Another day, another new subscription model idea or ticket package or experiential area that is going to reverse the trend of declining attendance in sports…
That’s what the past few months have felt like and it is tough to reconcile the myth and the hype around these ideas with the reality that most of them are hiding from the things that are most important and would actually help alter the trajectory of attendance and viewership decline that is at the heart of the impending crisis that could be facing sports and sports business.
But let’s think about this with a little more depth today because the big ideas that seem to be the new miracle drugs in sports business come from the vantage point of trying to tackle a vexing challenge.
Here’s a not complete list of some of the new ideas that are “Fire” right now:
- New decks and experiential areas
- Virtual Reality
- Augmented Reality
I could throw in terms like “social selling” and others that fit into the buzz word category as well.
The challenge with all of these things is that they are missing the bigger point at the heart of the decline of attendance, viewership, and passion that is at the heart of a lot of the ills that are becoming evident in sports business.
Or to put it in the tl;dr format of the modern Internet: good ideas to solve the wrong problem.
So what should we be looking at?
I think that the answer is much simpler than most of us are willing to admit.
In fact, the real way to address the attendance, viewership, passion challenge isn’t magic, but just good business.
Let’s take these ideas one by one, from last to first.
Did you vote for Donald Trump?
That Hillary Clinton is a total loser, right?
Lock her up! Yeah?
Did you vote for Bernie Sanders?
He was robbed! Am I right?
Did you vote for Hillary Clinton?
The electoral college is a sham! Yeah?
You see what I did there, I stroked everyone a little bit and got everyone fired up in some way or shape, I can almost guarantee it.
Politics is the new sports.
A lot of people that can’t do it, don’t really know anything about a lot of it, and “know” everything shouting at each other.
Sure sounds like a lot of the sports I know when I was younger.
But the challenge is, while politics has gotten more overheated than ever, sports is pretty blasé.
Part of the fun of old Yankee Stadium during the mid-2000s was going to a Yankees vs. Red Sox playoff game. You had two rabid fan bases and an atmosphere that was so heavy with passion that you couldn’t help but get the aluminum taste of adrenaline from the moment you hit the stop on 86th Street and the train started to really fill with baseball fans.
Or, if baseball isn’t your thing, how about attending a college football game at the University of Alabama? Having the stands rattle with the video of Bear Bryant and the tradition of Alabama football?
How about attending an Orange Bowl game at the old Orange Bowl stadium in Miami?
Whatever your drug of choice, there was passion.
There were fans, deeply, emotionally connected to the teams, the game, the event.
Where is that now?
Largely it is missing.
And, despite the revenues being generated, it is destroying the products and events and teams we are trying to promote.
Why do I say destroy?
Because these kinds of things aren’t steeped in logic and analytics.
Attending a concert, a sporting event, any live event is about emotion, about connection, about humanity.
In creating cash machines that segregate every stratum of fan from the other, the humanity of the event is robbed, stolen, and lost.
Which leads to a loss of passion.
Losing passion is easy. It reminds me of the story of the rich man that lost all of his money.
How did it happen?
Slowly at first and then all at once.
Same thing happens with passion for your team, your product, and your service.
But the more relevant and important question is: How do you get it back?
That’s where we are now. Getting back the passion.
A few weeks back, the NY Times covered the challenges the NY Yankees are facing, despite winning.
Fans haven’t come back.
You can follow this trend to my hometown, Washington where the Nationals have one of the best records over the last 5 years, but attendance that is middle or worse annually.
Don’t like baseball?
Look at the NBA where if you aren’t the Cleveland Cavaliers, you are playing to a ton of empty seats pretty regularly, even if you are the Golden State Warriors.
Football, of course.
It isn’t sport specific, its holistic.
So how do we get the passion back?
I think we have to start at the beginning and ask ourselves what place does sports hold in our customers’ and prospects’ lives?
If we are being honest in our assessment, we have made an assumption about sports consumption that states something along the lines of: “people really love and care about our sports, teams, events.”
