The Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the international sports world. Cancelled and postponed events have left many sports with a financial deficit that will take years to recover from, showing that the industry is by no means immune to external factors.

In addition to the challenges, the pandemic has also provided many important learnings for sport to consider. Many of these will be focused on financial management, which – while essential – perhaps miss the true causation for sport’s future sustainability, the fans.

Fans are sport’s ultimate stakeholder. While event day income from fans is sometimes only a small part of overall revenues for sports organisations, their behaviour directly impacts all other areas. Sponsors, broadcasters and suppliers ultimately all pay to get eyeballs on their products. And if the eyeballs are no longer there, the whole ecosystem collapses. It is the fans that have the ultimate power, it has just not been realised yet.

How fans have been left behind

30 years ago, the first IOC Athletes’ Commission was formed, with members including fencer Thomas Bach and middle-distance runner Sebastian Coe. Since then, the role of athletes has grown significantly. Almost all International Federations now have an Athletes’ Commission, with many also providing for athletes’ representation on the Executive Board. There remain scepticism about whether this is enough, but it’s clear that voice of athletes has grown considerably since 1981, and the attitude towards athletes simply being ‘performers’ has rightly changed.

Why then have fans been left behind? The athletes are the heartbeat of the sport, the ones that people come to watch, but the fans are the ones who ultimately decide the sport’s future. Put simply – they stop watching, sponsors stop paying, events stop happening.

When FIFA recently floated the idea of the biennial World Cup, among the supportive statements from high-profile former players was reference to a fans survey, conducted on their behalf by IRIS and YouGov, and receiving 15,000 respondents who ‘were identified as expressing an interest in football and the FIFA World Cup’. Better than nothing maybe, but there is surely a better way of identifying and engaging with those fans most dedicated and knowledgeable about your sport and impact of policy changes.

Incorporating fans within the structure of an International Federation should be the answer here.

What it means to listen to ‘fans’

‘Fans’ is of course a broad term. For many sports, fans are as diverse as the world – of all different ages, backgrounds and, naturally, have different views on the sport’s future. Fans are also often brushed with the idea that they are too emotional – that they care more about their favoured athlete or team, rather than the overall good of the sport.

For a certain subsection this may be correct, but the vast majority fans are not naïve. Indeed, with the growing infiltration of profit-seeking interests within sport, fans are maybe now more united than ever in prioritising what is best for the sport, and more prepared than ever to speak as a collective. Efforts of football fans to override plans for a breakaway European Super League are testament to this.

Formalising and integrating a global fan group into an International Federation is of course not without its challenges. Fan representation must, for example, be internationally minded, democratically-run, and have sufficient independence from the International Federation to maintain full legitimacy. Complex aspects to achieve, but far from impossible.

The remit for fan representation should also be accepted to move beyond ‘fan experience’ elements such as ticket pricing and ease of access, though these are of course important. Rather, fan groups should be integrated in a holistic manner, providing views and ideas that address the product, such as the competitive balance and technical rules of the sport. It is, after all, their sport as much as anyone’s.

A mutually beneficial proposal

For the fans, the benefits of formal integration into decision-making structures are clear – it will create codified opportunities for them to have a say in the governance of their sport. But to view this only as a ‘nice thing’ to do for fans, would ignore the more practical advantages that fan representation can bring to International Federations.

Fundamentally, integrating fans into their structure will provide a targeted way for International Federations to acutely listen to their most committed followers, enabling decisions to be made with an accurate understanding of the fans’ perspective, and having incorporated an extra source of ideas. Just as corporate enterprises invest heavily in market research, listening to fans is not moral posturing; it is just good business.

The need for this may now be more acute than ever. A pattern of decreased engagement in sports has clearly emerged, most notably with Generation Z. The eyeballs that sport has often assumed will always be there, are already looking elsewhere. Institutionalising fans into the decision-making of international sport, can provide fans of all ages something additional to simple ‘fandom’ – a sense of ownership. As a strategic move, as well as an ethical one, increased fan integration into decision-making process makes sense

With empty cash registers and empty stadiums, the pandemic showed how much sports needs fans, financially and emotionally. Just as athletes have rightly fought against the expectation to ‘shut up and dribble’, fans should no longer be expected to ‘shut up and watch’. Now must be the time for fans to take their rightful place at the decision-making table.

Written by: Cameron Angus, Account Director – BCW Sports