Media Senate: Any marketing advice to sports clubs to help increase their fanbase?

JUST how might sports clubs build their fanbase and audience numbers? Is it a mug’s game to try to correlate marketing flair with ‘bums on seats’ when, perhaps, the bigger factor is success or otherwise on the field of play?

It can be hard to make sense of the numbers. In The Herald newspaper, sports writer, Kevin Ferrie, recently contrasted impressive TV coverage of an international bowls event in Scotland with low attendance at the venue.

But the previous day a new charity, Scottish Women in Sport, was launching in Scotland, pointing out the unequal coverage of women’s sport in the media.

There’ll certainly be few among women’s football who will argue that recent increased coverage of their sport in both print and on TV and radio has had anything but a positive effect on attendances, at least for Scotland’s pre-eminent women’s club, Glasgow City, who, the evening before Ferrie’s article, played in front of a record 1,300 people at home to Arsenal Ladies, in a last 16 women’s UEFA Champions League match.

And what to make of the Scottish men’s football team, at under-21 level? Well-established, in media terms, and attracting 1,737 to its match, in Paisley, against Georgia – on the same day Ferrie’s article was published? A big crowd for the occasion, a tiny one or just about right?

So, any thoughts? We asked some ‘marketing heavyweights':

“Building audiences for sports organisations is no different from any other business challenge. The product and its promotion has to be developed in line with the market dynamics.

“Sometimes, its not just the sport itself that excites the spectators but the community and rituals that are part of the occasion.

“For example, the rugby at Murrayfield is about the occasion and traditions as well as the game.

“Which means that among the fans, there are those who go for the back pitch picnics, for the corporate hospitality and travel to Edinburgh to have a great big party.

“So the requirement is to segment and understand your audiences and develop specific experiences around that.”

Graeme Atha, director, The Marketing Society.

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“No-one can be in any doubt that sporting performance will always be major factor in getting bums on seats. Nothing is better for persuading people to come out and support on a chilly winter’s day than a winning team. However, marketing can play an important role in making sports fixtures more appealing to an audience beyond the die-hard season-ticket holder.

“Smart sports marketers know that their most compelling asset is the shared experience of watching live sport. Even those of us who aren’t avid sports fans can enjoy the thrill of watching a game with thousands of others. Bringing that amazing, shared experience to life for groups of friends, rather than selling one match ticket at a time to individual fans, is where marketing can really make a difference in putting bums on seats.

“Niche sports need to give reasons for people to spectate beyond the intrinsic merits of their sport if they are to grow attendances. Kevin Ferrie points to our client, Scottish Rugby, as a success story and they’ve done a great job this season of presenting the Autumn Tests as a reason for people to get together for a great day out, rather than just another rugby fixture. Can bowling say the same?”

Murray Calder, director, MediaCom

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“There are a range of ingredients required to develop and sustain sports team attendances, that include sporting success, quality and location of the facility, social and community integration opportunities for fans and the perceived value for money of the overall product.

“For the hardcore, long-time fans, the sporting success of the team is more of a priority, whilst new fans tend to judge the event on all factors and the successful sporting clubs will have the ability and the facilities to address all these issues in order to maximise the retention rate percentage of new and existing people to the sport.

“The ‘feel-good’ factor of sporting success creates many advantages especially for minority sports teams who may not generate significant media interest. But many clubs face vastly different marketing issues and therefore have to adapt plans to suit their own particular position in the marketplace.

“Live sport is still the best experience in my opinion but good quality television and commentary of certain sports has become increasingly attractive and the quality of the presentation provided has become the preferred choice for many people. Many minority sports clubs do put themselves at risk, financially, if the provision of live television games are not compensated by adequate returns in sponsorship, advertising or enough exposure to the viewing public.”

Scott Neil, Edinburgh Capitals ice hockey

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“Sport is like any other brand or service in that there are different consideration drivers for fans attending events or watching sport on TV.

“For most fans, the 90 minutes of football and the facilities are only part of the broader experience. Experience has functional (good facilities) and emotional (feeling part of the community) dimensions.

“The clubs that are succeeding in securing good attendances every week recognise that they need to market the total experience to fans that come to the games, in a way that is not as relevant to the ‘armchair fan’. Scottish Rugby is getting this, with the Ginger Grouse bar open hours before and after kick-off (with live music) to ensure what happens on the pitch is not the only factor that determines whether fans come back for more.

“There are too many examples of clubs being relegated but maintaining their attendances to say that it is all about success on the field. This said, success on the field is likely to be a common factor that increases both TV viewing and match attendance, but it remains only one consideration.

“We should not forget that as with whisky brand like The Famous Grouse, clubs have a volume and value equation to navigate.

“To make money, clubs need numbers through the door, but they are also asking fans to pay a premium price. So, affordability is a real issue.

“As with any product or service, consumers will pay a premium if the experience is genuinely different from that offered by other alternative forms of entertainment. That, of course, is where sport will always have the edge over a day at the cinema.

“There is nothing tribal about the cinema, and we are hard wired to come together in either mutual suffering or glory. I support Dumbarton, so I like to think I know about these things.”

Glen Gribbon, director, The Famous Grouse.

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“When thinking about the question of why some sporting events attract ‘decent’ audiences and others not, it strikes me that the classic marketing model – of awareness, interest, desire, and action – is an useful and interesting way of assessment.

“Promotion of events – whether that be in the national consciousness or at the local level – is, of course, vital. If I have never heard of tandem road racing or that a race is on in Linlithgow at the weekend, then I won’t be able or willing to attend. I am still unlikely to go if I do not appreciate the power, the thrilling spectacle of the event or the perhaps interesting back story of the leading British contender. National coverage is required as well as local promotion. In this case, the national coverage creates the interest as well as the awareness, that is necessary for the local signage to succeed.

“Now for desire; not driven by the state of dress or undress of the competitors, but the thrill of spectating. In people who are interested in sport, this may be driven by wanting to have ‘been there’, a personal connection to your tribe that goes back generations and has come to define you or the thrill of seeing top-class competition. I do not think sporting desire is easily generated amongst those who are a rejector of sport; you need the raw materials with which to work with.

“Now for the action. Time and price may be an issue, but if the desire is strong then action is often a foregone conclusion. See the inelastic demand curves for tickets to watch English Premier League football teams.

“Women’s football I would guess is benefiting from the success of Team GB at the Olympics – increased awareness and interest, with desire fuelled by the fact that we are quite good – leading to over 1,000 people being motivated into the action of attending.

“Now I do not know the context of the bowls tournament, but I have not seen any national coverage for bowls, recently. I cannot even remember it at the Olympics? So where is the awareness and interest, without which desire or action cannot flourish. There is no use in televising one event if their is no context.

“Heh, but I may not be target audience, which is another marketing story all together…”

Chris Pitt is marketing director at Tesco Bank and chair of The Marketing Society Scotland.

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