Understanding fans’ psyche in a COVID world



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Bernie Mullin on Coliseum US Image: World Rugby & Bernie Mullin

Atlanta (US)-based The Aspire Group is a global sports and entertainment firm partnering with clients to maximize revenue, people and organizational performance.

In an exclusive with ‘Coliseum’, Bernie Mullin, Chairman and Founder, The Aspire Group, US, talks about the trends and challenges the sports and entertainment sector will face in a pandemic-struck planet to engage the fan base and asserted that it will require some effort to bring spectators back to the stadia fold.

March 2020, global outbreak of COVID-19, and the world is no longer the same anymore. The dreaded virus has brought in its trail death and destruction globally. The virus variants of COVID-19 like Delta and Omicron are continuing to wreak havoc in the world with Europe presently bearing the brunt full on.

Against such a backdrop, Bernie Mullin examines why it will not be an easy task to pull fans back into venues by the horde – from the couch to the venue.
 

Futuristic technology

The pandemic has accelerated the pace of technology advancement and Bernie Mullin noted that due to cutting-edge technology and the various streaming services, fans are happier to be at home rather than tailgating in the stadium parking lot.
 

Membership model

COVID-19 has brought about behavioral change in fans as Mullin observed, “We are seeing a continuous progression. I think COVID and the COVID disruption is going to continue to move us in the direction away from season tickets and more to a membership model. The membership model is going to be a deeper relationship between the fans and the sports property and particularly with the players and the coaches there is going to be a lot of experiences delivered virtually.”

The pandemic has thrown up huge challenges for sports performers – athletes, coaches, referees – with potential effects on their lives and career trajectories.

Getting fans to stands is not what it used to be in a pre-COVID world. Stringent COVID rules have been laid down in stadia and fans face some pretty invasive protocols before they can enter the stadium precincts. And not all fans are willing to share so much of personal data and they would rather sit back at home and watch matches sitting in front of their television sets.
 

Flexible product

Mullin stated that sound strategies will have to be devised to lure fans back into the arenas in a pandemic environment.

He narrated, “One of our clients – the Major League Baseball (MLB) team San Francisco Giants – has come back strongly post-COVID and they have come out with this ‘Flex Books’ product – a completely flexible product to lure fans. It’s basically 40 vouchers that can be used in any way that fans desire to do so. They can have two tickets to one game which means one can do two tickets to 20 games. So, it is all about flexibility.”
 

Streaming services

The present flavor in a COVID-struck world is either Zoom meetings or Microsoft Teams or a Google hangout for professionals – everything happening in the virtual mode.

In this emerging digital age and the fluid pandemic situation, fans are getting attracted to streaming services just like moths to a flame. Nearly two-thirds of sports fans would like to watch sports exclusively via online streaming services as Mullin asserted, “There will be this huge trend across the world of more and more streaming services. I think you are going to see all the fans moving away from the in-venue experience. Some people would simply not like to go out of the house.”

He added, “The things we have seen worldwide is massive spending the people have done through home improvements and spending lots of money improving their living experience and entertainment experience.”

He wanted to drive home the fact that as the virus situation has forced people to stay cooped up inside their houses for months together following countries clamping lockdowns, the sports venue professionals will have to “pamper” the fans enough so that they find enough reasons to make a trip to the venue.
 

Blue carpet experience

A ‘cooped up’ world has got more used to the “blue carpet experience” – relaxing and unwinding at home on a blue rug as Mullin explained, “During this last 18 to 20 months people have got used to more space -stretching their legs out and watching games on television sets. As a result, stadia operators will have to bring in a big change in a lot of the premium seating areas by providing more space to the spectators.”

Due to the pandemic, fans have got used to watching games in their living rooms, and there is a steady supply of gourmet food from their home kitchen as the top shot pointed out, “People have got used to more sit-down and the buffet-type World Cup dining elements will no longer appeal to them. There will have to be a change in the service dynamic in stadia.”
 

