Sports Fan Engagement: Blog




“Fans are integral to the success of sport, so a better understanding of fans can unlock big benefits from sports marketers” – Lee Gibbons, MD at Sport UNLIMITED.

“Rights holders improving commercial performance through data has been going for a few years now. They do this by bettering understanding of using match day data; how they act in the stadium, what tickets they buy, etc.”  – Ian Bobbett, CAO at Realise UNLIMITED.

In this episode of the Lab Leaders podcast we discussed the importance of segmenting your fans to achieve maximum impact.

Two strangers sitting next to each other at a stadium might have the same postcode, same match day spend, buy the same merchandise every season, have the same household income… BUT, have completely different motivations behind their fandom. For some, it is about a sense of belonging – a basic human need. It could be self-image; fans feel a share of their team’s achievements and live their lives vicariously through the club. Once you know this, you can be much more targeted in your communications. At UNLIMITED, we believe that understanding why fans are fans can unlock any number of benefits for clubs, and data science can be the key.

Many clubs are trying to commercialise their fanbase to grow revenue and reap the rewards; from a more engaged fan base to better sponsorship conversations. They want to sell more merchandise, more tickets, generate more content… and you need to understand the fan to do these things. The more you understand the fan, the better off for both club and fan.



There is a lot of existing data in the world of sport, but traditional techniques do not necessarily tell the whole story. Social media has become a great place to get an unfettered understanding of your fans. Those fans exist in two contexts: when interacting with their team (where the language can be emotive and celebratory) and when they’re away from the club. Because there is an emotional connection with the club, it is important to see how they interact with other brands. People’s interests and how they communicate on social media render a rich picture of how fans behave, and therefore what clubs and brands need to do to engage with them.

Humans are inherently irrational. We make thousands of decisions a day and 95% of those are made by the emotive part of the brain. If you can engage with fans on an emotive level, you can start working on activation plans and target different segments based on what their intrinsic motivations are. Only minor tweaks need to be made to reach different people – tone of voice or imagery, for example.

Twitter is the data scientist’s preferred option here, according to Ian, as people’s responses are less considered and more authentic. People communicate their thoughts and reactions to things as they are taking place, in the moment. The Personality Profiler product at UNLIMITED is a framework that simplifies the understanding you get from fans and customers. It takes all their social media data (predominantly Twitter) and, based on written dialogue, creates a picture of the key personality traits (five main sections and 40 sub-sections). The five key principles are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism – which Ian and the team at Realise UNLIMITED have pinpointed as key to understanding fans in this context. The sub-sections include intellectual curiosity and assertiveness. That information is then turned into a segmentation which is driven by data only. This allows brands to understand that there are different types of individuals, and they need to hear different things. One size does not fit all.

Segments vary massively. Our findings in cases applying Personality Profiler show that there are multiple different fan types. Segment 1, for example, was anti-authority: enjoying new and exciting opportunities, but needing a reassuring message. Segment 2 wanted more playful comms: risk-takers, wanting to be communicated with often. It’s immediately clear that the way these fans react and behave are completely different, so communications and marketing leads need to act and tailor accordingly.



Based on years of experience with sports clients globally, Lee suggests there is a difficulty in sports marketing in removing performance of the club in conversation with the fan. If you are due to push out a message to a fan base on Tuesday and the club lost on Saturday, how can you still engage with them? If you understand their emotional drivers, then you know how to communicate with them effectively about the things that they want to hear. The data suggests that some want an information bias, a flood of information; subtle nudges were not enough for them. Others thought that less information was better and wanted to be teased; curiosity drove them into finding out more. One particular fan base from the segmentation was more reactionary and wanted more emotive arguments, claims Ian.

There is a busy sporting calendar ahead – it is, however, cluttered which means rights holders need to work harder to cut through the noise of other brands and clubs. On top of everything, the last 12 months have impacted the expectations of fans; they are now expecting to see a brand purpose. This needs to be considered and meaningfully applied.

These busy major landmark events make it essential for brands to understand why fans are fans. They need to build that into the segmentation and nuances of the times we are now living in. All of this will ensure that they are getting the ROI they need to thrive again. If you’d like to get in touch with Lee Gibbons for any sports marketing needs, or Ian Bobbett about data science needs, you can reach out. Or, you can revisit their full podcast here.



Lee Gibbons – Managing Director, Sport UNLIMITED at 

Ian Bobbett – Chief Analytics Officer, Realise UNLIMITED at