From the leagues and players to broadcasters and fans, the sports industry was forced to make radical shifts in how, when and where games were played this year and how the action was presented on radio and television. To make up for a lack of fans in the stands, solutions varied, from cardboard cutouts of fans to artificial fan noise.
To get a handle on how these treatments were received and how they might be improved, Cumulus Media/Westwood One and Horizon Media commissioned MARU/Matchbox to conduct a study in two waves.
The first wave focused on the likelihood and intention of sports fans tuning into fanless games and engaging in sports-related activities. It surveyed 1,060 people and was fielded from July 27-Aug. 10. The second wave, fielded Nov. 17-24, surveyed 347 fans and examined response to the fall sports season and the shifting schedules of many leagues.
Among the top takeaways: COVID-19 has not diminished the spirit of sports fans, especially those who listen on AM/FM radio.
In addition, audio ads within a broadcast with fan noise were more likely to be perceived as helpful, relatable, authentic and informative. For example, 26% of those who listened to audio ads with fan noise said the ads were authentic, compared to 23% who found them to authentic without fan noise.
“Sports are about community and connection, so not seeing [and] hearing their fellow and rival fans in the stadiums and arenas alters the experience. Supplemental fan noise helps restore the baseline, creating a richer experience by providing the buzz, cheers and atmosphere craved by fans,” said Karen Van Vleet, Vice President, WHY at Horizon Media. “Since the quality of sports experience influences ad receptivity, the presence of fan noise or lack thereof can have a direct impact on a fan’s engagement with ads,” Van Vleet added.
Compared to video environments without fan noise, sports fans said ads with fan noise were more likely to catch their attention, make them feel good, and be more entertaining and exciting.
While fake fan noise may restore some of the feelings and sounds of normalcy, fans want a more participatory experience even if they can’t attend in person, the study concluded.
More than 50% sports fans say they supported at least one of two augmented and virtual fan-engagement opportunities proposed.
Two out of five sports fans said they would be likely to use an app that would control the crowd noise in the broadcast. (A “boo” button in the app would inject jeers into the broadcast. A clap icon would create applause for the broadcast.) And 40% of fans say a big part of the game experience is the fans themselves – the chants, songs, and reactions.
The sports world went from famine to feast this year as the calendar first was wiped of any games before moving to a jumble of every pro league playing simultaneously. Despite scheduling changes, most sports fans continued tuning in to their usual sports, and younger fans were more likely to tap into new ones.
“While some sports saw a decline in their television viewing audience, the total sports viewership aggregated across sports has been similar to past years. However, there was more competition between the leagues and, given the schedule shifts, viewership was spread out making each individual sport’s rating dip,” said David Campanelli, Executive VP, Chief Investment Officer at Horizon Media.
Versus heavy TV viewers, heavy AM/FM radio listeners were three times as likely to try new sports this fall. And more than one in four heavy AM/FM radio listeners (27%) said they watched/listened to new sports due to shifting schedules. Only 9% of heavy TV viewers tried new sports.
“This new study reveals that AM/FM radio attracts the most engaged and active sports fans,” said Suzanne Grimes, EVP Marketing, Cumulus Media and President, Westwood One. “More than a third of heavy sports radio listeners said they actually listened to more sports despite the COVID related shifts in sports seasons and game schedules – that is 36% more than heavy TV sports viewers,” said Grimes.