Athletes as fan engagement generators

December 17, 2021

Athletes as fan engagement generators

We analyze the connection between athletes and fans with fan engagement expert Rui Biscaia, starting from the example of Leonel Messi. “Athletes are increasingly more important, with a role that is sometimes more prominent in society than the actual organization for which they work,” says Rui

You can access the PART 1 of this interview on how sports organizations have been changing their perception of fan engagement through this link.

Being considered the best player in the world has implications that go far beyond the number of zeros shown on your pay check. When Lionel Messi’s signing by Paris Saint Germain was made official, the immediate way to quantify the profits for the French team was to unveil the proceeds from shirt sales: more than 830,000 t-shirts sold with Messi’s number 30 in the first 24 hours, with all units sold out in the online shop in just 30 minutes, and more than 100 million euros in revenue in a single week for PSG, Nike and Michael Jordan (his Jordan Brand is the team’s main sponsor). Messi continues to grab headlines in the international press, now for his seventh Ballon d’Or, and accolades from his millions of fans wherever he goes. The fan engagement that Messi generates is huge, and to simplify it into shirt sales is just ridiculous.

Rui Biscaia, university professor and fan engagement researcher, reveals in this interview where the power of attraction of athletes lies, what fans see in them and the ripple effect their mere presence has on clubs, sponsors and even for an entire city.

Athletes as fan engagement generatorsRui Biscaia is a senior lecturer at University of Bath. Previously, he worked at Coventry University, University of Lisbon and Universidade Europeia. Rui’s main research focus is on bridging sport consumers, organizations, athletes, and sponsors, being interested in aspects such as consumption experiences, fan wellbeing, online environments, service quality, sport brand management, sponsorship management and mega sport events, among others. Rui has developed projects with researchers from Portugal, Spain, England, France, Germany, Estonia, Brazil, United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and have published 40+ peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Journal of Business Research, Journal of Sport Management, European Sport Management Quarterly, Sport Management Review, International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Sport Marketing Quarterly, International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, Leisure Studies, among others. He has co-authored two books and co-edited one sport management textbook.

How should we analyze the possible consequences of Messi’s move to PSG in terms of fan engagement?

I would say it’s huge, and it’s not only a matter of selling more t-shirts. It has huge implications and, linking back to what we discussed in the first part of the interview, huge implications on both transactional behaviors and non-transactional behaviors. Talking about transactional behaviors, international fans who would probably visit Barcelona and use the opportunity to watch a Messi game at Camp Nou, will now probably go to Paris to watch a game at the PSG Stadium. So even from a destination point of view, it might have an impact.

A lot of broadcasters will likely now prefer to broadcast PSG games because they know that it attracts more attention. Even if you think about local businesses, more people will watch games on TV, more people will attend live games. Even for pubs, they will probably sell more beer! There is a huge snowball effect that impacts not just on PSG directly, but even local businesses. And I would say even the city of Paris.

Athletes as fan engagement generators

PSG welcomed Leo Messi with a big canvas above the main entrance gate to the stadium. Image: © Team Pics / PSG.

If you think about the non-transactional behaviors, just have a look at the boost in social media followers for PSG. Think about the impact on younger generations. Typically when we start to develop a good opinion about the team, we tend to at least follow what they do during a period of time. So, if you are attracting young fans now, it is likely that they will still pay some attention to PSG even when Messi leaves the team. There are immediate implications in terms of transactional behaviors: shirt sales, ticket sales, more attendance and even indirectly through local businesses, even the city of Paris. From a non-transactional perspective, more people following the team on social media, more interest from sponsors, more exposure for PSG on different media platforms. The impact is likely huge, it’s much more than just a sports transaction.

Would you say that fans follow clubs, but they love the players?

I would say this is more important for younger generations. For older generations, it is not necessarily like that. Older generations connect with teams, regardless of who the players are on their roster; younger generations connect with athletes. If Messi is in Barcelona, they will follow FC Barcelona. Now that Leo Messi has moved to PSG, a lot of fans that are not from Barcelona and don’t have a family history, they will start following PSG and will lose a bit of interest in FC Barcelona. We have many examples of it in daily life. But it’s also true that nowadays fans connect with more than one brand. So, they can love a team but they also follow others because athletes are increasingly more important, with a role that is sometimes more prominent in society, than the actual organization for which they work. Athletes are often more relatable. It is easier for people (especially younger generations) to identify the athlete, sometimes almost like an aspirational self, than with the organization.

