Football Fans Claim They Just Want to Enjoy the Game – but Their Gameday Conversations Say Otherwise

February 7, 2019

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Why Brands Investing in Sports Need to Listen

Against a backdrop of social and political volatility that has bled into football headlines in recent seasons, the turtle like pace of the lowest scoring Super Bowl of all time and play-it-safe nature of the majority of its advertisers stood in stark contrast. The surrounding social conversation of its viewers, however, did not.

FleishmanHillard’s Sports and Social & Innovation teams conducted social media listening and analysis of conversations had by viewers of Super Bowl LIII using Netbase and Crimson Hexagon to understand what people were talking about through Monday morning. The majority of the conversation happened on Twitter. What emerged was the insight that, despite claims of issues fatigue and a desire for escape, fans are not actually looking for football to remain a pure sporting environment, free of the issues of today. While they might not be interested in mixing politics with football, our data showed that they are wading right into the social issues – like racial equality, social justice and gender equity.

For example, while Americans talked less about politics on Sunday than on any other day in the year so far, and less than all but 12 days in 2018 (which included holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving), a disproportionately large percentage of non-football related conversation during the game focused on the topic of racism. Colin Kaepernick was mentioned nearly 200,000 times and the hashtag #ImWithKap was used nearly 60,000 times. Interestingly, 58% of that Kaepernick conversation was generated by women. And whereas net sentiment surrounding President Trump’s pre-game addressed aired by CBS skewed negative at -26%, viewers were all too ready to talk about veganism and female empowerment, topics made popular by brand advertisements.

The conclusion drawn from this analysis – that fans don’t want to talk politics on game day but they do want to talk about the social issues that matter to them – has considerable implications for the brand sponsors and advertisers that invest heavily in sports. If their investments are meant to be brand builders, they will have to find ways to participate in the conversation taking place among sports fans, without alienating them in the process.

We spend a lot of time counseling clients that invest in sports as to how to navigate this complex landscape, and believe it starts from the core: their company’s values. Findings from recent FH TRUE Global Intelligence research tell us that consumers expect brands to take a values-based approach to participating in the issues of our time. Two-thirds say they have stopped using a product because of a company’s response to an issue. Nearly half say they are less likely to purchase from a company that they believe promises one thing, but acts in another way. But – and this is a big flag – 61% said they believe it’s more important for companies to express their views, even if they disagree with a company’s position. This figure goes up to 75% if you’re asking millennials.

What this means is that the days in which brands could opt out of an issues-based conversation are long gone. Brands that want to play in sports ought to not only be prepared to get in the scrum, but also to express their views in a way that is authentic and well supported by its past and current behaviors, investments, and communications with customers. This is exciting work that speaks FH Sports’ core point of view: that brands must earn the right to trade on the passion inherent in sports through compelling, credible programs that deliver real value for their bottom line. As the issues of our time continue to evolve, we’re listening and we’re raising the flags so that brands know where and how to make their next move.