Shortage of labor

However, Mullin stated that it will not be an easy task to provide everything to fans on a platter in the sports facilities and it comes with its set of challenges – “Post-COVID, there is a huge shortage of labor and a lot of the older, more experienced staffs and service staffs in our venues are not coming back. We are retraining, and we are training people who have not worked for 18 months or maybe 20 months. A lot of the employees do not want to come back. This is causing problems.”

He added, “Labor cost has gone up through the roof and the cost of us providing the product with labor has gone up significantly. We know this for our own company in terms of the base pay has probably gone up 30 to 35 percent in the last 18 months in terms of being able to attract people back to the labor market and, therefore, the pressure on revenue generation across the entire sports and entertainment industry is going to be even greater not just because of the cost of labor but the cost of supplies and all the other products.”
 

Advantage esports

The next big thing is esports. As the virulent virus has created a void in live traditional sports, esports is going to capitalize on the situation. With the latest virus variant Omicron again turning the world topsy-turvy and ghost games back in venues, esports makes perfect sense – a competition best suited to indoor play and as Mullin stated the next big trend is esports which will reign supreme – “There are going to be more focus on data capture even though young people involved in esports might want to protect their privacy but with the thrill of watching games together in stadia almost becoming a thing of the past, people would love to be involved in collective experiences through esports and bring the warmth back.”
 

Discerning spectators

Mullin stated that another trend which is emerging in a post-COVID world is the discerning fan – “People are willing to spend more for particular matches and games. The best example is soccer giant Cristiano Ronaldo’s opening match for the Premier League team Manchester United when he returned to Manchester United this season with the average ticket prices on the secondary market – 2,000 pounds per ticket.”

Basically, he pointed out that despite the pandemic, people are ready to spend a fortune to watch a Ronaldo in action but they will not risk going to the venue to watch every soccer game. It will take a Ronaldo to lure fans to venues.

He added, “Not all games are sold out. This is not just a necessity-driven product, it is a fan-driven product. In a pre-pandemic planet, fans used to come in droves to watch a match, but now fans are very selective about which games they want to watch in the venue. There are a lot of variations in the market in this regard. Another example is Euro 2020. Matches held in Hungary were a total sell-out but it was not the case with all the fixtures.”
 

Financial wherewithal

Mullin explained that fans are more selective about watching matches in a post-COVID scenario as “their flexibility to pay more is extremely limited and probably even more limited post-COVID with the post-COVID experience. A high-end customer would pay a bomb to buy a ticket but the same will have to come with more amenities, more plush – whether its club, lounge, pre-match food, half-time food, post-match food, and entertainment so that the mix of the entertainment is much higher and, therefore, the cost is higher and the revenue is higher, because it is a corporate buy or a corporate expense or because they are perhaps more affluent to spend more.”

However, he asserted that the “Middle-of-the-road fan and the fan buying the cheaper terrace seat behind the goal isn’t going to pay more. I just don’t think the market is there for that.”
 

Experiential factor

He opined that be it the Premier League team Everton F.C.’s proposed football stadium Bramley-Moore Dock Stadium or these new venues which are going to be designed, they will have to be “stickier” that is for fans to stick around to the arenas for a long time, they will have to offer “a lot of attractive amenities around – whether it’s a picnicking area, tailgating areas or whether it’s more shops or experiences or epicurean delight, it will have to be a lot more experiential for the entire members of the family.”

Fans today are ready to splurge but not just for watching the match, but for all the amenities around the venue.

Bernie Mullin has sent out the message loud and clear -in a post-COVID environment, when fans reach the venue ahead of a match or event, they will have to certify that they don’t have COVID, they will go through touchless thermometers and there will be scanners looking for people with elevated temperatures and those people can be identified and pulled aside for an additional check. Not many fans would like to face such a situation and would prefer watching games from the comfy confines of their homes. In such a scenario, stadia will have to offer much more to lure spectators or they will literally have to hold almost people’s hands to pull them back to the venues.

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