Is technology taking the magic out of sports fandom?

Memes help fuel "Fan Media."
Memes help fuel "Fan Media."

To equal the sense of community people derive from attending a game, brands need to embrace the connections they can create with "Fan Media"

This summer’s FIFA 2014 World Cup was not only record-setting in TV audience numbers but a groundbreaking event in social media. Twitter saw a colossal 672 million tweets sent out over the course of four weeks, the largest number for any event in the social network’s history. And 280 million Facebook interactions occurred during the Germany-Argentina final, engaging 88 million people globally, and making it the most talked about sporting event ever seen on Facebook.

However, as we at McCann Truth Central found in a global study conducted during the World Cup, the trend towards more is not necessarily better when it comes to social media and sports. Many fans expressed ambivalence, even concern, about whether the boom in digital media involvement during sports events might in fact be compromising the real-life fan experience.

Our "Truth About Fans" study, based on in-person interviews in 24 countries and supplemented by a quantitative multi-country survey, showed that not all soccer fans were enthusiastic about social media’s impact on the sports viewing. A Colombian fan perhaps put it best when she said, "Social media has made the experience of watching football worse, in the sense that many people don't pay attention to the match because they are checking their social networks."

Her comments evoke the increasingly familiar picture of a group of fans huddled together around a television but focusing entirely on their personal electronic devices. This phenomenon has grown dramatically just since the 2010 matches. A recent Google study comparing 2010 to 2014 soccer audience trends, found that in the 2010 FIFA World Cup searches were conducted more or less equally on desktop and mobile, and spiked towards the end of the match, as fans were focused on the big screen during play. By contrast, in the UEFA 2014 championship, searches peaked during the game, and occurred mostly on mobile, re-enforcing the trend of mobile devices becoming more and more central to the experience of watching sports.

That other big juggernaut, "data", is also bearing down on the game. In the past, all that fans could rely upon to predict or influence the outcome of a match was gut instinct, lucky socks and animal psychics. Now, with fans on the cusp of access to irrefutable real-time data, it could herald a new era, where the game becomes more predictable and infinitely dissectible. Could know-it-all fans become the coach, manager and advisor of their team? Will algorithms somehow reduce the glorious unpredictably of the sport?

Connecting fans globally via memes

On the flip side, digital media has undoubted benefits for fans as is helps them to connect with those who share their passion. Once upon a time fans or fan groups used to live in relative isolation. An ardent baseball fan’s audience would have been his school or neighborhood or local community. But with the incredible global connectedness that the Internet has enabled, he can now have a truly international audience.

This global network of sports fans is also inventing a universal language of memes and GIFs – highly visual, pithy and bite-sized pieces of content that function like online repartee. A true mash-up of sports with advertising, politics, religion, entertainment and virtually every other aspect of pop culture from around the world, fans are using this multi-cultural, inter-referential language to write the narrative of sports. 

This is an alternate history of events, created for and by fellow fans. So potent and pervasive is this narrative that it is becoming a form of media in itself: Fan Media.

As one fan in Panama put it, "Instant memes and updates made sure we all got the information we wanted by the second. It was an overload of information coming from all social media and devices. There were definitely also people who never follow football but fell into the meme craze." In a culture of ‘tweet or it didn’t happen’, fans are eagerly monitoring and contributing to the online chatter.

Brands are now speaking the new language of fandom

Snickers perfectly captured the snappy, witty, in-the-moment language of fans when they released this tweet shortly after Luis Suarez of Uruguay bit Giorgio Chiellini of Italy during a World Cup match. The Internet was instantly aflame with memes, but Snickers grabbed major attention for a simple and spontaneous gem suggesting to Suarez that the next time he was hungry, he should just grab a Snickers.          

In this incredibly interconnected world, other companies have recognized the need to appeal to global audiences even when addressing a local sports event. For instance, MetLife, a long-term supporter of the New York Yankees, knows that the team enjoys strong support among Japanese baseball fans, because of the Japanese baseball stars on its roster. So it recently started displaying its logo in English as well as Japanese for games taking place in Yankee stadium, demonstrating a real understanding of its global audience.

The growth in Fan Media is also driving an evolution in the way in which marketers think about advertising. In the traditional model, brands were mostly concerned with making themselves look good in front of fans. But in the world of Fan Media, brands must also think about how to help fans look good in front of other fans. EA sports understood this well when it created the Madden GIFerator, a library of GIFs that fans could extensively customize before sharing on social media. Whether to heckle fans of rival teams or celebrate a phenomenal play by a favorite sports star, EA Sports was able to integrate itself into the conversation among fans.

Like many modern musings on technology, the role of digital in the world of the fan is a game of two halves. On one side, it’s distracting and at times overwhelming, on the other, it’s unleashing a new global connectedness and shared language.

One thing is certainly true: Thanks to pervasive connectivity and data, fans are no longer on the sidelines; they're up close and personal with the game, they're on the pitch, they're on the inside. Smart brands need to be insiders too, seeking every opportunity to amplify rather than dominate the fan narrative.

Arvind Raman is a senior brand journalist with McCann Truth Central, McCann’s global thought-leadership unit.

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