Welcome Back! The Future of the Fan Experience
Originally published on March 29, 2021
Updated on August 17th, 2022
Everyone yearns for a connection back to pre-COVID life and returning to things as we once knew them. Many are turning to sports—stepping back into stadiums, arenas and fields they call home away from home.
But as the return slowly is rolled out, so are concerns for the health and safety of fans, players, staff, stadium workers and the communities that host events. As spectators return to sports venues, what will the future of the fan experience look like?
A Tentative Return
As we address the effects of and navigate through life pre- and post-pandemic, institutions, teams and fans find themselves at a crossroads of how we move forward. Politically, state and national governments are chiming in with policy and procedures. This includes the 100-day “Masking Up America” campaign enacted by President Joe Biden’s administration. President Biden also set a (recently achieved) goal of 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations within his first 100 days in office.
The new fan experience will be driven minimally by CDC guidelines, institutional and venue-specific mandates and state parameters. The ultimate goal: creating a safe and welcoming space for fans to return to, from arrival to departure and back again for future contests.
So, what does happen when fans can and do return? To this point we’ve gone from fan-less arenas to gradual roll outs of 15-to-20-to-25% fan capacity in recent competitions. Eventually all venues will re-open, and the fan experience will need to look much different than it did pre-pandemic.
Preparing and anticipating how to meet the wants and needs of fans has taken center stage. Some say it’s one of the most vital engagements in sports business since the 9/11 attacks. We’ve highlighted five areas of concern and provided our opinion on how these wants and needs can be addressed.
Celebrate and Connect
Now is the time to engage your fan base. Recognize and celebrate those who might be ready to return, and keep them engaged until they’re back in the stands. Start with an incentive that shows your institution and team are excited to have these fans reengaged. Whether that’s a promo code, discount on merchandise or services, or a ticket package deal, it’s the first point of contact to your fanbase.
Social media is the next step in this engagement. The key is to make things authentic and enthusiastic while maintaining your brand and presence. While some fans are comfortable with this return, some aren’t, and it’s crucial to make each side feel as appreciated.
Use first-level resources to create a virtual fan experience. These can include contests, giveaways, facility or game day walk throughs, and meet-and-greets via Zoom with players, coaches, staff to engage immediately. When it comes to the televised approach, offer new camera angles, live microphones, behind the scenes content and user controls. Both of these types of initiatives will give immediate buy-in.
The New Approach
People returning to stadiums are curious about what the new fan experience will be like, but they also have fears. They want to know what the venue space will look like, what changes will be made, and (most importantly) that they will be kept safe. Institutions and teams should use their social networks to give the fans this knowledge and potentially ease their fears. Doing so will increase awareness while educating on policies, safety protocols and cleaning measures being taken.
Many fan bases are also concerned not just about their fan experience but their personal well-being. What will institutions now require for admission into their stadiums and arenas? Will masks be necessary? What about a vaccination mandate? How close will fans be sitting to the next group of fans? Do I have to pass them when leaving my seat to get food and beverages or go to the bathroom?
In a poll administered by Sportico, 62% of respondents want entrants to have verifiable proof that they’ve been vaccinated to enter event facilities. But will this be a mandate? What about individuals with religious and health exemptions or personal rights to choose? Upon entrance to an event, will a negative rapid test be required?
At least one professional team has already decided at least some such measures will help. The NBA’s Miami Heat just announced it will reserve two lower level sections at games for fully vaccinated fans. A CDD-issued vaccination card dated at least 14 days prior to game day must be shown before entry. These fans will be admitted through a separate gate and have one seat between them in this section.
All of these concerns raised start with one common thread: communication. It’s the most important to build trust with your fan base and ensure a positive fan experience. Providing information in advance helps build that foundation, and insuring attendees follow the rules while not putting others in uncomfortable situations is how trust is garnered. Releasing information such as studies of effectiveness, or a “Welcome Back Walkthrough” gives a sense of security, easing potential tensions.
Financial Touch Points
Life stopped in March 2020 for many businesses, employees and universities with the loss/furlough of jobs and plunging business. At what cost does this come to teams whose fan base might not have the means to return?
Ticket pricing and package incentives are key to seeing fans come back. Purchasing power is greatly affected in these times; nowhere is this more apparent than with concessions, memorabilia and gear. The major factor is the ROI fans will receive during their experience. How do these purchases enhance their experience or affect their decisions?
Common touch points through an arena or stadium are now a focus of the fan experience. Entering through parking, going through security checkpoints and ticketing lines, walking to your seat, purchasing food or beverages… All provide opportunities to safeguard patrons so they don’t feel their well-being is being compromised.
In-game app purchases and concession delivery will drive consumption. Imagine never having to leave your seat because your hot dog, beer, raffle ticket or t-shirt is delivered directly to you. Contactless payments allow transactions to be completed with ease so you never miss a snap, shot or swing. Teams will need to enhance WiFi services, hotspots and connection points throughout their venues to accommodate increased contactless transactions.
Sanitation stations, extra throw-away masks, anti-bacterial wipes and other measures will give peace of mind when communal areas can’t be avoided. Most stadiums have a mask loophole allowing fans to pull down their masks while eating or drinking. However, there will need to be constant accountability and redirection given when that policy is abused. Offering a time-limited, space-observed mask-break zone also allow fans who desire this freedom to exercise it in a safe environment.
Another fan experience opportunity lies in specifying certain times, seating blocks or admission steps for groups of spectators. For example:
- A stadium allows those with tickets in sections A, C and E to enter between 5:00 and 6:00 pm. Fans in sections B, D and F would enter between 6:00 and 7:00 pm. This would stagger crowds to help facilitate safe distancing.
- A separate gate is designated for fully vaccinated fans. They might also not have to wear masks or take a rapid COVID test before entry.
- Certain sections are set aside for vaccinated or non-vaccinated fans.
Specific levels of donors, boosters, or season-ticket holders could receive higher-level opportunities (for example, a preferred entry time) than a single-game ticket holder. Analyze what premium experiences your venue or team can offer within a safe environment.
Give Feedback and Show Improvement
Rome was not built in one day; likewise, an end-all fix doesn’t come overnight with perfect execution. As said, be open minded and receptive to any feedback from fans, players, coaches, staff and the community. Seeking continual improvement and safety enhancement of the fan experience is of the upmost importance.
As a forward-thinking opportunity, survey your fans, gather their feelings and thoughts and address every concern, big or small. Overall, communication here is paramount!
While the return of fans to the stands is imminent, questions remain regarding athlete safety and the safeguards being implemented. Another raised concern is that of vaccination and whether coaches and student-athletes are considered “essential” in the distribution.
March Madness has been in full swing with a limited capacity of fans allowed in the host arenas. To date, there have been no game cancellations due to fan interaction. As safety precautions continue to evolve and fan interaction grows, programs such as Mississippi State baseball have recently announced full capacity return. Fellow SEC members Missouri and Alabama also made official announcements of their plans to have their respective football stadiums return to full capacity for the 2021 season beginning in September.
On the west coast, competitions in California are still taking place without fans. In New Mexico, some outdoor competitions are being held on a county-by-county basis. New Mexico State recently hosted its first event since March 10, 2020, welcoming 35% capacity crowds to its baseball contests against Dixie State. Indoor events are still not allowed to take place and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
James Moore’s higher education and collegiate athletics CPAs will keep providing updates and clarification as changes in the fan experience and attendance at NCAA events evolve. We are tracking the developments affecting your industry and are available to discuss how these changes could impact your institution.
All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a James Moore professional. James Moore will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.
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