Sports viewership is down across the board. Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi all decided against running Super Bowl ads this year. As the pandemic shows little sign of relenting in the near term, it’s clear that leagues and broadcasters are going to have to think about fans in new ways to get everyone watching sports again.
While a variety of sources bear some responsibility for the decline in viewership, the truth is likely far more simple. Sports leagues have become overly accustomed to habitual consumer behavior that is no longer relevant in a pandemic. Assuming that sports fans’ habits would remain intact in the absence of regular maintenance and reinforcement runs contrary to what we know about consumer behavior, particularly habit formation.
With viewership for the regular season declining from previous years, and ratings of Super Bowl LV also down, the NFL in particular must find new ways to engage its audience, build new habits, and continue reinforcing them so that casual fans turn off their streaming services and come back to live sports.
Confronting the global pandemic, the NFL made a concerted effort to keep its operation as similar as possible to previous years. Outside of pumping in some extra fake crowd noise, this was—and often felt like—an authentic NFL season. Instead of an abbreviated regular season, they still played all 17 weeks. Teams didn’t play in a bubble like the NBA. They traveled and played in home stadiums (sometimes even with fans).
But all of that wasn’t enough to keep fans’ habits from breaking. One of the greatest strengths of the NFL is that games are always on Sunday and Monday night, creating a ritual that borders on the religious for many fans. But as teams got positive tests, the league moved kickoffs around rapidly. Suddenly we had Tuesday Night Football, then Wednesday Afternoon Football. For the first time in decades, keeping up with the NFL wasn’t as simple as tuning in on Sunday afternoon, and the ratings suffered, dropping 7% compared to 2019 according to Nielsen.
Even if it means canceling or rescheduling more games, the NFL must make Sunday sacred again.
Think about all of the people at the last Super Bowl party you went to. If asked to describe their football fandom, you would likely boil them down into three types of people: avid fans, casual fans, and people in the wrong place.
This is valid. Most of us have a tendency to describe fandom on a spectrum of intensity. But when it comes to understanding habits and behaviors, that scale doesn’t give us much direction on how to reach these fans and encourage them to turn their TVs back on.
By segmenting NFL fans on their underlying needs and attitudes, the league could better understand how to engage fans in new, compelling ways. As an example, let’s take a look at three segments of people you probably saw at your last Super Bowl party, keeping in mind that each of these groups will feature both avid and casual fans.
Note: we’ve conducted a number of rigorous sports-related segmentations, and the below segments are broadly representative of our findings.
Who are they? Driven by storylines and big plays, these fans tuned in to see if this would be the game that further cements Tom Brady as the G.O.A.T., or if he’d pass the torch to Patrick Mahomes. They love the big plays, leaping catches, and the big moments that everyone will remember from the game the next day.
How to reach them: Focus on the storylines around the game, and don’t be afraid to go past the surface. The game has more stars than just the quarterbacks. Highlight Heroes want to hear about the return of the Gronk, or Leonard Fournette’s ability to turn it on in the playoffs. Emphasize and underscore game-changing plays, and keep building the stories for future games and seasons.
Who are they? These are the fans most impacted by COVID. The Super Bowl party is just as important as the game to them. Socializers don’t need big plays or storylines like the Highlight Heroes, but they do need some buzz and an event; they tune in and perk up for the halftime show, funny commercials, and the greater spectacle.
How to reach them: While social gatherings are still unsafe, this fan isn’t a write-off. Instead promote ways for them to interact with their friends as they watch the game. Zoom calls, prop bets, or squares – anything that can help recreate the game day atmosphere that they’ve been sorely missing.
Who are they? Strategists live for the X’s and O’s. This is the group you’ll find breaking down the all-22 film come Monday morning. While they enjoy big plays just like the Highlight Heroes, they also want to tell you about the plays and strategic gambles that led to the big moment. They’ll spend their time focused on the game and would probably be just as happy watching alone as with a larger group.
How to reach them: Make sure someone in the commentator’s booth has insider knowledge (like Tony Romo). But beyond that, give them tools before the game to learn more, and tie coverage back to those tools. Feed them content leading up to the game about how the Bucs excel at DB blitzes, and call that out when it happens during the game.
At a time when there are so many entertainment possibilities competing for our time and attention, people need better reasons to tune in to live sports. By understanding fans’ needs and attitudes in the nuanced way afforded by this kind of analysis, it’s easier to build and promote new habits and give people the types of content that drives their behavior. A market segmentation provides the right lens to grow audiences across sports, both during and after the pandemic.
This article was co-authored by Tyler Solloway, VP of Marketing and Data Science and rabid sports fan.