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Technology is radically changing the relationship between fans and the teams they love.

No Longer Just a Face in the Crowd

Being a fan is no longer just about watching and cheering. Empowered by social media, fans now expect an unprecedented level of access to players, coaches, and owners. What is more, they expect to be part of decisions that were once made behind closed doors.

Fans have increasingly used their collective power to influence leagues and franchises. With access to myriad Twitter feeds and other sources of information, fans not only have more power but more potential points of conflict and disgruntlement. What might set them on the warpath will become increasingly difficult to predict. A team’s financial decisions, broadcast blackouts, rule changes, trades, or off-field behavior may spark outrage. Social media can rekindle and give new life to long-simmering disputes, like the controversy around the Redskins’ name and logo. Or the backlash can happen nearly instantaneously. If a star player gets in an altercation at an after-hours nightclub, fans will be discussing and building consensus about the incident before the sun rises the next day.

How will the rapidly increasing power wielded by connected fans change the business of sports?
Traditionally, fans counted on sportswriters, talk radio hosts, and TV commentators to lead the conversation about their favorite teams. The emerging generation of fans — armed with powerful media devices and always-on connectivity, and social media platforms with massive reach — have started to take control of the conversation, effectively becoming a major media entity in their own right. Teams, leagues, and sponsors who fail to respond to activist fan movements risk major damage to ticket sales and brand equity.

Fans Won’t be Ignored

  • Scottish Ranger Union fans hired an analyst to examine the financials of the organization’s merchandise deal to discover that little profit was benefiting the club. They organized an effective boycott to express their displeasure.
  • The NBA narrowly headed off a fan (and player) boycott of the Clippers by banning Donald Sterling prior to game 5 of the 2014 playoffs.
  • Multiple fan boycotts have been called to protest the continued use of the Redskins team name and logo. Boycotts have even been called for FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the Redskins’ stadium.
  • In Italy, Lazio soccer supporters boycotted a home match against Atalanta in protest of President Claudio Lotito’s running of the club after the sale of playmaker Anderson Hernanes to Inter Milan and a series of bad outings. Only 2,000 tickets were sold in a venue that has a capacity of 82,000.
  • Turkish fans demonstrated and boycotted soccer matches after authorities introduced a new ticketing system.
  • Fans launched the Twitter hashtags #boycottNFL and #FireGoodell after recent accusations of domestic violence surfaced against prominent players.

Predicting the Future

1-5 Years

Increasingly Responsive

Fans become an ever more powerful force in breaking news and creating consensus with little deference to traditional sources of information like sports journalists or official commentators. Teams and leagues have to become increasingly responsive to what University of Kansas Assistant Professor Jordan Bass calls “forced crowdsourcing” of critical decisions — like whether to fire a player or coach after a scandal. “[Teams] just can’t control the message on their own anymore,” said Bass. “There are too many competing voices. [Fans] see the ability to become a media star by breaking stories. I think one of the biggest challenges for the next five years or more is how to deal with these situations in an immediate way.”

5-10 Years

Fan-recorded Content

Fans become a prime source of broadcast video production. No matter how many professional cameramen are employed, there is almost always a fan who is closer to the action. With the increasing adoption of high-quality wearable video devices, broadcasters increasingly turn to fan-recorded moments to give energy and color to the program. Want to know whether that fan in the bleachers interfered with the home run ball? Just tap into that very fan’s video feed to share the answer. There are apps for that.

10-25 Years

Increased Fan Input

Fans are officially given a seat at the table. Decisions both on and off the field are made with near-instantaneous input from fans as well as complex algorithms that predict fan reaction. Fantasy sports become so widespread and legitimized that private quant jocks are consulted or hired by franchises when making trades or drafts. The role of the sports scout is taken over by fan-generated video and data combined with advanced artificial intelligence. Emboldened by their new inclusive role, fans become more passionate about their teams. “Using crowdsourcing as a method to incorporate [the fans] into internal decision-making processes will enhance an organization’s engagement with its core demographics,” according to Irving Rein, professor of communications at Northwestern University and author of The Sports Strategist. “Because they are now included in strategic discussion, audiences are more likely to purchase more tickets, merchandise and sponsorships.”

Spotlight: Superfans — Now with Social Media Superpowers

The most outrageous fans have, over the years, become well known or even famous. Clipper Darrell, the Broncos’ Barrel Man, The Canucks’ Green Men, and the Redskins’ Hogettes are part of a long tradition of “superfans.” Their reward: a few seconds on TV and some pats on the back.

Today’s most important superfans aren’t always big on outlandish costumes and facepaint, but when they talk, teams listen. One example: Virginia schoolteacher Anthony Young, who runs the Twitter account @NFLRT, “NFL Retweet,” curates the most hard-hitting and outrageous NFL-related tweets and boasts a grassroots followership of 132,000.

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