Fan engagement is implementing strategies that focus on both the acquisition of new fans and the retention of existing fans. Importantly, all fan engagement strategies must have the objective of ensuring that fans have a positive, entertaining experience when interacting with the club.

A fan will interact with the club in a myriad of ways whether it’s an email landing in their inbox, a conversation with a player, buying a ticket or a hot dog on match day.  

It is essential that across the club, everyone delivers fans a positive, enjoyable experience.  Fans will use all these different interactions to form their opinion and level of loyalty to the club. It’s worth remembering that just one negative experience could be the trigger for a fan to change their allegiance.

It may sound simple but the equation is complex

Professional sports clubs are constantly striving to find new and innovative strategies to pull the armchair fan away from their sofa and into the stadium. 

It sounds simple in principle, but consider some of the contributing factors that fans weigh up, such as value for money, travel time, accessibility, results, competition, entertainment value and player selections to name a few. It’s not an easy equation to solve!  There are several significant influences, some of which marketers have no control over – the most obvious and some say the most noteworthy, results on the pitch.

Do good fan engagement strategies a winning team = bums on seats?  

A picture paints a 1,000 words and the image below (a modified version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) illustrates this point; silverware brings you members and is a very important factor for fans.


That’s not saying the sausages, mascots and free WI-FI should be forgotten, but results on the pitch and a full trophy cabinet will assist membership growth.  I’m not sure the ratio depicted in the image is accurate, but most people will agree that success is more important than any sausage or mascot! Essentially, get the base of the triangle in place and the rest may look after itself.

When clubs are successful on the pitch, crowd attendances and membership numbers spike - fans enjoy being associated with a successful, winning club. Human beings are praised when they succeed. As a fan, if your team is doing well, not only are you happy for the team, but your happiness is reaffirmed from your friends, family and the media as they talk about the success the team you support and you choose to identify with is achieving.  

Conversely, when your team is failing to produce results on the pitch, as a fan, you will receive banter from your friends and family who will take pleasure in reminding you about the poor form your team is in.  

But…winning alone isn’t always enough

We only need to look at the current attendances of the A-League to see that winning alone isn’t always enough. Sydney FC are arguably playing some of their best football, yet they aren’t pulling the crowds.*

It seems some fans are starting to talk with their feet as they choose not to watch a sport that they once loved. Given that ticket sales and membership revenue are one of the principal incomes at any professional sports club, this doesn’t bode well.  

Is the A-League product exciting? Is the structure of the competition hampering membership and attendance levels?  

We are seeing question after question about the state of Australian football. 

Why are there are no international breaks? 

Why did two Australian teams get thrashed in the Asian Champions League? 

When will the league become independent so the owners gain more control?  

When will the A-League expand? 

Will there ever be promotion and relegation? 

When will clubs invest in enough resources off the field so they can truly be described as professional

Why have a salary cap? 

Some say the salary cap is designed to create an even playing field, so why are Sydney currently 11 points clear at the top of the table with six games to go? If a Melbourne or Sydney club offer a marquee player $3 million, Wellington Phoenix might have to offer the same player $6 million to entice them to the famed windy city, sitting on a fault line, where demanding international travel will form part of their fortnightly routine. Is that really a level playing field?

The narrative journalists are writing about now, is “fight for finals” – who is going make the 6th place? Is this really exciting for a fan? Even if you’re a fan of one of the four clubs vying for the 6th spot, is it really something you can be proud of when 60% of teams make finals football? When was the last time a sixth placed team won anything? 

Finish outside the top six and you get to go on an even longer holiday and enjoy one of the longest off seasons in world-sport! 

No wonder it feels like journalists are clutching at straws to create half a story right now and come September is it any wonder that some fans have forgotten that Australia has a professional league?

It’s imperative to understand that marketing isn’t just about promotion. That’s so often the “sexy” part everyone has an opinion about. What tag line shall we use? What colour should the logo be? Which player should be front and centre? What’s the hashtag going to be? These are the “fun” parts of marketing which matter, but they are only a tiny part of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. Marketing is also about the product, the price and the place.

Fans want it easy

Easy access. Comfort. Convenience. An entertaining and exciting product.  Value for money.

But ….. sometimes they don’t have it easy ….

Is playing the sport in summer where temperatures reach 35-40 degree comfortable for fans? Can we really expect 22 professional footballers (no matter how fit or technically skilled they are) to play exciting entertaining football for 90 minutes in 40-degree heat? Do evening kick-offs make it easy for families with young children to attend? Do fans get a good view of the game and enjoy an incredible atmosphere when they are 50 metres from the side-line in a half-empty oval stadium designed for cricket or AFL?

What about the television product…another vital revenue stream?

Do fans enjoy watching a game on TV often with little atmosphere, colour and noise but with plentiful shots of empty seats, palm trees, grass banks, sauce bottles and blankets? Combine these scenic shots with little to no educational analysis or storytelling and it’s no wonder some fans are reaching for the mute or off button.

Culture and brand identity

Australia has a unique sporting landscape with many professional sporting teams across various sports, alongside a population of approximately 24 million people spread across an enormous country. 

Potential fans and existing fans are often spoilt for choice with so many sports contesting for their attention; from football to cricket to AFL to tennis to rugby to basketball, to name a few!

Competition can be positive and, in this context, it ensures that people working in marketing strive to be ahead of the rest, as every sport ultimately aims to achieve the same end results - more bums on seats and retention of their existing fan base.

For new fans to consider supporting a club and for existing fans to stay loyal to a club, they really need to understand what their club stands for – what is their identity?

I’d be interested to ask A-League fans to describe their club’s identity in one sentence. I think most fans would struggle to string two words together.

Technology is changing the fan experience …

Imagine walking into a stadium and your phone immediately sends you a text message to say a $20 premium seat upgrade is available for purchase on your mobile. As soon as you take your seat and start to enjoy your premium view of the game, you use your phone to order your favourite food, drink and merchandise which is then delivered to your seat within a few minutes. 

Or how about when your favourite player scores a wonder goal and you use the team's app to watch an instant replay at multiple angles and a stadium-exclusive video feed of the players and the coach on the side-line. Later, when nature calls, the app directs you to the closest bathroom with the shortest wait time.

This isn't a far-fetched futuristic stadium experience as some might think. It's already available at some venues, while others are rushing to add next generation digital systems to improve and enrich the fan experience.

How can A-League clubs be expected to use such innovative technology when they are struggling for investment for basic resources, when they are losing money from hosting home games and when they don’t have their own stadiums?

Fan engagement is only one element in a complicated jigsaw puzzle!

The Fan Engagement journey is multifaceted and fans go through several stages (at different paces) before aligning their loyalty to a sporting club. Every individual is different; although the graph below illustrates the journey reasonably well, there is no science or timescale and there will always be fans who sit outside this model.

It’s not simple, but there are straight forward steps that take little effort and time that all sporting clubs should aim to get right.

Be innovative, say thank you, make fans feel special, give fans a voice, listen and acknowledge their ideas, implement their good ideas, respond to their complaints, surprise and delight fans, reward loyal fans and look after your first-time fans.

Implement integrated strategies that focus on the acquisition of new fans and the retention of existing fans that align to your brand and cultural identity and finally, ensure a positive entertaining experience is at the core of every strategy.

And remember it’s not only about the promotion. It’s the product, price and place too. 

Categories: Analysis | A-League | Football Business

a-league, fan engagement

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