Fan engagement is the lifeblood of sports. It fills stadiums, sells merchandise, and ensures a steady flow of sponsorship and advertising revenues. But fan engagement has never been more critical or more challenging.

Like many other industries moving into the digital era, traditional sport has spent several years in discovery mode, attempting to find the best ways to engage a new, digitally native fanbase.

The advent of streaming and social media means that sports clubs now have a global reach and appeal unlike any in history. For example, it’s estimated that more than 250 million Africans follow England’s leading clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United.

While challenging, these developments also bring unprecedented opportunities for fan engagement. But once the pandemic landed, many fixtures were canceled, resulting in entire seasons of play being lost. To add insult to injury, people quickly found new, online ways to replace their old, in-person pastimes.

Esports, already a contender for fan attention, skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic. The commissioner of Esports League Championship Series stated that its 2020 peak viewership was the highest in four to five years.

Now, even as the world slowly opens up again, sports clubs need to ensure that they can continue to successfully draw in fans who may have found new pastimes if they’re to remain competitive. The ongoing digital transformation presents new opportunities, many of which provide early-mover advantages for clubs keen to stay on the cutting edge of engagement.

Here are 10 strategies to help your team engage fans.

1. Esports

Rather than seeing the rise of Esports as a threat, follow the lead of those teams seeking out early-mover opportunities. For example, the Golden Guardians are an Esports team created by NBA contenders, the Golden Gate Warriors. The Golden Guardians started out in 2018 competing in League of Legends but have since expanded.

In the UK, lower league London club Leyton Orient started the “Ultimate Quran-Team” tournament for Esports players of FIFA 2020, allowing players to raise money for charity and the smaller soccer clubs struggling during the pandemic.

There are evident benefits for both sides of such a partnership. Each side can cross-market to the other’s audiences through, for example, sponsorship deals. Esports has evolved on platforms such as Twitch, which comes with a ready-made user base that traditional sports clubs can tap into. With the advantage of a partnership, clubs and teams can also develop affiliations and loyalties by association.

2. Social Media

The old days of routinely posting social media content are long dead, and sports clubs increasingly need to find new ways to use social media to help drive fan engagement. This also means meeting fans where they are, whether that’s TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, or Instagram. One example of a club that does this well is Tottenham Hotspur, which uses its Twitter account to tweet firsthand video from the ground on match days, while Instagram Stories hosts gameplay updates, announcements, and stadium footage.

Hashtag United is perhaps the best example of a social media phenomenon becoming a sporting reality. The club was founded by YouTube personality Spencer Owen, playing games against established teams so he could upload the match videos. Eventually, Owen managed to get Hashtag accepted by the English Football Association, and the team played its first match in the 2018-2019 season.

3. Digital Collectibles

Whereas the previous generation grew up collecting and trading cards of their favourite players, the new generation is buying and trading NFT digital collectibles (non-fungible tokens), offering a highly profitable revenue stream for teams.

NFTs are blockchain-based digital assets, meaning that they’re provably scarce, providing clubs the opportunity to issue exclusive, limited-edition releases to loyal fans. These tokens can’t be copied, faked, or destroyed, meaning they retain their long-term value. Anyone who owns one can prove they’re legitimately the owner, via the digital ledger (blockchain).

Ultimately, digital collectibles offer an even more attractive alternative revenue stream than physical collectibles. The best-known example of using NFTs for fan engagement in sports is the NBA Top Shots series. The best highlights from NBA games are enshrined into NFTs to be snapped up by eager fans.

4. Fan Loyalty Platforms

Fan loyalty platforms also have much to gain from blockchain. A loyalty platform is simply a whitelabelled online portal that can be branded and used to reward fans for their interaction with the club. Similar to the Starbucks app, but for sport. Several teams, including Manchester United and the NHL Buffalo Sabres, have launched their own loyalty programs.

Fans can accrue loyalty points to unlock freebies such as merchandise or discounts. A tiered rewards structure could mean that long-standing or exceptionally loyal supporters are eligible for exclusive, limited-edition rewards such as stadium tours or meet-and-greets.

Blockchain can bring improved benefits over and above centralised loyalty platforms. It gives fans more ownership and control over their loyalty point balances. Reward transactions are instant and transparent. From the administrative perspective, blockchain-based loyalty systems can reduce system management costs and increase data security.

5. Alternative Payment Methods

Offering alternative payment methods could make buying tickets or merchandise more appealing to a broader group of fans.

