The Business of Sport: Are Our Venues Letting Us Down?

Sport is big business, and sponsorship has never been more popular. I recently read that a whopping 65 percent of the €26bn market for European sponsorship is accounted for by sports. Companies jump at the chance to drive brand awareness and market share through association with clubs or events. But are sponsors really getting bang for their buck?

To me, the live event is one of the most underestimated areas of sports sponsorship. It’s uncanny that as consumers, we are ultra-connected, inherently well-informed, and hold the power to alter brands reputations, yet we don’t wince at the third-rate customer experience we typically get when we enter a stadium. In Europe especially, many of our venues are communication black holes. We’ve come to expect bad WiFi and limited mobile signal–along with the warm beer and long queue for the toilets at half time.

While poor connectivity is a symptom of the sturdy design of the stadiums themselves (and of networks unprepared to handle high concentrations of mobile devices and bandwidth-hungry apps), the under-servicing of loyal customers is purely a missed opportunity for venues, clubs and sponsors.

How long before sports fans call time on the status quo?

Nowadays, we not only expect a once-in-a-lifetime adventure match-side, we want to be able to capture and share our experiences with the communities we’re part of. Today, most of that is done digitally on mobile. Cast your mind back to Wimbledon 2013 when ‘Murray Mania’ sent the world into a social frenzy and 1.1 million people tweeted 2.6 million times, using tennis-related hashtags. Nearly 80 percent of those tweets came from mobiles.

Mobility gives consumers power to act in the moment. And when you give this power to an emotionally-charged captive audience–such as a stadium full of sports fans–magic happens. That’s when we start to see collective sharing through Twitter and Facebook, rapidly evolving social trends and hashtags, and viral brand awareness that is hard to engineer.

It’s no surprise then that sponsors are looking for more than just putting their names to stadiums or their logo on the team’s shirts. To make a large sponsorship investment worthwhile, brands want to monetize a massive captive audience. They want to influence fans through powerful digital channels, and build an emotional engagement on both a personal and viral level. Venues are recognizing that this level of fan engagement pays dividends for them too, through additional purchase and direct digital marketing.

Technologies like contactless payments and stadium apps to help you find a parking spot or access player information on the last goal scorer have incredible potential to boost engagement for fans and advertisers, especially as younger fans demand greater digital interaction with their team, their surroundings and their friends. But without the supporting communications infrastructure, these connected technologies are as good as redundant–and our venues will be too.

Encouragingly, the level of connectivity in stadiums across the UK and Europe is expected to grow over the next two years with a number of venues already leading the way.

In the run up to this year’s Investec Ashes series, Glamorgan County Cricket Club’s SWALEC Stadium in Wales is the latest ground to respond to this shift, by fitting a brand new communications network to support next-generation media coverage of the first Test match.

Accompanying 120 journalists from around the world will be a myriad of bandwidth-hungry devices, many of which will be used for live video streaming and second screening, as well as social media reporting. Looking to the future, the club’s ultimate goal is to deliver a 21st-century fan experience by becoming the world’s most technically advanced cricket stadium. It will use technology to reinvent the spectator experience in cricket through custom apps, e-commerce, marketing initiatives and promotions, and to boost the value proposition for sponsors.

So we see that sport is already becoming a fully-connected world and venues have an opportunity to become industry leaders with the right technologies in place. With the sports sponsorship market in the UK forecast to grow by almost 15 percent between now and 2018, let’s hope our venues don’t let the side down.