Has Sport’s “Engagement” Penny Started To Drop? – Ben Wells

March 5, 2013

At the recent iSportConnect Directors’ Club, I asked the panel what they saw as the single biggest game-changer for our industry in the next five to ten years. Tim Ellerton of Heineken (representing the sponsor’s view) was delighted – as was I – with the response of Ian Ritchie, CEO of the Rugby Football Union.

Ritchie outlined the need genuinely to engage with customers, whether on a matchday, via digital media or elsewhere as the next big challenge for sport. The RFU are to be applauded for the many great strides they are taking in this space. Twickenham Station aside, a trip to HQ has always been a great day (rather than just 80 minutes) out but the more recent recognition of the need to engage with the paying punter to make them a part of the experience is a great forward step. The installation of middle-tier LED boards at Twickenham which transmit messages from fans via social media is the first of its kind in the UK. This follows a five-year deal announced in January with IBM to provide in-depth statistical analytics which will get fans closer to the game. The RFU already has an extensive community focus through its nationwide coaching programme. There is still much to be done but it’s a far cry from the days of the 57 Old Farts.

Heineken is not an RFU sponsor but no doubt it would be interested in its supporter demographic (moreso, given the quantities of its products that customers ingest) and it was clear that the RFU’s own efforts to get closer to its own customers would reap rewards not only for the RFU itself, but also for its sponsors, and therefore also for the RFU. With the World Cup fast approaching and a team which appears to be on the up, these are exciting times for English rugby. No wonder sponsors are flocking to sign up.

I’ve written here before that the sponsorship model is evolving and I am more convinced than ever that we are moving into the realm of genuine partnerships. This is not due to any obvious epiphany either on behalf of sponsors or the rightsholder but a natural evolution, where each party has gradually realised they are actually trying to say the same thing to the same people and everyone will win if everybody works together. As I’ve said before on this blog, the traditional definition of the role of each party is blurring as push communications evolve into shared experiences. In no time at all we’re talking now not of CRM but of CEM (Customer Experience Management) as a key component of the sponsorship mix: we’re finally talking about quality of customer relationships, not just quantity.

If you’ve ever been to a live game in any of the major US Sports and like me, you’re a neutral, you can’t help but come away with the feeling that the sport itself was almost incidental. My overwhelming experience – whether watching here or in the US – is that I felt I had been entertained. It’s very much a joint effort: sponsor and rightsholder combining to give the customer a brand experience, value for money and a desire to return and fans throwing off their inhibitions and becoming a part of the spectacle. I am genuinely excited to watch what the RFU is going to do next. 

It’s going to be interesting to see who follows next. It’s not just something for the big rightsholders, this is for everyone and especially the smaller properties. The less impactful your media footprint, the more emphasis there must be on involving your audience in other ways. The concentration of media rights in a handful of select properties must be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. I wrote in November 2011 that the revolution would not be televised and I am excited that it looks like the revolution is finally about to begin.

About Ben Wells:

Ben has fifteen years’ experience in the commercial side of sport. Having spent six years at Chelsea FC, where he was Head of Marketing, Ben launched Ishtar Consulting in 2011 with a view to providing specialist sponsorship and marketing support to brands, rightsholders and agencies. Prior to his time at Chelsea, Ben spent nearly four years at Redmandarin, the strategic sponsorship consultancy. Follow Ben on Twitter @ben_wells1 or get in touch via ben.wells@ishtarconsulting.com. This blog appears regularly at http://benwells1.blogspot.com.

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