Fan insights to keep a pulse on fan attitudes

As we enter November, I prepare for my favorite time of the year: college football season. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio in the heart of Ohio State Buckeye country and went to college at fellow Big Ten school, Northwestern. Fans cheering - Insights matter

In fact, for most of my undergrad career, I was the president of Northwestern’s student section, the “Wildside.” I’m even quoted in a book about supporting a team who, at the time, was historically inept.

Now that I’m three years into my consumer insights career, I’ve started to identify a need for many college and professional sports teams: understanding their fans. The global sports industry is valued at $1.3 trillion, according to Plunkett Research. That type of money means high stakes to get it right with fans, a challenge many teams are recognizing more and more.

Considering the various areas of concern for sports organizations, I’ve boiled it down to three larger themes teams should consider as they seek more insight on their fans: 1) Understanding fans, their behaviors, and their motivations, 2) Engaging fans at home and at events to maximize their experience and 3) Gaining & retaining fans, season ticket holders, and donors.

Understanding Fans

In order to develop effective strategies to target new fans or keep your existing fans happy, you need to first understand fan behaviors, attitudes, and motivations. If you don’t understand how your fans behave or what drives their actions, you risk making decisions that are ill-informed and suffer the consequences that come with them.

Michigan fans 2013 - low attendance For example, in 2013, the University of Michigan changed the seating policy for students following a major decrease in student ticket sales in the previous year. They moved from a seniority-based system to a loyalty-based system. However, in doing so, they saw an even further decline in sales for the 2014 season. What missed the mark? Well, some behavioral and attitudinal research could have uncovered that students attend games with their fans, and want to sit with their friends at the game. An assigned seating policy prevents sitting with friends unless you all have the same attendance record. By acting against a driver of attendance, students decided to not buy tickets instead of going to games and sitting with strangers.

By investing in habits & attitudes research, needs-gap analysis and other insight approaches, the money and time spent reconfiguring the student seating policy (and losing ticket holders along the way) could have been prevented and a more effective strategy could have been implemented.

Getting Engaged

With broadcast and television technology constantly improving, the competition sports teams face from the at-home experience are becoming increasingly difficult to combat. Why would a fan travel to a stadium and watch a game in person when they can stay in the comfort of their own home and get a just as good experience? Industry professionals aren’t ignoring this challenge. Jack Hill of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers said in Sports Business Journal, “Our industry needs to design, construct and operate sports facilities…in a manner which cannot be replicated at home.”

He’s right. I can get better, cheaper food at home where the weather is often nicer (especially compared to November weather in the Midwest) and my view of the game is better on my big screen TV. So why should I go to a game?

Engaging fans at games is a must. They need to have an all-around great experience at a game if they’re going to consider coming back. Obviously, a team being good and winning goes a long way, but that’s out of the sports marketer and ticket salesperson’s hands. With strong promotions, great concessions, and entertaining experiences to augment the game atmosphere, teams can combat their at-home competition.

Sometimes promotions that seemed like a good idea can go horribly wrong. Take the Ogden Raptors, a minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. They decided to host an “Hourglass Appreciation Night.” I’ll let you read the sexist details on that one and how it went over with the public this Uproxx article.

A huge PR disaster and waste of resources to plan the promotion could have been avoided with some simple idea screening. Imagine if a team put all its promotional ideas in front of a panel of fans at the beginning of the season to prioritize promotional events to find the winners (and losers). What a more efficient way to engage fans and put out promotions they’ll love!

Gain & Retain

At the end of the day, every team wants to grow its fan-base and retain the fans it already has. Converting a casual fan into a season ticket holder increases the value of that fan tremendously. Like they say, it’s easier to keep an existing customer (or fan) than to find a new one.

So how do you ensure you keep your fans happy and convert season ticket holders? Keeping a finger on the pulse of your fanbase is a good start. Through tracking programs that interview fans either after games or after seasons, you can uncover patterns in your game experience, brand health, and value proposition that can be both diagnostic and predictive.

Imagine being able to identify a point of concern for fans before it begins to affect your ticket sales. You can address that issue before it starts to have an impact. Imagine being able to quantify an uptick in your brand value. You can then make an informed decision in adjusting pricing or promotions based on a better view of your value proposition.

The impact consumer research can have on your sports brand is immense. You can make better, smarter decisions and truly alter the way you create and execute your strategy. If you want to learn more about Ipsos’ options for your team, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at! With the fan insights Ipsos can help you uncover and understand, you’ll be able to engage and grow your fan-base like never before.