Fan Experiences Game Day Opinion

Who has the best game day experience?

July 27, 2023

In part one of this series Callum Chambers, Head of Marketing at EngageRM, looks into the differences between the game day experience for fans in the NBA, UK and his native Australia.

After living in the UK for the past six years as an Aussie expat, I was introduced to a rich sporting culture that bore some similarities, but many more differences to my home country across their three major sports – cricket, football and rugby.

Then about a month ago, I was fortunate enough to be in Denver for the NBA Finals series against the Miami Heat. With the promise of a first franchise championship, and being a lifelong Nuggets fan, I made the decision to head to the action and be amongst ‘my people’, fellow fans.

Callum in his seats for Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

After speaking with NBA teams for this article, as well as what I encountered in Denver, it brought into stark contrast the difference between the two game day experiences. A very traditional UK sports culture compared to a commercially focused U.S. market, makes for an interesting dissection.

Game Day

Game day is where the most obvious distinction is and it’s where we’ll start this series. All five of my senses were blown into oblivion when I was in Denver before game 1. 

Fans were out in droves, scattered about in front of Ball Arena while all the bars down-town were full for hours in advance of tip off. That feeling was amplified when you got inside, with merchandise stalls spanning the concourse, random chants breaking out of nowhere and a buzz you don’t just feel anywhere else in the world.

Head inside and you’re looking at a light show crossed with a rock concert and for a moment you forget you’re actually there to watch basketball. At every break they’re firing t-shirt cannons at you, Drake is blaring over the sound system, cheerleaders are dancing, and the mascot is trying to nail half court shots. There isn’t a moment where you’re afforded to draw a breath.

“First and foremost, we want to ensure that we create an environment where our team has an advantage to win”, said Becky Kimbro, SVP for Brand at the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

“That is the sole purpose of why we’re all so passionate about doing what we do, because we believe that we can help the team win if we’re creating that environment.”

With that high level focus of simply creating a home court advantage, means lots of smaller tactical activations and moves are aimed at getting the crowd as physically hyped as possible. For Becky and the Spurs brand and marketing team, they put fans into three different buckets.

“The strategy is to create an environment that engages core, casual, and curious fans”, said Kimbro.

“We try to do things like find themes (Star Wars night, Marvel night, etc.) for the curious fans to get them interested in attending just one game. We also do pre/post-game concerts, as we believe if we can get them in the building, our game environment can get them to come back.

“For the casual fans, we try to deepen their affinity to the sport and the team. We do things like alumni autograph sessions, or pre/post-game group activities like fan tunnels on court or the anthem. 

“For core fans, we try to do different things during each game. Likely these are season ticket members, so we want to give an experience that is familiar but not ever tired.” 

Meanwhile in old blighty

Across the Atlantic, the no-frills, traditional approach to a Premier League game day hasn’t changed a lot over the years.

I’m generalising a bit here, but typically before a match, you’ll likely spend your time in the pub, telling your mates how rubbish your manager is, and how you were originally picked in the academy team until you did your knee at 15. 

If you weren’t going to the match, you were huddled into a pub watching the big screen, praying you’re not accidentally standing in front of a tattooed, middle-aged geezers view of the tele.

If you did have a ticket, you made the pilgrimage to the ground (after being at the pub for an hour, obviously) with all your scarf wearing brothers (90% men), passing by the pop-up food stalls before heading straight into the stadium.

This is where you start to notice the opportunity for teams to begin the physical engagement journey before kick-off, a time for younger fans to get actively involved.

Things like a VR pop up area just outside the stadium, where kids can try and fire a penalty past Aaron Ramsdale. Or a sponsored fan zone where you can take some selfies and get a free t-shirt (in exchange for your precious email address). Families, who teams and leagues should all be targeting, would be all over that and more likely to come back again and again. As Becky mentioned, this is all commonplace in the U.S.

During the game, it’s difficult for football and rugby. Without the stoppages that basketball, baseball and NFL have, there are limited moments to take advantage of. 

Some of the gimmicks like kiss-cam at a place like West Ham probably wouldn’t go down all that well either.

But cricket has that opportunity. Steeped in tradition and heritage, cricket is caught between two worlds, one that Tim East, Fan Engagement Manager of The KIA Oval home of Surrey CCC is balancing.

“It is an interesting mix with Surrey County Cricket Club as we work hard to celebrate and maintain the tradition and heritage of the Club, whilst acknowledging that it is hugely important to attract new audiences to our venue”, said East.

“The U.S. teams and venues have built their match days into huge multi-faceted events. Fans, especially young fans, want more out of their matchday, outside of just watching the sport – whether this is live music, interactive games, half time entertainment, or competitions and prizes.”

The KIA Oval has a dedicated heritage department to help intertwine the past and the future, ensuring they don’t move too quickly and totally forget the celebrated history of the ground and Surrey County Cricket Club.

North of the Thames, one place that isn’t too worried about that is the brand spanking new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, who have dived into that future.

While it helps to have brand new state of the art facilities, it is a purpose-built entertainment venue that is capable of so much more than football. It has the world longest bar inside with a Beavertown microbrewery serving up pints inside the venue. They host NFL games here, have held gigs with Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Guns N’ Roses – it is by far the most commercialised and ‘Americanised’ venue in the UK. 

Is that a glimpse into the future for all the other teams and leagues?

Where are we headed?

The U.S. is a younger country, so isn’t beholden to the same traditions and customs that the UK teams and leagues are. They also have an enormous appetite for innovation without even as much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. 

But it also means they miss out on that hard to quantify ‘soul of the game’ that is unique to the UK. There isn’t and never will be, anything like being at Anfield with 50,000 Liverpool fans belting out You’ll Never Walk Alone.

But the major strategic difference seems to be that U.S. teams aren’t just focused on obtaining new and diverse fans, they’re obsessed with it.

“At the Spurs, we sit in one of the fastest growing regions in the country,” said Kimbro. 

“There’s a ton of job creation and population growth there. There’s just a boatload of opportunity within that corridor.

“When you look at the demographics, the younger generations are increasingly more multicultural and more diverse, which I think really is a great thing for a sport like basketball that has a really diverse appeal.” 

If the likes of cricket, football and rugby want to attract younger fans, they need to focus on more than just the on-field entertainment of the game. This generation wants to feel more connected to the players on the team, so they must start to think outside the box. 

Inspiration can be drawn from the USA, not necessarily from the bravado and over the top match day stunts, but from their laser focus on the acquisition of a younger and more diverse set of fans. 

This can be done without selling their soul and forgetting their rich history that has got them to where they are today.

And if you know your fans inside and out, giving them what they want is made a lot easier. More on that in part 2.

Click here to connect with Callum on LinkedIn or here to find out more about the work being done by EngageRM

Fan Experiences Game Day Opinion