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Off The Couch And Into The Seats

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By Irv Rein, Ben Shields, and Adam Grossman

Where have all the fans gone? Sports organizations at all levels are having trouble filling their venues. Even powerhouses such as the National Football League (NFL) and Southeastern Conference (SEC) have seen significant declines in game attendance. The NFL experienced ticket sales decreases from the 2007-2012 season while the SEC hired a consulting firm to determine how its schools can attract more fans to games.

There are many old-school and new-school reasons why this is happening. More traditional problems such as high ticket and concession prices as well as transportation issues are problems sports organizations have faced for decades. New developments in technology make it easier than ever for sports audiences to engage with their favorite teams and athletes without going to the games. Fans, media, and sponsors can watch the game on their high definition televisions, obtain easy access to Wi-Fi to connect with their friends on social media, and order their favorite foods from their computer or mobile devices all from the comfort of their couch. As sports organization seemingly sign increasingly more lucrative media rights deals every day, the incentive to improve the in-venue experience has lagged.

The reality is that most sports organizations at all levels will continue to rely on in game attendance as a critical revenue stream. Moreover, the sports industry relies on live fan engagement to energize the stadium and television experiences. Few people want to watch a game in-person or on television when the venues are empty. Sports organizations need to create differentiated audience experiences that will provide fans with compelling reasons to come to the games or competitions. This includes incorporating place marketing strategies that use in-venue, outside of venue, and venue extension components.

Minor League Baseball’s Dayton Dragons is a good example of a team that has created a differentiated in-venue audience experience. For example, the Dragons have made a commitment to making sure that people actually attend games and not just purchase tickets. The team has told fans to not buy full season ticket packages if they will be unable to attend certain games. Instead, the Dragons develop customized ticket packages that take into account their customers’ needs. This approach ensures that the team can sell tickets to a larger number of people and at the same time increase the amount of revenue it can make from parking, merchandise, and concession sales. In addition, the Dragons have taken an innovative approach to the ticket waitlist. The team has extended many of the perks that it gives to its season ticket holders to customers on the waitlist. This includes providing a free Dragons’ gift when attending an exclusive Wait List member’s game. The Dragons have made a group of fans that has been traditionally marginalized into ones that are an important part of the Dragons’ community.

The US Open tennis tournament extends the venue experience outside the stadia where matches take place. The United States Tennis Association has created a multi-purpose experience for fans that include interactive displays and exhibits. This encourages people to stay at the venue for a longer period of time between matches and spend more money at a event that occurs for only two weeks per year. It is remindful of an upscale State Fair, but, instead of pie judging and carnival rides, the tournament has the Moët & Chandon Terrace and the Heineken Red Star Café. This creates a differentiated experience that cannot be replicated by watching the tournament on television or on a mobile device. Even without American players performing well in the tournament and overall decline in interest in tennis domestically, the US Open has averaged over 27,000 fans per session since 2007.

The Chicago Blackhawks have also recognized that an engaged fan is more likely to come to the venue. The Official Blackhawk Bar as a venue extension is an example of this approach. The team has partnerships with bars across the city and state to facilitate communal experiences. The organization provides memorabilia, jerseys, and other marketing materials while also sending former Blackhawk greats to bars. In addition, many of the partner bars provide shuttle buses to the United Center ensuring that large groups of fans make it to the arena. These outreach efforts increase audience engagement and make it more likely fans will attends games.

One could argue that it is the Blackhawks recent on-ice success, and not its place marketing strategy, that is responsible for its resurgence. While its two recent Stanley Cup championships have played a role in enhancing audience engagement, attendance levels were increasing before the team won the championship because of its efforts to engage its core audiences in innovative ways. The reason that the SEC is trying to find a solution to its place marketing problems is that programs with long traditions of winning, such as the University of Alabama and University of Georgia, are now having trouble filling their venues. Depending on winning to increase attendance is likely not the best or only solution to long-term attendance challenges.

A more effective approach is to reexamine an organization’s place marketing strategy. Whether you are trying to fill venues at the high school, college, or professional sport levels, the good news is that the fans have not gone too far. They are still very interested in their favorite leagues, teams, and athletes. Leading organizations have implemented strategies to ensure fans leave their couches to come to their venues. The U.S. Open provides an upscale experience that aligns with its core audiences’ demographics. The Dragons and Blackhawks demonstrate that place marketing strategies do not have to be expensive to implement. Their place marketing focus is on making it easier for more fans to get to the venues and attend games. All three of these organizations evaluated their audiences to determine what strategies and tactics would best help fill their venues. It is the approach that enables sports strategists to develop innovative solutions to place marketing problems.

Irving Rein, Ben Shields, and Adam Grossman are the co-authors of “The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders For A High Performance Industry” that will be published by Oxford University Press in September.

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