And, if we continue this honesty, we realize that this just isn’t true.
In most instances, the assumption doesn’t reflect the reality that most of the people that are attending our events are using our events as background noise to their lives.
Partly, that was likely always the case, but also just as likely as that we have allowed our teams to cede the most value mental position in our fans’ minds from “sports” having its own unique marker to “sports” being lumped in with other forms of entertainment.
What a shame?
By being honest about the position we hold in our markets’ mind though, we can begin to rebuild the passion by correctly positioning and repositioning our teams and games.
Which is easier said than done.
But let’s take a crack at it anyway.
In Al Ries’ book Positioning, Al talks about the need to be first or to position yourself against the first thing that got to the spot you are trying to get to.
In sports business, we used to be first in many ways and now we have fallen into the one of many trap of “entertainment.”
Since we can’t reclaim first, how do we change our frame?
We need to compare ourselves in a way that others can’t compete with.
That’s easy because no burger at the corner burger bar can compete with the one visit Kevin Durant is making this year.
Or, the once in a lifetime chance to see a Game 7.
While this doesn’t seem to have a great deal to do with passion, it actually does. Because you can’t establish passion until you have people engaged.
Think of it like this, apathy is the opposition that you are fighting.
Once you have people’s attention, you have to make them care.
This is passion.
Those are the steps.
Once you have repositioned your brand. You have to use that attention to gain traction for your relationship.
If I am trusting Bill Clinton, I know that a third of the people you deal with love you no matter what. I know that there are a third of people that won’t ever care and that the other third are in play.
I think in sports business the numbers are skewed a bit differently, but even so.
You need to build the connection.
This means that you have to take every touch point and every opportunity to communicate with your audience as a chance to build a deeper connection to your community and your fans.
In DC, the Nationals emails are pretty consistently bad about just dropping in with a sponsors’ offer and no real value add or push to connect more deeply.
The University of Alabama on the other hand is always trying to reconnect you with the University.
Each touch point is a chance to wow! To connect. To deepen the relationship.
Without the relationship and the connection, no passion.
Once you have a connection, you have to romance the community.
This is what is great about Alabama’s emails. They keep the romance alive.
Denny Chimes! Check!
The Quad! Check!
Bryant Denny Stadium! Check!
Coleman Coliseum! Absolutely!
That’s where so many of our sports properties fail. They take the romance for granted.
One of the most powerful romance tools we have in our arsenal is the power of nostalgia, which if you are following along, you see at play in the Alabama scenario above.
But the thing is, nostalgia is almost everywhere.
Even if you are a fan of a team with a less than rich history of success like the Mets, Jets, or Nets, there is nostalgia there because somewhere a family went to their first game together.
A young kid loved Mr. Met despite the play on the field.
A young kid remembers that first J E T S chant!
A kid remembers being fascinated by the Meadowlands and how their is an arena in a swamp.
All of these touch points are nostalgic and romantic and stoke the flames of passion.
Passion means that the team and the sport are your ride or die.
We see that a lot with kids and soccer now.
Kids have been raised on futbol.
Kids have not been raised on baseball and softball.
Football seems too dangerous or complicated.
Basketball is winning because love of the game starts early and kids can see themselves doing what Steph Curry does.
Passion doesn’t just start and explode like a supernova. You have to work at it.
You start by getting noticed. You walk through and build the connection. You romance the community. Finally you reach passion.
Its a long path that has no real short cuts.
But it takes an understanding that everyone matters and every touch point counts.
Passion should help drive viewership.
Viewership is down because there is no emotional connection.
Viewers were taken for granted.
We were told that sports was secure. It was the only remaining appointment television. That this would drive eyeballs as far as the eye could see.
Appointment TV watching worked, until it didn’t.
Because people didn’t care as much as we thought they did.
They were passionate until they weren’t.
Sure, we loved our fantasy football teams.
Sure, we loved the playoffs.
Sure, we couldn’t wait to check the highlights.
