Friday, June 14, 2013

A Two-Way Influence on Building Families of Sports Fans

Acquiring customers is one of the greatest challenges marketers face. We are tasked with persuading buyers that they should spend their money and time with us. Customer acquisition is crucial not only for the short run success of a business, but converting prospects into customers is the initial step in a journey to build long term customer relationships. Sports marketers are particularly aware of the importance of converting occasional buyers into highly involved fans. One of the key levers in escalating customer relationships is the family.

Parents Influence Kids
Brand loyalties can be formed at a young age, and parental influence plays a major role in many cases. Children observe brands their parents buy- clothing, cars, food, and more- and store that information in memory. Sports consumption is very much influenced by parents. In a study published in 2000 in the International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship, Richard Kolbe and Jeffrey James found that people most frequently develop an identification with a pro sports team is between the ages of six and ten And, not surprisingly, the person with the greatest influence on team identification is the father.

I test this finding on the impact that fathers have on sports consumption informally during the first class meeting of my sports marketing class each semester. Students complete a data sheet that includes a question about whether they have favorite teams or players and why they are fans. Two influences emerge consistently: Family and geography. Students talk about their connection with the University of Tennessee, for example, saying that their family has gone to UT games for as long as they can remember. Other students talk about family gatherings in the living room to watch their favorite team together. Sometimes, the reason for being a fan of a particular team is to form a friendly family rivalry, with a child picking a team other than dad's favorite so that they can compete vicariously.

Kids Influence Parents
Parental influence on children's sports consumption will always exist, but the direction of influence is not a one-way flow. Kids are increasingly influential on shaping the family's sports interests and consumption. One of the primary drivers is youth sports participation. Children can be exposed to sports that capture their fascination and begin playing competitively. In some cases, parents have no influence at all because they have little or no familiarity with a sport. For example, lacrosse is gaining interest by appealing to youths to participate. Their parents may have no experience or knowledge of the game, but their children's involvement creates new fans as parents may also follow other lacrosse because of exposure via youth participation.

This phenomenon played out in my own home with ice hockey. I grew up following hockey thanks to having a French Canadian father (although there were no opportunities to play hockey in Mississippi). When our youngest son took up hockey at age 7, my wife knew virtually nothing about the game. Today, she is knowledgeable about rules, the NHL, and is a Nashville Predators fan. It is no coincidence that my son began by playing in a "learn to play" program put on by the Nashville Predators. The program grows youth hockey participation and at the same time builds interest among parents. Many teams use this strategy to increase their relevance among families.

One Unit, Many Needs
It is tempting to treat families as a single-dimension customer segment. After all, we learn in marketing classes that family life cycle stages (e.g., families with children living in the home) are one approach we can use to segment markets. But, within the "traditional" family, there are individuals with different needs. Parents may be looking for family friendly, affordable entertainment. Children want to have fun and not be bored. Fans within the family are going to be more involved in the game itself, and adults and children alike might value exclusive experiences like player autograph sessions or behind-the-scenes tours.

Should families be a targeted segment? Absolutely. The point is to develop offerings for the family segment that appeal to the various influences (and influencers) that ultimately determine brand loyalty (i.e., fan identification).