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The Necessity of Real-Time Fan Engagement

Once upon a time, the only thing that fans in the stands were holding in their hands during a live game was a hot dog, a pint, or a supporter’s flag. Now, it’s a mobile phone.

Sadly, instead of watching the greatest stars of our generation score epic goals live, fans are experiencing it through a screen, never experiencing it with their own eyes, and doing it for the likes. This is an all too common occurrence in stadiums these days. They’re losing that intimate fan experience of seeing history in real time, because they’re doing an Instagram Live, live-tweeting from their seats, or posting a TikTok, while players looking up in the stands in celebration see nothing but outstretched phones, instead of thousands of screaming fans.

At home, when the game’s on, the presence of the device is the same, but now it’s surfing social media to see what’s happening in other matches, finding other angles of the epic goal, or not even doing anything remotely related to the game on the screen. In fact, the same could go for the in-stadium fans not using their phones for anything game-related.It’s understandable that fans want to capture the moment and remember it, use their footage to gain followers and likes, and also that they’ve got lives and interests outside of sports that they’re managing.


This isn’t a story about the evils of people having their noses in their phones. This is about clubs missing out on the best way to leverage this reliance on mobile phones. Fans are going to be on their second screen, no matter what; that’ll never change. What can change is how you engage them in real-time, to keep them loyal and keep their eyes on your franchise, your social media, and away from everyone else's.

If they’re gonna look at something during the game, make sure it’s something of yours.


What Does Real-Time Social Media Do for Fans?

Sports fans want to get the most from their phones. They rely on social media for immediate game updates and running commentary. But they also want their phones to make things easier. They want to buy things instantaneously. They want to talk to other fans, franchises and even the players themselves. The more that technology advances, the more they want to be engaged.

Fundamentally, digesting real-time information about games and team activities is a key characteristic of die-hard fans. They’re loyal not only when the match is going on, but at all hours of the day. Franchises need to cater to this 24/7 appetite for updates; good or bad. Not all the news that comes out of a team’s social media is good, but it does need to be disseminated with the same speed as the good news. This builds trust with the fans; helps them feel as if they’re an integral part of the conversation. Avoiding this makes a team look like they’re hiding something from their fans.

This is where technology comes in. Advances in social media and such allow instantaneous conversations between fans, players, coaches and anyone else involved in a club. Ensuring that a club holds the “social” part of social media to heart, fans will feel engaged and it will heighten their loyalty. Imagine tweeting at Ronaldo, Lebron James or Nick Nurse, and getting a reply back. When fans get a reply from their favourite player, it just validates how important they are to the team. Allow for consistent fan-to-fan and fan-to-team interaction before, during and after games is what inspires loyalty.


Getting That Real-Time Engagement

Maintaining engagement and keeping your supporters entertained and loyal is an ongoing process. Teams have to create an environment that promotes trust, open communication and inclusiveness. They also need to be timely. We’re living in an era of instant online gratification, and social media is the worst for this. Ideally, fans expect replies within a specific time frame: either instantaneously or within 4 hours, and clubs need to be attentive to their fan’s need for a dialogue.


The interactions also need to be authentic. Given that clubs need to be “on” their social media channels frequently, and perhaps tire out an over-worked social media intern to get back to everyone, you shouldn’t try to get away with playing pretend, because an athlete or coach is busy. Athletes need to tweet and reply for themselves, and engage the fans directly. Fans want personal connections and quasi-intimate moments with their idols. Granted, this can potentially open up a can of worms with players getting carried away, but implementing a solid social media policy that’s on brand, can help.

Understandably though, there are a lot of social media channels, and it’s hard to keep on top of them all. This is where generating a specific portal for fans to engage through, is key. As mentioned above, they’re going to be on their phones, they’re going to want to share their reactions. So why not own the conversation and funnel it through something of yours? Something like an official team app would be an ideal solution. This is all of your fans, in one place, and a captive audience of fans who will pledge their loyalty to you. And you, in return, should give them what they want; access, content, and a feeling of being included.


Outside of the Dialogue

Real-time engagement also spans outside of social media conversations and direct messages. It’s also what you should be doing before, during and after games, both live and televised, across your channels, or through the hypothetical team app we mentioned above. Ideas could include:

  • Contests - traditionally, if you wanted to walk away from a live game with a piece of swag or part of a kit, you had to buy it, or catch it out of a T-shirt cannon if you’re watching the NHL. Clubs have a captive audience, both at home and in-stadium, and should be constantly engaging them with trivia, head-to-head contests and giveaways. For an added incentive, make it something esoteric that requires them to watch the game intently, or dive deep into the history of the club to really get fans thinking. The winner gets a jersey delivered to their seat.
  • Live Game Updates - This is more than just a running commentary on the game - it can be insights, offer highlights, and offer value to fans watching live, or at home. Finish it off with a fan vote on the best goals, player of the match, etc…
  • Fan recognition - If done without sincerity, publicly thanking your fans can come across as being trite. But fans love to be acknowledged that they’re there. Whether it’s the announcer telling the stadium/arena about the special guests, announcing birthdays and special occasions, or in the case of the Seattle Seahawks, declaring their fans as the 12th man on the field, retiring the number 12 in honour, and raising a 12 flag before every home game. The result is that the Seahawks stadium is one of the loudest in the world and has even made the earth shake. That’s passion.
  • E commerce - With fans, the instant gratification doesn’t end at social media and replies; it also relates to the physical “stuff” that fans need to enjoy their experience. This can be kits, tickets, sponsored partnerships, and even ordering concessions to their seats. All done from their mobile phones, and ideally through a channel that is yours.

The landscape of live sports moving forward is both positive and nebulous. Everyone’s starving to get back into the stands and support live, but it’s hard to deny that the world’s changed in 2020. Clubs and leagues can’t take fans for granted and assume they’ll automatically flock back, and will always remain loyal. Engaging fans pre, post, and during games, from their hard plastic seats, to the sticky barstools, to the comfortable, well-worn couch, fans want to feel included.

And they want that right now, as it’s happening.