The Miami Dolphins, Juventus FC, and FC Benfica have added cryptocurrencies to their list of payment options. Earlier this year, the Dallas Mavericks jumped on the enthusiasm for Dogecoin, announcing that “Mavs Fans for Life” supporters would be able to buy tickets and merchandise online using the meme cryptocurrency.

6. Fan Tokens

Fan tokens can be used as a kind of digital passport to a VIP fan community. Whereas NFTs are one-of-a-kind assets, fan tokens are the currency of the team brand. Fans can purchase and redeem them for exclusive experiences or even the right to vote on club events.

As fan tokens are based on blockchain, it’s relatively quick and easy to program voting rights into the tokens themselves. A club could then set up secure, fraud-proof polls on matters such as team colors or new logo options. Fan tokens could also be used to crowdfund club initiatives, such as youth training facilities, that help sustain the club’s long-term future.

F1 teams Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo have both issued their own fan tokens, along with soccer clubs including AC Milan and FC Barcelona. Protokol’s fan tokens are unlocking profitable new revenue streams for teams across both traditional sports and esports.

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7. Apps and Fan Engagement Platforms

Some clubs, such as Liverpool FC, are now choosing to take advantage of fan engagement platforms, providing a comprehensive and interactive content portal enabling easy access to a team’s channels, content, and games. In the case of Liverpool’s, it’s a subscription model, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a paid service, depending on what’s on offer.

Clubs may choose to build their own platform from scratch, which is a fairly significant undertaking but allows full customisation. The other option is to take advantage of a fan engagement platform as a service. Most are designed to make it easy to get up and running quickly, providing drag-and-drop features such as quizzes, votes, social media integrations, and more. Providers such as Protokol even build fan engagement solutions that consist of a white-labeled mobile app, allowing you to add your club branding, tailor the application to your fanbase and ensure that it’s providing a greater ROI to both your team and your sponsors.

Once it goes live, an engagement platform is a rich source of data and information, bringing us to the next essential tool in digital fan engagement.

8. Utilising Data to Understand Fan Behaviour

Data can be a powerful tool in fan engagement; however, with so many sources of data across social media, physical and online stores, streaming services and more, teams are struggling to get a full picture of fan interactions. For instance, simply knowing the times when most of your fans are online can help you time your news and announcements to reach a higher impact. Analytics could also help you identify fans who are less engaged. By targeting them with timely promotions on ticket sales or other special offers, you could prevent them from becoming completely disengaged.

Teams need to ensure they’re capturing data across all channels and opportunities to build a picture of their fanbase that will allow them to better anticipate which engagement strategies work and which don’t. This depth of insights into the fanbase can also help identify the best target sponsors and advertisers.

Once again, blockchain-based systems provide some enhanced benefits over and above their centralised counterparts. A fan event tracking solution underpinned by blockchain can verify and automatically share fan-related metrics with sponsors or other business partners, exponentially increasing the value of those relationships and creating a competitive advantage for the club.

9. Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) opens up a whole world of fun and games for fans, as well as some practical applications. Stadium viewing is the quintessential fan experience, but it does miss out on elements of at-home viewings, such as different camera angles.

“Smart stadiums” will offer fans the full at-home experience from their stadium seat, allowing them to select various camera angles, view player stats, watch replays, and more, all in real-time as the game plays out. They can even have their photo taken with the team, thanks to AR photo stands.

10. Focus on Delivering an Experience

Research from Deloitte shows that millennials are willing to spend around 50% more for memorable experiences such as player “meet & greets” than their non-millennial counterparts. Therefore, it’s evident that to capture the loyalty of fans in the digital era, any engagement strategy must focus on delivering an experience.

Allowing fans to exchange fan tokens and NFTs for exclusive experiences such as meet the players, or voting on team decisions, are helping clubs realise profitable new revenue streams. However, beyond the immediate revenue-generating opportunities, they help to increase fan engagement. Delivering these memorable experiences helps turn supporters into lifelong fans. According to Deloitte, these “superfans” are worth up to ten times more than a casual supporter.

Achieving this involves taking a holistic approach to engagement across all of the channels and strategies you’re using. In this way, you maximise the benefit by exposing fans to a variety of different engagement approaches, providing them with an experience rather than a scattergun series of interactions.

Whether you’re implementing a comprehensive fan engagement overhaul or simply looking for new avenues to explore, Protokol can help. We can advise on any aspect of your team’s digital transformation and help develop solutions such as fan tokens, loyalty platforms, and digital collectibles. Contact us for a discussion or find out more about how Protokol is helping sports industry participants leverage blockchain technology.

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