Sports Apps: 7 Reasons Leagues and Teams Are Moving Fan Engagement Focus From Social Media

Sports apps are the new focus for fan engagement. Learn the 7 reasons why leagues & teams are building & enhancing digital fandoms outside of social media.

sports apps being used by 5 male and female fans sitting in a bar.

Here’s a new truth: As many as 99% of your fans may never attend one of your games in person.

You have fans around the world, and many of those fans support your team and athletes very far away from any in-market or in-country arena. Many won’t be near a broadcast signal. You have even more fans now, thanks to social and digital media (including OTT streaming services and direct-to-consumer (DTC) sports apps). And you have no physical limit to the growth of this fanbase. 

Sports fandom is visible today on social platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Discord. Like many industries, sports properties built their content and digital fan communities on the borrowed land of these companies with massive reach. Leagues and teams were busy running sports operations. So trading awareness and engagement for “rented” fan relationships made sense.

But sports properties are realizing that “owning” the digital fan experience is just as important as owning the physical experience. And in the future, it will be much more important.

The Great Digital Content Transformation in Sports

The great transformation we’re experiencing is that sports organizations are becoming media and entertainment organizations. They’re recognizing the full opportunities and future potential around taking more ownership of their digital content and fans. And they’re seeing the pitfalls of relying on third-party social media companies to nurture both. 

In that transformation, they’ve realized what traditional media companies had already known: Fan engagement can’t be outsourced. Sponsorship revenue, ticketing and merchandise sales are all driven by fan loyalty and engagement. Engaging audiences directly through their own content real estate, like sports apps, makes sense. 

Now, social media is helping rights holders by acting as a starting point. It’s a way to attract new and casual fans. But the real digital media action is happening in their owned sports apps. Social media continues to help lead followers of these brands to where their journey really begins. That’s on owned land, as a true fan consumer.

Large and small sports leagues and teams worldwide have tracked the shifting sports fan diaspora. And they’ve projected the positive impact of closer fan bonds. They’re diversifying their content investments and making major steps to move fans into their own walled environments.

It’s within these spaces, particularly sports apps, where sports properties can steer, replicate, safeguard and enhance the fan experience. And it’s where you can capture the rewards (fan data, revenue and loyalty) that follow them. 

Social Media Is Only One Part of the Fan Funnel

Social media remains a key part of the fan path to build awareness and engagement with your sports property. But creating your own mobile digital space for them is now vital. It’s the surest way to convert these followers to long-standing, revenue-generating loyalists. 

These supporters may not buy gameday tickets from countries or continents away. But they buy and absorb everything else around a live event that’s available virtually. That includes merchandise, subscriptions, content packages, experiences and sponsor products. Your local fans will devour it all. 

And wherever they are, fans influence others around them. Sports loyalists tend to show up more purposefully to the best sports app for their favorite sports content than a social app they’re scrolling aimlessly through for many reasons. On that social app, depending on how they catch the algorithm at any given moment, they may not even see your content at all. 

mobile sports app being used by two male sports fans, one holding a soccer ball.

The Trends That Are Spurring This Mobile Sports App Shift

A direct-to-consumer sports app is where sports properties can build genuine centralized fan communities. These communities are more meaningful, consistent and measurable than those on social channels. Plus, there’s the opportunity to create a branded UX that’s all yours. These apps are perfectly suited to serve fans all the short-form digital content and experiences they want, 24/7. 

It’s the new sports broadcasting for always on-the-go audiences.

Several current trends have propelled this social-to-DTC sports app shift in digital strategy for leagues and teams.

1. Availability of First-Party User Data

One of the key challenges of outsourcing fan relationships to social media is that the platforms control their user data. They can use this information to deepen these relationships and target fans for advertising. That’s where the platforms also reap the rewards. 

With owned apps and greater accessibility of first-party data, sports properties can prosper in this area. You can better understand, program and market to individual fans, with no other gatekeepers. Personalizing experiences, curating content, and selling tailored tickets, merchandise and subscription offerings become much easier and more lucrative. 

The NBA, for one, has revamped its robust DTC sports app with a data-driven NBA ID free membership program. This offering creates a universal profile for a fan to learn their preferences. It curates app and game experiences, content and promotions just for them. 

“…With the potential of Google deprecating cookies, Elon’s Twitter acquisition, TikTok security concerns, Apple’s controversial 30% cut of all app revenue, Facebook’s big gamble of the metaverse, etc., there feels like a few inflection points that could drastically change the way these technologies are used. It further emphasizes the critical need for teams and leagues to focus on first-party data collection in order to directly engage with fans and understand their behaviors.”

