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Is winning the only factor that significantly affects sports brand engagement?

Research Project Name

#Winning the Fan Engagement Game

What We Did

Building on sports brand data from Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Brand Engagement Survey, we conducted a targeted investigation into how sports fans relate to their teams, and what makes them more (or less) of a fan. Because the National Football League (NFL) dominates the American sports market and permeates its culture like no other professional sports league, we decided to focus our exploration on the NFL. Our methods included an online survey of adult U.S. football fans, analyzed against other data sources on fan affinity and NFL stadium performance.

Our survey asked fans what factors might make them more or less of a fan, from building a new stadium to more community involvement, and also asked them to tell us how long they would tolerate chronic losing and still remain a fan. We analyzed this data against Emory University’s 2014 rankings, based on a statistical model developed by two college professors that quantitatively measures the economic impact of a loyal and active fan base, which we saw as a proxy for fan engagement. We also looked at a composite index of NFL stadium rankings and the 32 NFL franchises’ win-loss records since 2000. This data helped us understand what factors besides winning allow NFL franchises to maintain or increase brand engagement.

The Context

Of all the brands in Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Brand Engagement Survey, sports brands had the highest engagement rankings—more than cars, technology, clothing, or food. This earlier research also showed not just sports as the brand vanguard, but the NFL’s preeminence within it: just 18 percent of self-identified NFL fans said they would ever consider seeking out a replacement team. The popularity of fantasy football has increased overall fan engagement—studies show fantasy football makes people more likely to watch NFL games on television and attend them—while social channels like Twitter and Instagram give fans a sense of personal access to players’ lives.

In spite of these positives, the NFL is facing a number of thorny issues, including decreased game-day presence, troubling findings regarding player safety, and periodic public outcry over players’ off-field behavior. To maintain and grow their enviable competitive position and expand revenue, NFL franchises must capitalize on factors other than winning to heighten fan engagement. For winning franchises, there’s an opportunity to build on the increased loyalty and money that good performance generates; for losing franchises, there’s an opportunity to boost revenue streams and in turn, they hope, revive winning ways.

The Results

The stadium experience drives fan engagement. A good or great game-day environment can be the difference between highly engaged fans and lackluster ones. Survey respondents, whether casual or super fans, identified improving their favorite franchise’s current stadium and building a new stadium as the two factors most likely to make them more of a fan.

Our side-by-side analysis of Emory University’s rankings, win-loss records from 2000–2015, and a composite index of NFL stadium rankings shows that teams with highly ranked stadiums have higher fan affinity than teams with poorly ranked stadiums, and that teams with better-ranked stadiums also enjoy better winning percentages, suggesting a positive cycle of stadium experience, results, and engagement.

We love you the way you are. Great sports brands invoke a sense of tradition and closely align with their home city’s civic identity. Gensler’s 2013 Brand Engagement Survey revealed that sports brand fans value tradition and stability far more than innovation and change. Franchises that underestimate the power of these preferences risk alienating fans.

Relocating a team to another city, changing its name, and changing the logo and/or the team’s colors were the three factors survey respondents said were most likely to make them less of a fan. Moving away from the current site, even for a better facility, was also a detractor. This is further proof that the stability of a team’s brand is paramount to maintaining fan engagement.

Higher affinity/engagement correlates with a lower tolerance for losing. Despite their preference for legacy and stability, highly engaged fans expect results and are less likely to be patient in the face of chronic losing. When asked how long they would tolerate losing, fans of teams high on Emory University’s rankings expressed less of a willingness to be patient than fans of teams with lower scores. Two exceptions to this finding were the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets, with mediocre 15-year records and highly acclaimed stadiums.

What This Means

Know the difference between winning and #winning. While nothing boosts fan engagement like good on-field results, any sports franchise, from a perennial championship contender to a long-term bottom-feeder, can become a #winner if it envelops its brand in an aura of quality and tradition and stays connected to the fans. Unlike average consumers, whose tastes and loyalties are fickle, sports fans want to remain loyal through good times and bad. An engaged fan base of a #winning franchise even enjoys a shared sense of commiseration during losing seasons, while lower-engagement fan bases are simply turned off by poor on-field performance. To keep fans engaged, sports franchises must give their fans something to be proud of each season, whether it’s a great stadium, a resonant brand, or a team that involves itself with the local community.

Use the stadium to energize your fan base. #Winning franchises tend to have great stadiums. Great stadiums function as important pieces of civic architecture, connect franchises and their brands to the communities around them, and give viewers at home something to be proud of. They fuel a sense of being a #winning organization and have a significant capacity to boost overall fan engagement. That energy and pride remain long after the final whistle sounds, and so franchises cannot underestimate the importance of presenting invigorating game-day experiences. Whether they can translate #winning into winning the Super Bowl? That remains to be seen.

Engage fans outside the stadium walls. While a great game-day experience goes a long way toward boosting overall fan engagement, franchises must also viscerally connect with the fans who watch from home. Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Brand Engagement Survey revealed that a majority of fans prefer online engagement with their favorite team to in-person engagement (likely related to our survey respondents’ saying lower ticket prices would make them bigger fans). Our more recent NFL-focused survey reinforced that importance of engaging with fans outside the stadium walls: respondents identified increased community involvement as one of the factors that would make them more of a fan.

What’s Next?

We plan to build on the findings of this research project by facilitating discussions with Gensler sports clients and industry experts to refine our understanding of the ways franchises can position themselves as #winning to sustain fan engagement through win-lose cycles.

Through additional research, we will seek to conclusively determine how stadium design influences actual on-field athlete and team performance. These inquiries and the results they surface will continue to shape our approach to sports brand strategy and stadium facility design.

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Kate Kirkpatrick, Evan Hathaway, Tom Milavec

Year Completed