Why English football sucks at fan engagement – and Americans are in a different league

Just for a moment, think about how the Americans run their sporting events.

If you go and see an NFL, NBA or MLS game you get a real show. The entertainment kicks off three or four hours before their games start. Tens of thousands of fans gather inside and outside their grounds to enjoy the day. The branded concourses of their stadiums are like theme parks for young and old, there are fully stocked bars (serving not just beer) and sit down restaurants, all fitted with the finest HD TVs.

US sports events: knocking it out of the park

Last time I went to see the LA Dodgers, I arrived early, I enjoyed a Budweiser in the sponsored fan zone, took some selfies, threw a pitch and got a sponsored cap (in return for my email address). As I walked around, I collected some player autographs, and was handed a free t-shirt from Chevrolet (in return for telling them about my car preferences). Later, I was treated to some free food from Old El Paso and picked up a $10 coupon for my Uber ride home.

UK football: A whole different ball game

Compare that to the typical experience of attending a UK football match

Pre-match refreshments are typically enjoyed in a sticky floored pub near the ground. Fans arrive at the stadium as late as possible before kick off or even at half-time. At full time you’re unceremoniously ejected and returned to the same sticky floored pub you were in earlier, in a state of euphoria or profound disappointment.

Match day marketing: A missed opportunity

I’ve been a supporter of the football club of the town where I was born, all my life. I know these rituals as well as any fan. But as a marketer, it amazes me that no one has sought to improve or change that real world experience for decades – or realised that if they did they could unlock a whole new revenue stream that was not simply dependent on hiking ticket prices.

Standing together for better CRM

Now, I am not complaining about the sterile concrete concourses, draughty spectator stands, flat, warm lager and cold, overpriced pies that constitute match day entertainment in UK football. Although I am.

I am saying that the way the quality of the match day experience has been neglected by some, reflects our football clubs’ whole attitude to their supporter CRM.

Supporter CRM: What do they know?

As a regular part of my teams’ match day crowd, I doubt my club’s marketers have any meaningful data on me. When I’m at the ground no one captures data from me, no one rewards me for attendance, no one engages with me personally, other than to take my entrance fee and overcharge me for lacklustre (limited) refreshments.

I doubt my club knows when I last bought a season ticket, the last away match I went to, my last purchase in the club shop, my birthday, my niece and nephews’ birthday… In short, I don’t believe they know anything about what really matters to me or motivates me as a fan or a consumer.

…and I doubt this is just the reality at one football club.

A major league marketing opportunity

There is a commercial opportunity here that it also an opportunity to engage with supporters and make them feel valued, globally. At the moment both are being widely ignored. This is either because of a dewy eyed nostalgia for the non-commercial past of hot Bovril, football rattles and stripy scarves – or it’s because football’s marketers don’t currently think in a joined up way.

What can we learn from the American way?

I had a great day out at the Dodgers ball game in the States. I engaged with the club itself, its brand and their sponsors. I was looked after and made welcome at the ground by all of them. I now receive various marketing communications from the various brands and sponsors I interacted with there.

It is clear these clubs they are not just spending their budget on the one-off headline sponsorship or rights, they are ensuring they have plenty of spending power left to fully execute activation strategies and engage with the fan with experiential marketing – getting bang for their buck for the deal!

By way of comparison, I’m yet to receive an email from any of the English football games I’ve been to in the UK – by either the clubs or their sponsors.

An Open Goal: When football does it right

But there are a few places where lessons are being learned.

When Emirates worked with Benfica to lever its brand sponsorship and make it an immersive part of ‘going to the match’, we caught a glimpse of what match day marketing done well could really be like. Powerful and funny, it entertained 65,000 supporters in the stadium and millions online when it went viral, all growing the global brands of Benfica and Emirates.

If only all match day marketing could be this imaginative, it could be the start of a whole new way to interact (activate) and entertain the fans.

UK football big hitters are missing the point

But the for the most part, these opportunities are being ignored. It seems while British sport and especially the English Premier League leads the way in terms of TV rights income, it is way behind in terms of fan engagement, creative activation, entertainment and CRM.

(Note to reader: fan engagement doesn’t just mean Twitter and the odd “behind the scenes” video on YouTube).

Looking at the data

These days sport scouts, using technologies such as Wyscout, can watch any major game and know the facts and figures related to them all. They can look at any player around the world and automatically know their pass completion rate, shot accuracy and miles covered during the match.

It’s a huge irony that their clubs’ marketing departments can’t analyse their fans’ stats in the same way. Do those same clubs work and sweat over their supporter data to make the most of it? Do they know how their fans' behaviours are contributing to their revenues and success as a business?

The Beautiful Game can still be beautiful

I’m not really arguing for the Americanisation of the beautiful game. We don’t need “kiss cam” at Wembley or to have the national anthem played before each match. Whatever shape it takes, participation needs to be authentic. Collaborations with brands need to be genuine and add value for all.

However, objectively, in terms of fan engagement, sponsorship participation and match-day experience American sports are currently head and shoulders above the UK.

Imagine something different

I believe if sport in the UK had just some of the sociability of sport in the US, their stadiums might be more pleasant places to spend a whole afternoon, not just 90 minutes.

A few changes and a bit of imagination could promise a whole new level of experience for the supporter. It could also release unlimited marketing and commercial opportunities for the club and rights holders.

Chris Bishop is a marketing and digital advisor/consultant. Follow him on Twitter @cpbishop

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