The love of the game is dead: the future of stadiums is about community, not just sport

People used to go to sporting events to watch the game. And don’t get me wrong, they still do. But it’s more than that. It’s the entire experience driving attendance and the emotional feeling to be part of something bigger – a community. The conversations that occur courtside; your teammates’ fist-bumps when your team scores; and the opportunity to socialize at the nearby bars and restaurants with new friends.

This trend emerged before the pandemic. Gen Zers, millennials, and others consume sports in a different way. They are less passionate and casual fans than the older generations. They stream sports online at 70%, compared to 46% who prefer broadcast. Younger fans spend more time viewing sports content than watching actual game action. Gen Z and millennials value experience and use a game to organize a night out. Arriving in the second innings, leaving in seventh, and making friends at the outfield bar by the fifth.

These events help millennials and generation Z feel closer to their communities and others, but leagues have been slow to adapt their offerings to this age group. Stadiums were beginning to create areas for these fans, but it went against traditional logic – how could the experience not be about the action on the field/court/ice?

Then the pandemic hit, and community cornerstones were off-limits – not just sports venues but offices, churches, concerts and festivals. It was lacking in fans when sports returned to TV. We watched because it was something, a way to stay connected even when we weren’t, but we looked forward to being present at a live event.

It is now. Stadiums are filling – many to capacity – because we crave community. Digital communities might have been lifesaving during the pandemic, but we learned that they couldn’t replace the real, live thing. Gen Z and millennials may have fewer fans, but they care about community and experiences. Recent research found that millennials were more likely to attend multiple sporting events before the pandemic. They also missed the most live sports. They are looking for connection after the pandemic.

Here’s where stadiums have an opportunity – to focus on being a hub for socialization and the community. They must embrace the fact that not all of the action is on the field. It’s a reason fans go, but for many it’s not the primary one. The experience they have outside the stands should be just as important as the one inside. It should be free-flowing. Stadiums should encourage people interaction and profit from this by accepting the need to socialize.

This is where brands can come in and reap the benefits. The whole building becomes the venue, not just the space for the event. This destination is an ideal place to market.

Here are three things stadiums can do, in partnership, with brands, to move the needle, encourage more socializing.

  1. You can create more sensory and physical experiences. Brands must move beyond logos and visuals in order to tell their story with iconic materials, lighting and interactions. Coors Light, for example, introduced cold rails that allow you to cool your beer while it rests. Some brands embrace aromas of ingredients in their products that waft though spaces or sound effects such as cans opening to infiltrate fans who are out and about with friends and family, rather than in their seats.
  2. Make it easy, convenient, and fun for attendees by using new technologyApps that allow you to wait for restrooms or concessions, seat upgrade or other high-impact experience, are all examples. The Buffalo Sabres’s One Buffalo app is a good example. So are the 49ers’s limited-edition AR souvenir cups that unlocked exclusive content. Jaguars also offer a service that allows you pre-load beer tickets so that fans can order a round in advance. And there’s a lot of technology in the early adoption phase that will create a digital layer of experience on top of the physical one – from AR glasses, such as the hotly-anticipated ones from Apple, to spatial computing that blends AR/VR/MR, interactive projections, wearables, sensor data and AI. Even the QR code can unlock digital layer that will deepen engagement and drive revenue for a brand in the stadium.
  3. Create more spaces and places that are shared for moments to be captured. Since stadiums aren’t just about seats anymore, there are opportunities to create memorable and photographable moments for fans around the park. Fans will share content about installations and other activities that are connected to the brand/team/event organically on social media. For example, Miller Lite’s can sculpture at the Brewers home stadium American Family Field. The Dallas Cowboys have an AR player photo opportunity by AT&T that attracts fans. These images are shared on social media when fans feel like they are part in the rituals and moments at the stadium.

It doesn’t stop there. It is important to engage fans naturally and in a natural way to create positive brand sentiment. It should deliver a brand’s look and feel with durability, including using reliable technology, internet and interfaces if it is digital. Each engagement should be executed flawlessly, while still adapting the experience to each venue.

Branded stadium destinations could reach millions of people on a one-to-1 basis. Fans are already able to watch sports and concerts while holding a drink and their smartphones in the other. This was amplified by the lockdowns of last year. We’re more connected to technology than ever because it connects us to each other. The next generation of fan engagement will focus on connection and community, as well as the competition on the field. It will blur the lines between digital and physical. As we get out to socialize more, it’s an opportunity for brands to take these elements and bring them into the stadium to encourage social interactions outside of the game and let fans experience brands in new innovative ways.

The stadium of the future won’t just be about the main event on a ticket stub. It will be about the entire venue and the entertainment it has to offer, giving ‘take me out to the ballgame’ a whole new meaning.

Pat Heffernan is senior vice-president and director of strategic planning at Jack Morton.