– Jim Hanauer, VP, Fanbase Engineering, Product & Analytics, LEARFIELD

2. The Dark Web

Another issue is how and where to engage fans authentically. Fans have become fragmented across screens and social platforms — and across niche groups on those platforms. With the rise of dark social on the web, more fans are meeting online in places you can’t see or influence. 

Bringing them into your own managed universe, like within a DTC sports app, is a winning move. It ensures you can interact with fans and deepen their relationships with your sports property and other supporters.

By creating and managing those communities in your own walled garden consistently, you can help them feel free to engage with other fans and your property naturally. You can set the terms of your transparency, brand safety and community moderation. And you can determine how you offer direct relationships to your brand and sponsors. 

3. Platform Reliability

And then there are the platforms themselves. Recent storms with TikTok, Twitter and others are a stark reminder of the importance of diversifying content and fan experiences. Whether through brand safety concerns or questions about the future of particular platforms, it’s an uncertain time.

Sports properties are taking a hard look at how much they can rely on these channels from now on to be the primary places for nurturing digital fan relationships. 

Yes, there are new social media platform options cropping up often. But none of them will offer the best long-term opportunity to build a fan community your way. That’s only going to happen within your own sports app experience. 

4. Shift in Content Preferences

The paradigm shift in how fans want to consume content (and the type of content they prefer) is playing out on all channels. Streaming content, short-form media, vertical videos and Stories — from highlights to the content beyond the highlights — are front and center.

Sports organizations are integrating these formats easily into their sports apps. And they’re capturing, packaging and distributing this content to meet the wants and needs of younger, mobile-first fans. That’s true even for fans who dive into apps as companion experiences to linear TV content.

Delivering the media they expect is helping to build deeper bonds with all these supporters. And it’s enabling rights holders to monetize all the content you capture throughout the year. So story-driven content that’s vertical, mobile-captured and optimized, and beyond-the-broadcast is here to stay.

5. Rise of Athlete-Driven Content

People are interested in other people. So in the fan preferences pecking order, a favorite athlete now comes before their favorite sport or club. As a result, sports fans — particularly younger fans— have moved their focus from team-based content to athlete-based content. Brand channels are less important to them than the personal channels of their preferred players.

And athletes, in turn, have become the most important marketing partners for leagues and teams. That’s because they help multiply your fan reach exponentially in ways your social platform accounts never will. 

Having a DTC fan engagement app means you can offer all the different player-driven and player-created content and updates fans want. And you can surface it alongside — and integrated with — your live game streams, ancillary content, club sales offerings and much more. It’s a continuous play you direct, with your athletes as the stars.

6. Advances in Mobile App Technology

Ongoing improvements in sports app technology have enabled sports leagues and teams of all sizes, in every sport and region, to improve your direct offerings and content to fans. And they’ve allowed rights holders to provide more enticements to move followers from social media into these owned spaces. 

Fans can now get more specialized offerings than one-way app content feeds of archived content. They can stream full-length games and interact with other fans and players (even one day inhabit a player). Also, they can get customized language offerings, take part in promotions, and even submit their own original content. That’s happening right in these apps, in the palm of their hands.

7. Value-Added Experiences

DTC sports apps are where enhanced and targeted fan experiences shine. And fans are more interested in them than ever. 

In an owned digital universe, clubs can offer supporters an integrated matchday experience. This offering can include VIP treatment, unique partner activations, and real-time updates and analyses. It can also feature exclusive all-access content, augmented reality and special camera views, and much more.

Sports organizations can craft personalized, direct marketing offerings that aren’t at the mercy of a social media algorithm or paid advertising. And apps are great for fan niches. You can use them to engage segmented audiences that are passionate about sports + something else to attract more sponsor revenue.

Making the Shift to Mobile Sports Apps

These seven opportunities can help you plan to take a bigger stake in not only leading your fan communities closer to your sports property but making them your fans for life. 

Social media platforms and DTC sports apps can co-exist and complement each other in your digital content and fan engagement strategies. But owned spaces are becoming increasingly popular for building and maintaining fandom. And they’re a means to optimize investments in content without relying only on rented property and relationships. 

Greenfly helps leagues and teams worldwide orchestrate their large volumes of short-form, all-access content. This media fills both social media feeds and sports apps. Reach out to us today to learn more. 

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