The crucial steps to get fan engagement right

What goes into fan engagement for a sports team, and what can sports teams do to understand where fan engagement can improve?

To discuss the topic and learn how to get the most out of fan feedback, Washington Commanders President Jason Wright joined us on our market research podcast – “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.”

Jason and his team have used various strategies to hear from fans and have made changes based on what they’ve heard. In this article, I discuss:

Why fan feedback matters

Jason finds fan feedback so helpful that he even has had one-on-one calls with Commander fans from around the world to ask questions for feedback to gauge opinions, thoughts, and ideas.

“There are two angles to this – the first is that it comes from the heart,” Jason said. “When I got to this franchise, what really excited me about this was the diverse fan base. There are people of various ideologies, races, backgrounds, and economic statuses. So when we have trouble coming together along those dimensions, they still come together, high-fiving.”

"I just want to hear all these different perspectives."

To get a first-hand view, Jason said, it’s crucial to talk to fans and listen to their thoughts.

Another piece of fan outreach came back to the rebranding of the team from Washington Redskins to Washington Football Team to now Commanders.

“To even start with that endeavor, we needed to get one-on-one with fans,” Jason said. “For me, it was a no-brainer to figure out who to talk to.”

Read next: How to do proactive research for better customer insights

How talking to fans matters

Jason said that the data presented to executives are sometimes overpackaged and cleaned up, which works well for data-driven decisions. But talking to fans and hearing what they say can be very helpful.

“When you are one-on-one with somebody, you hear their intonations in their voice; you get to see their facial expressions, you get to hear that pregnant pause,” he said. “Somebody can say the same thing but mean it differently.”

And talking to fans allows the staff of sports teams to put themselves into the shoes of the fans.

“See, I played professional football for seven years, but that wasn’t the fan experience,” Jason said. “It was helpful for me to start and feel like a fan again.”

Watch next: How video feedback of fans can personalize the insights (Brad Dancer of WWE)

He said it’s hard to have a discussion without having the relevant insights from fans.

“I have to have some information to even start the discussion,” he said. “What is the basis for this, other than ‘I had a good idea in the shower.'”

He said that data can then be used as a guidepost, even when it’s sparse.

What feedback should sports teams weed through?

Professional sports teams get plenty of feedback on all kinds of channels. From social media, executive calls, perhaps asynchronous video, and other places.

“This is a journey we are still on, but we are on our way,” he said.

League-wide feedback

The NFL conducts research that encompasses the entire league landscape.

“So we are able to leverage the insights specific to our team and our market,” Jason said. “We can get their opinions on our team, other teams, their willingness to come to a game. All those things.”

Jason said that helps to understand what’s going on with fandom, specifically the Commanders market.

Organic feedback through social platforms

Fans share their opinions about anything and everything on social media. Whether they liked their seats or had any other kind of experience that’s worth sharing publicly.

“We use social listening tools,” Jason said. “It has driven a ton of value for our sponsors and shows that the investment we’ve made in a first-of-its-kind NFL-property produced content studio is paying off for our sponsors. So it’s been able to show us that our business decisions are in the right direction.”

For example, social listening helped the Commanders understand that fans want behind-the-scenes content, so the team started producing that type of content, Jason said.

“It has driven a ton of views on YouTube and allows people to click through and participate with us,” Jason said.

"We saw that this was lucrative for the business and engaging for the fans and we got that from social listening."

Tapping into fan communities

Jason said that the Commanders have created fan communities they can reach out to.

“We have fan ambassadors – some are new fans, some are long-time fans, but they are avid fans of our organization – intentionally diverse,” Jason said. “Then we have our fan captains, which pre-dated me, and we pulled these forward into a ready-made focus group.”

Jason said that long-time fans can even help with historical knowledge that new staff members may not be aware of.

The calibration of feedback

With all these insights coming in, it’s essential to separate what can be used to make decisions and what can’t.

“Part of it is the timing of when you do social listening,” Jason said. “If you do your social listening right after an embarrassing loss where everyone complains and is upset, that’s actually not a good data set.”

He said that doing it later in that same week can get you a more accurate view.

Examples of changes fan feedback can lead to

Jason said the Commanders completely revamped their season tickets packages after listening to fans about them.

“The season ticket number wasn’t in a great place when we got here,” said Jason. “We have now more than doubled our season-tickets base. That came from seemingly small changes.”

For example, the Commanders now have:

  • more season ticket packages
  • year-around activities
  • family days at other attractions
  • meetings with alumni
  • fantasy football drafts for ultra fans at FedEx Field
  • at the club level, food and parking are now included in the price
  • table top seating by the end zone.

“Those things carry year-round value and keep people engaged with us,” Jason said. “And that drove additional season tickets.”

How do you scale fan feedback?

The Commanders try to do that through intelligent sampling, Jason said. Stay in touch with fans throughout the year and learn what drives buying decisions for tickets, gear, and other products. The NFL’s Voice of the Fan Survey also offers comparative data that the Commanders and other NFL teams have.

“I get to call somebody who is doing well in an area that we are struggling – that’s the great thing,” said Jason about NFL teams collaborating on the business side. “When I see their fan experience trending up, and I see them knocking it out of the park on food, beverages, or where we’ve struggled in the past, I give them a call. It drives collaboration, and it drives us outside the building for ideas, which is good.”

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