It’s a sobering, strange feeling, watching professional sports teams play in stadiums full of unoccupied seats. Suddenly, an environment that is known for fan engagement – roars of excitement and displays of comradery – is eerily quiet, as cheers and laughter are replaced with more subtle sounds, like cleats on the grass.
Gone are beer lines, calls for peanuts, and familiar chants. And even as some leagues have chosen to play in the absence of onlookers, some have yet to decide if the upcoming season will happen at all.
The reality is that everyone who loves sports, from the field to the fans, is adjusting their expectations for the foreseeable future. And no one is happy about it.
In American Football, pundits and players alike speak of the power of “the 12th man” – the fans. Akin to the advantage that comes with the home field, we all know that the people in the stands play a pivotal role in the game itself.
When it comes to revenue, sports franchises need fans in order to thrive, from ticket and merch sales to concessions. They also rely on income from the brands that sponsor them. And guess who those brands are interested in? You get one guess (it’s not the game).
The sports industry faces a unique challenge as the world reacts to a global pandemic: how to engage with fans who can’t attend games. And while we focus on the athletic feats of the people on the field, it is actually the people in attendance who make the sports world go ‘round.
Pandemic or not, brands and sports franchises need to stay connected to those who normally fill the stands. And now, while stadiums stand empty, franchises everywhere are reimagining how they keep the excitement alive. The answer? Fans can’t come to games, but brand ambassadors can bring the experience to them.
Brand ambassadors can become the public face of sports teams. They are real people who represent the franchise in fun, engaging ways to increase brand awareness – and even drive lead and revenue. The best brand ambassadors are enthusiastic cheerleaders, embodying the brand’s identity through their appearance, personality, and values.
Carefully vetted brand ambassadors create deep fan connections. The right brand ambassadors are chosen because they share traits with fans. This meaningful, peer-level engagement creates bolsters loyalty through mutual experiences and relationship building.
So, it makes sense that, while fans currently have to choose restaurants, bars, and cafes as alternatives to stadium seats, sports franchises should follow. Even though there are restrictions in these spaces as well, there are still robust opportunities for meaningful fan engagement.
Here are 3 key strategies that sports franchises need to embrace when designing and executing a fan-engagement campaign.
Simply meeting up with fans at the bar is not going to inspire anyone. Sports teams should deliver an experience to make up for the ones that fans are missing. It should be all about them. Teams should provide brand ambassadors with assets that allow them to engage with fans one-on-one, or one-to-a few, that add real value and bring them closer to the game.
Teams might use digital content, gamification, technology, and/or merchandise to create an experience that fans will get excited about. And these experiences don’t have to take up much floor space (especially in these hospitality venues where there isn’t much). They can also be designed to scale to take into account the range of demographics and varying locations where franchises will reach fans.
Another pandemic-era solution is drive-in experiences. Just recently, Walmart announced that it would be converting 160 of its parking lots into drive-in theaters. Sports franchises can use these types of alternative engagement environments to create socially-distant experiences that fans won’t be able to resist sharing.
Social media has taken on a more prominent role than ever in the wake of the coronavirus response. Authentic engagement with real people matters. Data shows that today’s micro- and nano-influencers can enhance brand value through social engagement. A recent study by market research firm Markely revealed that micro-influencers, who have between 10,000 and 100,000 followers, are the best place for brands to focus—not celebrities with huge followings but low engagement with individual followers.
When designing a brand ambassador team, some members can be chosen based on their social influence to amplify the experiences. These brand ambassadors then do double duty – one in making sure that the franchise is able to connect with fans in real-time, but second, that the interaction doesn’t end there. By evangelizing the franchise’s fan engagement campaign with their own social networks, the marketing dollar that goes into these campaigns is multiplied.
So, you have designed a fun, scalable activation that you can amplify. But the work doesn’t stop there. It is critical that franchises use data to continue to optimize their campaigns for better brand ambassador interactions and fan experiences.
When sports franchises are activating at multiple venues, they need to be able to measure engagement across locations simultaneously. This is another place where the brand ambassador fits in. While on-site, whether when facilitating games and engagement tactics or simply in speaking to fans, brand ambassadors can capture data and feedback through insight-led reporting dashboards. A robust reporting mechanism is critical for franchises and their brand partners in understanding the impact of each fan engagement and, in turn, optimize the experience in real-time based on those learnings.
In any case, make data capture fun. Use surveys and other feedback mechanisms in onsite games. Try quizzes (“Are you more Tom Brady or Cam Newton?”) and slip in questions that provide intel that adds value to the fan experience long after the event.
Clearly the pandemic is not contained within the stadium, and measures must be taken to keep fans, venue employees, and brand ambassadors safe and cared for. Ensure that brand ambassadors are thoroughly trained to ensure healthy, safe brand interactions. When managing mobile brand ambassadors and street teams that are activating across multiple locations at the same time, you need to provide brand ambassador teams with consistent oversight and support in following health and safety protocols.
For the foreseeable future, the sports world will be different. For franchises eager to ensure the health and financial security of their organizations, keeping fans happy, engaged, and close to the team will pay dividends. There’s no doubt about it – investing in fan-loyalty campaigns that allow brand ambassadors to meet people outside of the stadium will drive ROI in both the short- and long-term.
Elevate is a global event staffing agency that connects people with brands. We match organizations with the right people to engage with their audiences and drive long-term relationships. Our specialty-trained brand ambassadors know how to engage fans in safe interactions based on the latest CDC/WHO guidelines.