Designing a future fan experience

Steve Whapshott
Aug 24, 2017 · 7 min read

Learnings from working with one of the world’s biggest football clubs.

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Inspiration for the team — A project (owned in full) by Stuart Matthews titled ‘More than 90 minutes’

A s part of a recent digital transformation project with a top-flight football club, I got the chance to tap into global research to learn about the state of the broad and diverse fan-drivers at play in the world of sport. Many factors contribute to the needs of fans around the world, including cultural maturity, social influencers, access and availability. For clubs these days, understanding this information is critical to staying relevant and continuing to grow.

What does the future of ‘fan experience’ look like in a fast-moving digital age and how will brands begin to adopt new ways of connecting with their fanbase to stay relevant?

The problems a lot of clubs face these days is that they aren’t set up for the fast moving world of social consumption. They have a traditional sports brands set up around the game of football and, though a few are moving forward into this new world, it’s clear that it requires some dramatic changes to stay on track. A club that doesn’t value it’s fans and look to understand their needs and challenges is a club that will begin to lose it’s relevance. Die-hard fans aside, it’s the new generations of ‘snapchatters’ and ‘instagrammers’ that need to be captured in new ways.

The ever-increasing presence of Facebook, Google and Amazon as content delivery and media brands mean traditional media brands — or the clubs themselves — need to be smart, find their place and move fast to adapt, building teams that can deliver valuable content and experiences for fans. Check out the recent panel discussion at Method that highlights this.

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Toronto Raptor’s ‘We The North’ brand campaign

There are many great examples of brands leading the way and putting fans at the centre of campaigns, some even pushing further to brand-centred propositions. Toronto Raptor’s We The North campaign is a great example, created to ‘, sparking a brand crusade across the community that lives on. It’s a powerful statement of pride that every fan lives by, on and off the field.


How could we create an experience that puts fans at the heart, in a way that will allow the club to build a vision and valuable fan relationship in the future?

1 — We started learning about the fans

In discovery mode we began by understanding fan needs, frustrations and barriers to give us some much clearer understanding of the landscape. What equates to value for different fan profiles around the world? How can we create an experience that gives fans what they need, as well as entertain and delight them in ways that didn’t consider?

More relevance, more engagement and to feel valued.

It came as no real surprise that fans want more relevance, more engagement and to feel valued. The broader realisation this brought with it however was much clearer. Without fans, the club cannot achieve the success — certainly not at the level we were dealing with. After all football is entertainment for millions and fans are not only a key source of revenue, but the creators of the fan community that clubs value so much.

2 — We looked at broader influences

Identifying key trends across the markets allowed us to predict what the future could hold and help shape the experience we needed to create. This included the increase in social personalities promoting fit and healthy lifestyles, the booming eSports gaming industry, a need for more ownership of personal online data, the rise of dual-screening and the increase of fan creator channels (i.e. twitch), to list just a few. For the team this helped contextualise the approach and inspire the vision for the project.

3 — We identified the Club’s value

The club understands the key assets they have to hand are the players themselves and they have a great opportunity to create more ‘own-able content’. Being first with news, discussing unique club topics and utilising partners to add real value would be the start, along with unique fan features to get them closer to players and action than ever before. But with this said, they need to move fast. Players are fast realising their social worth. As addressed in this digiday article, a handful have already employed agencies to build their own online brand experiences that allow fans to connect directly with the player, putting the potential value for the club at risk.

4 — We defined a framework

From the findings we built user personas and fan engagement journey’s to ensure we understood the full lifecycle of the our fans. We went on to highlight key fan moments and built the terms of engagement around each. This framework allowed creativity to flow, always guided by the lives of our fans. It was important to acknowledge too that these personas should be evolved and built on over the course of the project as we learned more about the fan-base.

5 — We brought the vision to life

‘Beyond football’

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War Room #1 — A vision for the brand

Our proposal was a powerful new personality, vision and positioning for the Club, putting fans at the heart of everything they did. From unique content, to new features, a way to champion user-generated content and a native advertising program with partners designed to add value at all times with real context for fans. We set a brand positioning and vision to extend ‘beyond football’ and into the everyday lives of the fans. Fans we understood much better.

The stage for success

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War Room #2 — Defining the experience

Alongside the brand work was a digital transformation proposal, showing how we could create a multi-channel experience designed to connect the global fan-base through a co-creation platform — something that could be built on over time. This would be delivered primarily through a club app that

The app would house a multitude of features that included concepts for VR atmosphere experiences to bring fans closer to the game, the ability to react to in-game events, a unique pundit commentary selector, a fan-reporter that you could influence and even a coach chat-bot that allowed fans to join a conversation with other fans around the world.

Every idea was built on principles we’d defined around the fan journey:


A realistic view on the future

The project aimed to set a vision for fan experience and to understand how the club can ‘stay relevant’, it’s important to recognise the proposal is not an overnight change. The findings uncovered some real business challenges around systems, people and processes that are fundamental to the new vision along with some learnings to take forward:

Changing the business model, creating a new content strategy, developing a fresh design language all take time and alignment to work. The learnings were designed to be broad and bold to help the team focus on the journey ahead. When moving such big a business through change it’s important everyone is aligned.

Our learnings also highlighted some of the challenges working with clubs in the manner we did. With the business verticals running very separately the challenge to ensure all departments were onboard and aligned was a big one. Having buy-in at the top is essential and with the senior team changing mid-project we experienced some tough moments and pivots. It’s fair to say these can’t always be foreseen and it’s how you deal with the situation that counts. Equally it’s a great learning to take out — ensure the most senior business leads are onboard throughout — it’ll make for a smoother ride.


Listen to the coach — speed and agility apply to the business as much as the players on the pitch.

Looking ahead

There’s a great opportunity in the present day for clubs to look ahead and realise the power of fans in their vision. Football today is bigger than the beautiful game. It’s entertainment. It’s a lifestyle. It’s having fun and being social. It brings people together. It makes people feel accepted.

Think beyond the game to connect with your fans and shape an experience around them to move forward.

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