Until we didn’t care.
Then, the ratings started to tank.
I have a completely unvalidated hypothesis that this process of disengagement was driven in part by fantasy sports.
Which probably drove the era of big TV deals.
So it is a sort of be careful what you wish for scenario.
But the point is that fantasy sports was great minus the fact that people were attached to players, not teams.
Which is totally great except for what happens if your players don’t perform? Get hurt? Retire? Etc.?
You don’t have an attachment to a team, a community, a story.
You’ve lost your viewers.
Because they weren’t dedicated. Only there.
To fix the viewership issue is going to require a few things:
We have to focus on stoking the fires of passion.
The old model that we are struggling under right now seems to have been built on, we don’t care about you coming to our games as much as we want your attention.
Which has its limits.
If you never get to a game, you never get the full experience.
Without the full experience, you aren’t passionate.
This doesn’t mean that you have to see the Miami Heat to love the NBA. It means that you have to engage with and connect with the game on a deeper level than just watching it on TV or playing it on a video game.
You need to see the game in all its glory.
This is why soccer is winning a lot of attention.
My son has never been to a Tottenham game but he has been playing soccer for years.
He loves Tottenham to the point that he drug me all over London looking for tops.
Its because he is attached to the game and that attachment grows a passion for teams and the stories and history around them.
The new model of sports business really needs to be about driving viewership through engagement at the most basic levels.
Help support efforts in communities to get people involved in the games as early as possible.
Built up the concept of sport as a must, not a should.
Turn your passion for playing into a passion for the game at all levels.
This will drive viewership.
Apathy or because it is live won’t win back viewers.
Only caring will.
Which brings us to the big point that I think has the ability to regenerate the entire operation: attendance.
In my POV, attendance is actually the biggest issue of the 3 because I think that attendance is one of those tricky things that does a few different things:
- Empty seats on TV makes someone considering a game think that the event is not hot.
- Empty seats when you are at a game makes the environment less exciting and makes returning less likely.
- Empty seats give rise to raised ticket prices that are necessary to keep revenues up, but feed the narrative of pricing out casual fans.
- Empty seats are terrible marketing for the sports in general because they don’t feed the narrative that you have to see what happens live.
- Empty seats steal revenue from merchandise, food, beverage, and other revenue generators.
This goes on and on and on.
When you place attendance together in the context of the other aspects that we have been considering here: passion and viewership, you see something really incredible.
They all work together and they all need each other to keep the ecosystem healthy.
And, no matter what the inflated attendance numbers say.
No matter what the revenue numbers say.
No matter what the buzz, spin, and PR says…sports business isn’t necessarily healthy because even the reported “positive” stories have the hint of trouble there that should be throwing people into 5 alarm fire mode.
That’s where we are with attendance.
Where the first 4 alarms were largely ignored and now we are full on every firefighter in the world come and save us in need of rescue, but too many of the ingredients that we are using to solve the issue are stuck in the past, retreads that have been freshened up, or just should never be considered and deployed.
I mean the list of bad ideas that are used as innovative in sports business is as long as your arm. Here are just a few:
- The only thing that matters is call volume.
- We can’t fill seats, let’s discount.
- Kids love Netflix, let’s do subscriptions.
- Let’s inflate attendance because no one will notice.
- Let’s do a giveaways on the nights most likely to draw the best attendance by course.
Again, on and on and on.
What is wrong here is that none of these things address the real issue of value in relation to cost, in relation to other options, in relation to doing nothing at all.
Attendance isn’t going to be driven by a new discount.
It is unlikely to be driven by a new subscription plan.
It definitely isn’t only driven by winning or losing. (Don’t believe me, look at the Yankees and the Nationals.)
What is likely to drive attendance is value.
Value in the form of an improve value proposition.
When I was in NYC recently, I had lunch with a friend that told me about a recent visit to Yankee Stadium. The term that came up about the visit to the Stadium was “raped.”
“I felt like they raped me for every dollar they could get.”
That’s not a good look.
