There’s no better evidence of the power of football fans than the recent collapse of the European Super League. After the announcement of the behind-closed-doors brokering of a Super League made up of the continent’s most elite clubs, which looked set to disrupt, if not destroy, current leagues and cups, fans revolted — and prevailed. Within days, nearly every club had pulled out and apologized for participating in the project.

So while the extremely wealthy club owners made the deal (the players themselves reportedly had no voice in the Super League’s formation and some criticised it), the ultimate say rested with the sport’s four billion fans all over the globe.

Viewed through this lens, to say fan engagement matters is an understatement. If you’re thinking of a career in the football industry, understanding the phenomenon of fan engagement can offer an invaluable inside edge. Let’s take an in-depth look at this issue and what future football industry leaders should know about it.

Fan engagement in football

Football is widely regarded as the most popular sport in the world. And it would be nothing without its fans. “If you have got the best fans in the world, you have one of the greatest assets you can ever own. Football fans are the most dedicated, crazy-heads and lovers of the game that the sporting world has witnessed,” explains Playo. Football has a global reach. Wherever you go in the world, you’ll find football — and people who care about it dearly.

The factors in fan engagement

When we think about fan engagement, winning may come first to mind. And while victory is certainly important, it’s far from the only thing that matters. (In fact, arguably bad results and adversity bond fans together and make them even more passionate.) So what else factors in?

After looking into how sports fans relate to their teams, Gensler concluded that a great game-day stadium experience is a primary driver of fan engagement. Sports brand fans also value tradition and stability.

According to Other Media, meanwhile, “360 degree” fan engagement takes place in four key areas: match days, non-match days, on-site and off-site. These include hosting fans, connecting fans, enhancing the live experience, and bringing fans closer to the live action.

Another factor in fan engagement? Social media. “There is more content than ever to keep fans entertained, but more recently, we’ve seen a new form of interaction emerge, which is placing fans (and their opinions) at the epicentre of the game,” Medium notes.

Other factors in fan engagement include establishing a strong brand and narrative for the club, creating emotional connections and compelling content -- and the distribution infrastructure to make sure it reaches its target audience.

The value of fan engagement

Fan engagement isn’t just an interesting phenomenon. It’s also critical for sports club sustainability and a catalyst for growth. “Fan engagement has never been more important for leading football clubs whose support now ranges far beyond their immediate locale, with numbers reaching into the hundreds of millions — and presenting a significant commercial opportunity,” explains WARC.

“The fans come to the stadiums for the experience and emotions,” says sports industry and consulting professional Alexey Kirichek. “We, as club managers, need to engage them with top hospitality, high-end services, and excellent performance. We need them back again and again. The clubs focusing on the exciting features of their products will increase customer (fan) satisfaction. Growth of fans satisfaction will generate new streams of fans (followers) and lead to the sustainable growth of the clubs.” 

And according to research on football fan engagement and customer experience innovation, “The value of soccer fans to their club goes beyond financial transactions, extending to marketing links with sponsors, bonds with other fans and interactions to benefit a club’s management resources and community activities.”

For clubs looking to defeat fierce competition, keeping fans’ interest is vital

According to Deloitte analysis, sports organizations should utilize five fan engagement strategies: knowing their target audience, making it personal, thinking holistically about the experience, engaging year-round, and recognizing loyalty. But this is just the start. Given the fast-changing industry, especially amid COVID, and the many moving parts involved, the value of industry leaders who understand the landscape and have the skills and experience to navigate it is profound.

This is where The Football Business Academy (FBA) comes in. An innovative educational institution dedicated to the football industry, FBA’s programs have been developed collaboratively with industry experts toward one overarching goal: providing candidates with an optimal learning environment for acquiring all of the tools they need to thrive in this unique and dynamic industry.

The FBA’s 12-month Master in Football Business is broken into four models across three dimensions: looking at the origins of the sport and its cultural sensibility, understanding the present in order to determine stakeholders and best practices, and planning for the future in a way that addresses today’s issues and capitalizes on tomorrow’s opportunities.

Furthermore, the curriculum comprises a blend of theoretical and practical learning, including online and on-site classes, field trips, a guaranteed internship, and a student business project.

Given the paramount role fan engagement plays in the football industry, it follows The FBA devotes ample attention to this topic. 

For example, The FBA recently announced a partnership with blockchain-based fan engagement app Socios.com. Through the agreement, FBA candidates will have the chance to transform knowledge into practice during internships with the organization, which uses digital assets known as Fan Tokens to engage with and monetize football’s global fan base.

Indeed, internships offer FBA students a first-hand view of why fan engagement matters so much, In her internship with Atalanta Media, FBA student Paula Quintero had the unique opportunity to lend her talents to the effort of elevating women’s football by working to “unite a global community.” Fan engagement is a front-and-center initiative.

“I was born in Bogotá, Colombia and moved to Miami, Florida at the age of 10 years old,” Paula says. “Due to the lack of accessibility and acceptance for females to play football in Colombia at the time, I never thought I’d have a career or even a future in football. I always found myself to be the only girl playing and at times, especially in school, I wasn’t even allowed to play because it was considered just a “man’s game”. However, that didn’t stop me from playing it with little boys in my neighborhood and at family events with the males in my family.”

“However, after experiencing the reality that professional female players face in Colombia in terms of dealing with stereotypes and lack of support in all aspects, I decided to expand my education in football business to make an impact in the women’s game globally. I joined The FBA at the beginning of 2020 while having another great opportunity to intern for CONCACAF in the Women’s Football Department from January to April. At CONCACAF, I quickly learned that what I had experienced in Colombia, both as a little girl and as a professional, was happening in a lot of other countries. There was a lack of support, visibility, accessibility and investment amongst other things but CONCACAF, with Karina LeBlanc as the Head of Women’s Football, was working hard towards making efforts in changing this. I immediately became inspired by their strategy with their vision of “changing perceptions, building sustainable foundations and growing participation” in the women’s game.”

And on her internship at Atalanta Media and working on its consumer brand Ata Football, Paula explains, “The Ata Football platform gives fans, coaches and players access to live, on-demand, highlights from the world’s best, and premium content. Its goal is to build a community around women’s football and to provide them with unforgettable, valuable opportunities and experiences associated with the game.”

Yet fan engagement is just one — albeit a pivotal — component in the complex and multifaceted football industry. The Master in Football Business at FBA can provide aspiring football industry leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to support clubs in fan engagement and other mission-critical initiatives.

Article written in association with The Football Business Academy.