers. With this obvious break in play due to COVID-19, fans will be craving sports content and to feel engaged again. The study has outlined a 6-stage process of the Club Fan Engagement Strategy.
See Figure 1 below:
(Figure 1, Taken from The Opportunity for Women’s Football by N. Allison)
These processes explain how clubs should capture fan attention from the initial engagement, gather and understand the collected data insights, then define the audience, creating conversations and connecting with audiences, monetising the assets to then encourage loyalty.
Mobile apps have been a game changer when it comes to fan engagement – two–way communication, live updates, online shops, ticket purchases, and more. Apps are a key technology that clubs need to understand and implement to generate revenue when all other methods are switched off.
To conclude, in the famous lyrics of Moloko – “The Time Is Now”, especially for women’s football. This current crisis has challenged the way clubs operate and communicate with fans, it has promoted new ways of thinking and challenged the relationships with fans along the way. Thus, now shining a spotlight onto long-term contingency plans ensuring that there is not just one revenue stream. But to also take this “down time” to access the engagement and identify further commercial strategies and opportunities. Winning matches and on pitch performance can only get clubs so far, it’s how clubs can turn that engagement into more. I for one can say I am extremely excited to continue to watch female sporting events excel once live sport returns to normal in a post–COVID world.