The thing is that we have done this to ourselves because we make decisions based upon spreadsheets put together by MBAs that are removed from the games themselves as fans and as people that will go to events.
When was the last time you went to an event or a game and no one knew you were there?
I went to see Wilco at Wolf Trap about 2 weeks ago.
Here’s what I remember about the whole thing:
- The parking on the way out, needs to be fixed.
- The staff, mainly volunteers, quite lovely.
- The sound, really great.
- The setting, incredible.
- The distance from my house, more manageable than I realized. (This was a fact that I hadn’t known and which had kept me from going to more shows.)
- The show, incredible.
This same sort of thing played out when I went to Wrigley last year:
- Incredible atmosphere: cramped, dingy, crowded. But when you take the stairs to the seating bowl, my oh my. Is there anywhere else in the world you would rather be?
- The crowd was on top of each other. You didn’t notice though because people were into the game, the atmosphere.
- There’s a community around Wrigley. People love the Cubs.
- Getting to and from the stadium, cool. We took the el.
I could go on.
The thing is, those two experiences are almost unique. Because I have been to enough stadiums and events that have felt like me attending is an inconvenience.
Take for example a recent baseball game that I took my son to, where 20 minutes into the game, the lines at every entrance where 40 people deep on a night when the stadium was maybe 50% full.
Does that make you feel like you want to come back?
So get into the idea that every game, no matter what is a chance to stoke the passion and create a memory.
Next, when you are pricing…don’t try to squeeze every penny out of every customer at every point.
Alan Weiss said, “you have to think of the fourth sale first.”
In sports business, we are too often obsessed by the need to max out every game.
Look at lifetime customer value.
If you are a customer today, how can I make you a customer for life?
That’s a huge challenge.
But you have to do it.
If you make your customers feel “raped” they aren’t likely to come back.
If you make them feel loved and cared about, you have a chance.
We did this in nightclubs.
Its easy to charge an extra $1 or $2 a drink.
Its tough to charge less and get more sales.
But if you make $2 less tonight and the person comes twice a week, have you lost?
So the next thing about attendance is that you can’t look at each game like a zero sum game.
You have to look at each game as a chance to get someone to another game, to watch on TV, to sell you to a friend.
Finally, to drive attendance, we need to get back to the old school idea of holistic marketing.
Too much marketing isn’t really marketing anyway. It is an ad thrown together. It is an email blast, not targeted. It is noise.
The era of mass advertising and noise is over.
What we have to do is look at marketing as what it is: everything we do.
Like I said above about lifetime customer value. You have to look at your marketing as lifetime customer conversation.
Not a one time thing, but a lifetime thing.
The way you introduce people to the sport.
The way you invite them in.
The feeling they get when they come to the ballpark.
The way that you follow up with them.
The way you ask them to buy.
The way you present TV broadcasts.
On and on and on.
Everything you do is marketing.
Without marketing, you aren’t going to have attendance issues be resolved.
You can’t expect that people are just going to find you.
You can’t expect that people are just going to come to you.
You can’t expect that people are going to just care.
None of these is true.
You have to market to raise awareness, generate interest, build demand.
That’s the key to attendance is marketing and selling like you care, not like the person is another number.
Which means, use the phone but don’t abuse the phone.
The biggest key isn’t call volume, its conversations.
The goal you should have is to generate the most relevant conversations, not the most dials.
It means don’t just blast out partner “offers” because that’s part of the activation, it means make the partnership and the activation meaningful to everyone involved.
It means follow up with your fans like you care how their experience at the game was.
Did you stand in line for 20 or 3o minutes? We are sorry. Here’s how we are going to fix it and let’s invite you out to the park to see how we’ve fixed it.
On and on and on.
Again, this stuff isn’t quick fix territory.
Its hard work.
Not all of it is going to be done right away or get immediate results.
The thing is, we have to play the long game or we won’t have any immediate results to worry about.
So, not really magical at all. Just hard, smart work.
What say you?