How Has Fandom Shifted & What Can Brands Do to Reach, Engage and Build Fanbases?

In light of the ongoing Women’s World Cup, we wanted to explore the ever-evolving landscape of fandom. In this piece, we have spoken with industry experts to delve into the dynamic shifts that have shaped the world of fan communities and discover the strategies brands can employ to connect, captivate and cultivate their own devoted fanbases.

Louise Johnson, CEO, Fuse

Sports and culture continue to evolve at breakneck speed as an overlapping physical and virtual world becomes the new norm for sports fans. Brands that can ‘win’ in this increasingly borderless environment are those that fully embed themselves in emerging subcultures, shaping – not surfing – the culture.

Brands can achieve this by owning a large portion of screen time. Non-live is the new battle ground and personalisation and gamification of fans’ passions drives up both share of screen time and shareability. Whilst short-form has been trending across all social media platforms, the importance of long-form cannot be underestimated. Documentaries, such as Drive to Survive and Break Point, are part of new premium content formats that continue to shape the next era of sport fandom. Brands should seek these opportunities to fuel fans’ unrelenting thirst for non-live content and play a more meaningful role beyond product placement.

Clearly technology is changing the game, but most of the innovation in fan engagement has largely been driven by rights holders getting fans closer to the action and allowing them to immerse themselves in the content. The new feature in the NBA app will soon do exactly this by letting users virtually sub in for a player during a live NBA game with an avatar.

Brands that can get ahead by testing new formats and technology like this will fast track themselves to earning a new and growing fan base.

Lee Geraghty, Partner/Head of Market UK, jump! innovation

The best way to engage sports fans, on any platform, is to spend time with them; to understand them, to live, breathe and share their experiences, which is why we, at jump!, once ended up hemmed in amongst the hardcore tattooed masses of the Milan ultras in the Curva Sud in San Siro…for the sake of research.

You can learn from the extremes, but the real revolution in sport is happening in the mainstream. To capture sports fans across platforms, you need to first understand the changing nature of the modern ‘fan’.

More people are now following individual players, than teams. There has been a shift in the idea of team identity, roots, tradition, sense of place – younger generations still want sport to feel visceral and meaningful, but are looking for more access to players and more personal connections with individual stars. .

The lines between sport and entertainment continue to blur. Drive to Survive, the F1 show on Netflix, is seen by many as the greatest/most impactful content series of all time. Nearly three in four fans under 45 attributed the show to their newfound fandom in the sport. There’s an opportunity for brands and sponsors to bring fans behind the scenes because this opens up new ways to enjoy the entertainment and storylines in sport.

The overlap with gaming and betting is giving non-fans new ways to engage with the category. Data analytics, in US sports and football, is opening up new stats-based approaches to fandom. Sports brands should really lean into this to appeal to a new kind of fan; one that is more analytical and intellectually curious about how it works.

Sports brands looking to entice fans and keep them, need to cater for the personal, embrace the blurring of lines between sports and entertainment and create content, and adjacencies, suitable for differing attention spans and a thirst for data.

Nick Blenkarne, Head of Strategy, Imagination

It’s no secret that many sports are struggling with ageing fanbases, and recent reports suggest that Gen Z are less interested in sports than their predecessors, with attention spans dwindling and long – term trends showing a decline in TV ratings for sports.

But this shift presents an opportunity for progressive sports and brands that are prepared to experiment and push the boundaries, to find new ways of entertaining next-gen sports fans, on their terms. Below are three principles to remember in order to connect meaningfully with fans through sport.

Enable participation, and let fans create

Fans want to help shape the sports they love, not just sit in the stands. Rather than treating fan culture as distinct from the professional game, brands can build fans by allowing them to participate in it.  At the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Visa understood this, creating an LED football pitch for fans in the stadium to jump on and draw an NFT design with their feet, introducing a technology element that changed the way those fans saw the brand.

Experiment with new formats

Increasingly, sports fans are looking for reinventions, or experimental new versions of sports, that make them more fun and accessible. In 2022, Major League Baseball experimented with the traditional longer form baseball format  and created a new short-form version, Home Run Derby X.

The coalescence of social and gaming for next gen sports fans

The way in which new-gen fans consume sport is fundamentally changing, whether it’s platforms that blur the lines between social and gaming, or spaces that prioritise community and inclusivity, brands can think about how they can show up in places that those audiences live, using technology to enhance the experience.