It’s not about the Game.

It is very easy when you work in sport to obsess about the game. Whether you work on the commercial side of things and perhaps look at it as a content business, or if you are on the sporting side of things and trying desperately hard to find the extra inches that Al Pacino so eloquently speaks about in the movie Any Given Sunday. This approach is utterly understandable and one in which we are all, at some level, committed to.

Yet when you dig a little bit deeper it’s not about the game. It’s about escapism.

What brought me to consider this option was the recent interview with LeBron James following his comments where he called the President “a Bum”. It was in the context of trying to separate sport from politics and his view was that athletes come to play and for 2 or 3 hours they give the fans an ability to come together and be friends where they may not be typical. This point was that sport is a great unifier and that in that time the fans at home and in the stadium can, however briefly, forget about the humdrum of normal everyday life.

The current best player in the NBA was very astute in his observations and of course cut to the chase much as he does on the court. Without going through the history of sport it should be recalled that for many clubs (in the UK) the start came from the local business owner setting up the club to provide his workers with exactly what LeBron was talking about — an escape. Leisure time has changed radically since that was first the case but its roots are clear and the nature of all the local clubs around the country show how local communities were brought together through this setup.

If you begin by looking at fans from the perspective that they are looking to escape for a few hours it makes a lot of sense. If the team is consistently losing it offers less of an escape so less likely to draw people in than a team that is winning.

There is also then a need to think about who might be the actual competition for their attention. Who provides them with the ability to mentally take a few hours off?

Simon Sinek’s fabulous video on millennials can give an interesting perspective on this. One comment, and I paraphrase, talks about the serotonin release provided by social media…The instant high provided from someone liking your image, story or video. Social needn’t however necessarily be a rival to sport but you can in this context see why sport may be of real interest to social platforms as a way of elongating that escape.

Brian Chesky, in his interview with Reid Hoffman on Masters of Scale, talks about the way Airbnb had to find a way to have empathy with the consumer and only once that had been done and intimacy had been achieved could they scale. This insight is something that sports executives could no doubt learn from as this concept of escapism may impact how we relate to the consumer.

It is therefore wonderful to see more sports entities hiring people into fan engagement roles or customer experience jobs. Everyone needs to start somewhere and as sport looks at itself and begins to look for answers as to why some audiences are decreasing it’s worth going back and re-examining the questions that are being asked. If the wrong question is being asked then surely the answer will wrong, no matter how much (or little) data you have been capturing.

If we assume for a second that Lebron has really hit on something profound here then we need to begin looking at the challenges sports face in a different light.

Are we truly providing an escape from the drudgery of most people’s day? Are the content and the experiences we provide hitting the spot, and can we rely on today’s games being the best way to connect and provide that light relief?

It may also help explain fandom in slightly different context. If the ‘fan’atical supporter clings to a club or brand that gives greater meaning to life does he/she feel let down and lose that connection when other things can now tap into the emotional needs on a better level?

I am no psychologist so I am not best placed to comment on those questions directly but it does enable a new way of thinking in some interesting areas.

§ Do athletes and sports that misbehave upset or connect with fans? Will Ben Stokes recent mishaps in Bristol build a closer empathy with fans (he is just like me and likes a pint) or scare people off?

§ Does a poor stadium experience and game day journey (Newcastle fans needing to be in Swansea for an evening kick-off) cause resentment or become a boast that they made it to the game?

§ How do social media and new tech platforms enable fans to build greater empathy with the game or distract them into different activities?

§ Does sport’s failure to provide a platform where supporters can upload rather than download lead to disassociation from our core content?

§ How does it differ between the various segments…hard-core fans of your club, fans of football who engage with your club, football fans generally and the occasionally interested (such as bobsleigh fans who appear every four years at the winter Olympics)?

Sport is, just like the movies, the suspension of disbelief. Tiger was a huge attraction for golf not just because of his race but because he could do things that no one else could. If he was in contention on Sunday the audience surged. Being engaged with a sporting genius is partly about accepting that superhuman feats might just be possible and that speaks to everyone who has been a child and dreamt of being just that.

Don’t stop obsessing about the game but take a step back, consider the roots of sport and its original meaning in people’s lives and then ask yourself and your business if times have really moved on or if we could do better by looking at it through that prism and adapting to fulfil that basic human need of escapism.

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