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People used to go to sporting events for 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 arise courtside; the fist-bumps you share with fellow fans when your team scores; the opportunity to socialize and meet friends at the surrounding restaurants and bars.

This trend popped up before the pandemic. Gen Zers and millennials consume sports differently. They are more casual, less avid fans than older generations. Over 70% of them stream sports online compared to 46% of boomers who overwhelmingly prefer broadcast. Younger fans spend more time watching sports content than actual game action. Gen Z and millennials are experience-driven and use a game as a hub for a night out. Arriving in the second inning, leaving in the seventh, and meeting friends at the outfield bar in the fifth.

Attending events like this makes gen Z and millennials feel more connected to each other and their communities, but leagues and teams have been slow to tailor their offerings to this generation. 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. Sports returned on TV without fans, and it was lacking. 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.

Now that moment has arrived. 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 be more casual fans, but they are all about experiences and community. A recent study showed that millennials were most likely to attend multiple live sports events prior to the pandemic and have missed live sports the most. Post-pandemic, they are craving connection.

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

This is where brands can swoop in and benefit. The entire building becomes the spot, not just the vessel for the event it hosts. And this destination is a blank canvas for marketers.

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

  1. Create more physical and sensory experiences. Brands need to move beyond logos and visuals to bring their story to life with iconic materials, lighting, surfaces and interactions. For example, Coors Light introduced cold rails where you cool your beer while it rests. Some brands have embraced aromas of ingredients in their products that waft through spaces or sound effects, such as cans opening, to infiltrate fans who are roaming areas with friends and family versus in their seats.

  2. Use new technology to provide ease, convenience and fun for attendees. For example, fast-pass-style experiences, apps with wait times for restrooms or concessions, seat upgrades or other high-impact experiences. 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. The Jaguars also introduced a service that allows you to get pre-loaded tickets with beer, so that fans can buy 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 layers that deepen engagement and drive sales for a brand around the stadium.

  3. Design more shared spaces and places 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. Installations and activities that connect to the team/event and brand organically give fans content to talk about and share 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. When fans feel they are part of in-stadium moments and rituals, they organically post these images on their social feeds.

It doesn’t stop there. To ensure positive brand sentiment, experiences should engage fans organically, in an instinctive way. It should deliver a brand’s look and feel with durability, including using reliable technology, internet and interfaces if it is digital. Each engagement has to be executed flawlessly while still tailoring the experience to each venue contextually.

Branded stadium destinations potentially reach millions of fans on a one-to-one experience level. Fans are already watching sports and concerts with a drink in one hand and a smartphone in the other. The lockdowns of the last year amplified this even more. We’re more connected to technology than ever because it connects us to each other. The next generation of fan engagement will design for connection and community in addition to the competition on the field, while blurring the lines between physical and digital. 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, senior vice-president, director of strategic planning at Jack Morton.