The recent attempt by Liverpool FC to increase ticket prices and the subsequent protests by fans brought into sharp focus a frequent complaint that sport is losing touch with its fans.
In an open letter to fans, published a few days after they walked-out of a match in protest, Fenway Sports Group (FSG) issued a swift apology and a concrete set of measures to directly address fan concerns.
Some would argue that this episode illustrates all that is bad about the modern commercial-fueled world of sports. There is an alternative view that says this was a triumph of both common sense and marketing.
While we marketers do our best to overcomplicate marketing, it is in itself not rocket science (albeit today’s fast changing business environments do make it more complicated). It should be about delivering greater value to your customers compared to your competitors by means of lower prices, higher quality products/ services and/or stronger relationships / customer service.
Successful marketing is the art of doing this in a manner that is sustainable for your company while maintaining the attractiveness of your brand to customers (with brand advocacy being the ultimate goal).
This act by FSG was straight out of a marketing 101. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that they consulted any marketing textbooks before taking this course of action. I’m also fairly sure that they didn’t go onto the Liverpool website to align their response with the clubs “brand values”. What is undeniable however is that their reaction to fan dissatisfaction was considered, thorough and, as they put it in their open letter, “decisive”.
Don’t underestimate the importance of organisational culture
Organisational culture is often undervalued. It is the foundation of every strong brand. Especially in an age where social media can quickly expose brands that are built on empty promises. FSG’s open letter was addressed to fans. However, it may as well also have been addressed to the clubs staff.
This single “decisive“ act from the leadership, has the potential do far more to create the customer-oriented culture that is described in the clubs own “customer charter”, than a thousand workshops could ever do. By responding the way they did to fans concerns, the leadership gave a tacit instruction to staff across the club to prioritise fan needs.
If done right, marketing should be championing the interests and needs of customers ensuring they have a say in the future of the brand they are investing in. Customers won’t always get what they want. There are other important stakeholders for any organisation to consider (e.g. in sport we have owners, players, sponsors and media partners amongst many others), many of whom will have conflicting needs. However, clearly without the so-called end-consumer, no business can survive and without paying fans, no truly modern or professional sports team can survive.
Unique challenge and responsibility for sports marketers
Sports marketers face a uniquely positive challenge in that there is a far greater emotional connection and brand loyalty between fan and sports team than there is between a customer and the everyday packaged goods they buy from the supermarket. Most companies, arguably even the Apples and Googles of this world, would give anything to have the brand loyalty enjoyed by sports teams (as well as some athlete and event brands).
However, with this privilege comes responsibility. Many marketers outside sport are increasingly realising what has been understood by the most successful sports brands; the fate or “ownership” of modern brands is now increasingly in the hands of its customers.
Losing touch with your customers and losing ground to your competitors is the worst-case scenario for any marketer. Just look around today in the world of sport and you will see lots of evidence, particularly from sports occupying “challenger” positions in their market, of moves to adapt to changing market needs (cricket’s big bash league in Australia is the best example out there).
Bad marketing can of course kill sport particularly if decisions are not taken in the best interests of fans and other key stakeholders (and, for example, damage the integrity of the sport). Some might argue F1 finds itself in such a position.
A sports brand, like any other, only generates value if fans know it, like it, buy into it, recommend it to their friends and buy into it again. Success goes back to putting the customer (fan) and the long-term sustainable success of the company (team) first.
Are we realising the true value of brands in sport?
Given the undeniably high degree of loyalty to sports brands, it is somewhat surprising that the combined value of the brands of the top ten NBA franchises accounts for only 14% of the total value of the franchises (the number is exactly the same for the top ten most valuable football clubs). By comparison, the combined value of the brands of the top ten corporations (Apple being number one) accounts for 20% of their overall value.
Shouldn’t sports team brands, with their unique loyalty levels, be proportionately more valuable assets than those of their corporate cousins? Since Forbes* valuation methodology ties brand value in to revenue directly attributable to the brand, one could question whether sports marketers are optimally building and leveraging their brands.
Any suggestion that marketing is killing sport is missing the point. The role of marketing in sport is often misunderstood and that’s something sports marketers need to address.
One thing is certain, whether you consider yourself a marketer or not. If you take care of your brands’ fans, your fans will take care of your brand.
* To quote Forbes own valuation methodology, sports team brand values are based on “the amount of the team’s value that can be attributable to local revenue streams such as television and tickets, above and beyond what the typical team in the same sport and in a similar market generates” and for its top 100 brands list, “the most valuable brands are ones that generate massive earnings in industries where branding plays a major role..
About the author of this post:
David is a Chartered Marketer with more than 15 years’ experience in international sports marketing roles. You can follow David on twitter @davidgfowler or connect on LinkedIn at ch.linkedin.com/in/davidgfowler .
All opinions are personal rather than professional.