Gareth Balch | How it was made: the strongest live attendance market in the world

The success of UK sports rights owners to get more people watching live sport than ever should be an inspiration to the world, says Gareth Balch, chief executive of data-driven sports marketing agency Two Circles.

Gareth Balch

Getting more people to attend sports events in the UK, using data, has been a fertile ground for some of Two Circles’ biggest successes.

When our agency was created in 2011, a short journey from our office, the finishing touches to the redevelopment of East London were taking place ahead of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics – a new infrastructure that included major new venues not just to host the Greatest Show on Earth, but give UK sports such as netball, hockey, cycling, swimming and athletics new and modern long-term homes.

The UK ended 2012 with attendances of 74 million for live professional sport – the highest on record, thanks to 11 million ‘one-off’ attendances for Olympic and Paralympic events.

But fast forward seven years and live professional sport in the UK will draw 75.1 million attendances by year-end, breaking – for the second year in a row – the annual attendance record set in 2012.

Just seven years on from London 2012, that represents UK sport achieving an Olympic-sized attendance annually without the need for a global mega event.

London 2012 instigated a ‘Golden Decade’ for UK sport, creating a halo effect that produced an unprecedented number of world champions in sports spanning Formula 1 to cricket, and accelerated a previously untapped demand for live sport.

But this attendance growth story is bigger than a London 2012 legacy – UK attendances have experienced structural year-on-year growth thanks to the investment of sports rights-owners, who have capitalised on broader consumer trends such as digital consumption and a spending-shift from possessions to experiences.

By using technology, customer behaviour analysis and data-driven digital marketing to get a deep understanding of sports audiences, these UK rights-owners have been able to continuously optimise their businesses and develop and market the products their fans want. And the results have been new audiences to sports events, improving customer experiences, and record retention rates.

London 2012 – and the heroes of this decade – played a role, but the phenomenal achievements of those hosting and marketing sport in the UK that should not be underplayed. How they have tactically focused on both retention and acquisition in particular is something that should be called out, delivering what audiences wanted – from the campaigns that inspired them to the catering they wanted at events – to grow the market for live sport.

Growing the market for live sport

Every event-day sports business we’ve ever analysed at Two Circles that consistently beats the market growth rate does so with a strong retention rate, not by focusing solely on attracting new ticket-buyers.

Growth in UK sports attendances has, and will continue, to come from retaining fans, driving frequency of ticket-buying with evolved and enhanced event experiences and effective pricing strategies. This allows acquisition to be an additional strategic means of growing audiences – not the primary means, and understanding and focus from UK sports rights-owners that is a key factor in the long-term growth of UK attendances.

Retention, for example, has been on ongoing focus for our clients at the RCA (Racecourse Association) and Great British Racing, the marketing and promotional body. Last year racing saw retention increase by 13 per cent year-on-year and maintain its position as the UK’s second most-attended sport.

However, retention has been supported by using a similar data-driven approach to attracting passive sports fans looking for experiences.

For these fans, known broadly as ‘Big Eventers’, what’s happening on the pitch isn’t the main draw – but the experience of a great day out is. UK rights-owners have been hugely successful in evolving their event experiences, and their marketing approaches, to attract those who fit the Big Eventer profile.

At the Wimbledon, ‘the Queue’ – where thousands from across the world camp out for as much as 50 hours to get show-court tickets – is as much a part of the experience as the tennis itself, as is buying a ground pass to watch coverage on the big screen at ‘Henman Hill’.

For a premium, historic event like Wimbledon where tickets are heavily over-subscribed, these experiences have been designed and marketed to attract a wider audience of Big Eventers, allowing Wimbledon to reach fans outside its traditional tennis audience.

Racing and Wimbledon are just some of the UK sports rights-owners who should inspire both UK sports looking to grow further, and rights-owners in other markets looking to evolve their approaches. And in a decade that might well be remembered for Tinder, Trump and Thunberg, in our small bubble of sports marketing I hope we will remember it as a decade where more people than ever experienced live sport – and that’s something we can be hugely proud about.

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