Athletes as fan engagement generators

More than 830,000 t-shirts were sold with Messi’s number 30 in the first 24 hours. Image: © Team Pics / PSG.

As you said, athletes are great influencers not only among sports fans, but among society in general. Should the fan engagement strategies of clubs and organizations be linked to those of their athletes or can the content that both generate add value to both parties?

I would say both of them can generate value, but in an ideal world they should be linked, although there are challenges here. Let’s take the example of the athlete with the most followers on social media, Cristiano Ronaldo. He shares a lot of things related to his current team, Manchester United, but he also posts and has a strategy that is related to promoting his own brand CR7.

It’s important to have an alignment between the athletes and the team, but it’s also important for them to work separately. For teams, it can also be dangerous to rely mainly on athletes because most athletes will change team in a few years. So, if your fan engagement strategy is based mainly on athletes, you will run the risk in the short term or medium term of being in a difficult position if or when they leave the team. Focusing all the strategies on the success of the team is also very questionable because it’s virtually impossible for a team to ensure a consistent performance. You cannot control the results on the playing field. So, relying on team success, relying on athletes, although it’s important and that’s the key aspect why fans typically start to follow the team, it is also very tricky. So, they key is to focus on fans whenever possible, because you want them to always be there. Fans can generate value and messages that are relevant for them, messages that empower them showing how important they are for the team, are more important.

“Relying on team success or on athletes, although it’s important and that’s the key aspect why fans typically start to follow the team, it is also very tricky; they key is to focus on fans whenever possible”

You have recently conducted a research study on athlete brands. What do sports fans find most attractive or what do they value most in an athlete?

Based on my research, fans typically look at two different things in athletes:

  • The professional image: They look at what the athlete does on the field, whether it is a successful athlete, if he/she wins championships, if it is an athlete with charisma, his/her style of play, his/her leadership skills.
  • The personal life of athletes: Fans also look at the off-the-field image. For an athlete to be a strong brand, it is not enough anymore to be a good player. So, what the athlete does off the field, his/her lifestyle, family things, the involvement with social causes, all of that is very important to create a connection with fans. Think of Messi—it’s easy for fans to connect with him based on the similarities that they perceive with Messi’s life. Being a quiet person, for example, having a family, having two or three children, it’s easier to connect sometimes with those kinds of things than to actually connect with what he does on the field, because as many fans say, ‘he’s an alien’. Not considering the amount of money he has as opposed to the rest of us, it’s easier to connect with him.
“For an athlete to be a strong brand, it is not enough anymore to be a good player; the personal life of athletes is also very important to create a connection with fans”

Both things are very important, and sometimes athletes need to be very good on the field, but if they don’t have a prominent off-the-field image, their ability to attract fans, followers and even sponsors become more difficult. Unless, of course, you are Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi.

But for the majority of athletes, things are like this.

In one of my studies, I also saw that a good on-field image is important for fans to have a preference for the sponsors that are endorsed by the athletes. The off-the-field image typically tends to be more important to ensure followership on social media and that fans follow the team where the athlete plays.  So, most fans that are not, for instance, Manchester United fans will start to follow the club because they identify with a lot of things from Cristiano and his lifestyle. Many fans that are not necessarily fans of PSG will likely follow PSG now because they like Messi and they identify with Messi off the field.

Athletes as fan engagement generators

This year Steve Curry has become the player with the most three-point shoots made in NBA history, surpassing Ray Allen’s 2,973. Photo: Cyrus Saatsaz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I think another very great example of how the off-the-field image is important is Steve Curry from Golden State Warriors. Curry is typically perceived as one of us. If you look at him, he’s not a very tall player, he’s a skinny guy, etc. You look at him and think, ‘I’m like him’. So, on-field image and off-field image, are both important in the ability to attract sponsors, fan followership, and to ensure that fans follow the team where they are playing.

Is one image more important than the other?

You cannot establish a strong brand if you don’t have a good balance between what you do on the field and what you do off the field. Being a good player on the field is the minimum standard required to become a strong brand, but you need to have more than that, that’s the trigger for most athletes.

“Being a good player on the field is the minimum standard required to become a strong brand, but you need to have more than that, that’s the trigger for most athletes”

Is it the same for older generations as for younger generations?

I would say younger generations are more receptive to this. Older generations are most of the times less appreciative of the commercial side of sports. They follow teams, they want their team to win, some of them even dislike the idea of having logos on the team shirts. They want the player do his job on the field. For older generations, the life off the field is less important than for younger generations.


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