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The Nutshell: Fierce Competition -

Is Membership the Future for the Business of Sport?

By Alex Crawford

5 minute read

The psychology of our interest in sport runs deep. According to risk consultant David Ropiek, it comes from the “human animal's need for tribal affiliation and cohesion, a belonging which is vital to nothing less motivating than survival itself.” To put it in plainer terms, (courtesy of the late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly), “Someone said to me 'You think football is a matter of life or death!' I am very disappointed with that... I can assure you it’s much more important than that.”

Sports are a serious business for players, spectators and investors, and attract a brand loyalty that other for-profit organisations can only dream of. This makes them a major commercial opportunity for companies looking to win in the membership economy. 

However, attitudes to how and where we watch, play and discuss sports are changing. This has opened up new frontiers for customer experience to focus on creating a genuine sense of membership and belonging that ties sporting fanatics to athletes, clubs and live events. As a result, sporting brands are starting to think creatively about membership as a  way to create holistic value through direct and indirect revenue.

Sport and Identity: The Story So Far

For centuries, the power of sport to evoke an emotional sense of membership and belonging has been harnessed by both the powers that be and the grassroots alike - long before commercialisation was even on the agenda.

In medieval England towns would fight pitched battles in games of ‘mob football’ to win bragging rights during the annual shrovetide festival. In short, to compete or to spectate was to belong somewhere - to fall on one side of the ‘us versus them’ dynamic any sports fans will recognise today.

Modern sports maintained this emotional sell, evolving through a series of technological innovations to bring us where we are today. While incumbents currently dominate the sports media landscape, a flurry of membership propositions are branching out from live sport to rewire the way we not only watch it, but also how we think about it. Let’s dive in.

Looking to the Grassroots

Brands have realised that engaged audiences are a resource to be treasured - and are building propositions that speak to a base of known fanatics to open up entirely new revenue streams.

  • Rapha - originally an online retailer of cycling clothing and accessories - has branched out to become a multi-vertical lifestyle brand, providing members with an international network of clubhouses, community events and editorial content. Cycle enthusiasts can even rent the road bike of their dreams to tear around the hills of Europe.
  • Classpass has built on its platform business model - a single membership to access classes at multiple gyms - by incorporating an at-home video workout subscription called Classpass Live to offer a fundamentally different customer experience and deepening engagement with the service.
  • Gym brands Soulcycle, Peloton and Equinox have used partnerships with fashion brands to extend into Direct-to-Consumer retail, positioning themselves as part of a lifestyle that extends beyond the pumping techno of a strobe-lit spinning salon.

Fight for Your Right(s)

The new kids on the block are looking to shake up sport broadcasting by tying live sports into broader membership packages - both to drive subscriptions and supercharge indirect revenues.

  • Amazon are continuing their bid to position Amazon Prime as a membership for absolutely everything. The e-commerce juggernaut snapped up broadcasting rights to 20 Premiership football matches per season for the next 3 seasons, offering them on demand for Prime members.
  • Advertising-driven social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snap are piling in too. With live video purportedly generating six times the engagement of scripted media on Facebook, sport broadcasting is increasingly seen as a way to guarantee eyeballs for marketers.
  • For the time being though, the floodgates haven't opened. Expect that to change in 2021, when the rights to the big 4 US sports leagues come up for renewal - prompting a feeding frenzy that pits traditional broadcasters against streaming services like Bleacher Report Live and DAZN, as well as tech firms like Amazon and Facebook.

Putting the Customer in the Box Seat

Over-the-top streaming has opened the door to new levels of personalisation, creating opportunities for brands to differentiate their membership propositions and meet a widening set of customer needs.

Manifesto Thinks...

While many brands want to use membership to capitalise on sport’s power to captivate legions of engaged fans and grassroots players, the biggest winners will be those who understand that the key is to build a killer customer proposition.

The three trends above outline some of the ways brands are harnessing our enthusiasm for sport to capture different sources of income - from hefty one-off transactions and recurring subscription payments to advertising revenues driven at scale. The ability to cover some or all of these bases at the same time makes membership a very attractive business model and an easy place for brands to focus their future efforts.

However, there are still questions to be answered. The grassroots could be turned off their favourite brands as they look to continue their growth by capturing the mass market. GAFA’s foray into sports broadcasting may not provide enough differentiation to tempt customers away from incumbents who already offer a range of other programming. And greater personalisation might well prove to be a differentiator when done properly - but it also risks being labelled as gimmicky if executed badly.

We believe that for a membership proposition to be successful, the customer needs to see and feel its value, and be prepared to pay for it. Although sport inspires phenomenal loyalty and creates extraordinary engaged customers, this golden rule still holds true.

Manifesto Tests...

The outlook for fan-focused social content is bullish - Manchester United fan Andy Tate racked up over 3 million views for a 2014 rant about incumbent manager David Moyes. But what will our crack team make of their rivals’ channels? In the spirit of friendly competition, and to test our opinions about the power of sport to inspire powerful emotional reactions, we challenged some of our resident diehards to review content produced by their rival clubs and their supporters.

Who are they

Alex Dodds

Catherine Ferguson

Oli Bello

Jamie Baker

Alex Crawford

What they stand for
South London’s most committed Newcastle fan. Midfield destroyer for his local league.
Cut her and she bleeds Leeds. Unqualified rumours that she runs with the Leeds firm have been dismissed as “scandalous lies”.
Claims he isn’t from Watford, which makes his choice to support Watford FC all the more bemusing.
Fairweather fan. Supports the career of Harry Kane and de facto follows Spurs.
Lives the bittersweet life of the Arsenal fan in 2019. All round nice fellow. Not bitter.
What they watched
Sunderland Official:
From Utah to Wembley: One fan’s journey to the Play-Off Final between Sunderland and Charlton
Derby County FAN TV:
Luton Town Official:
Luton FC: Championship Here We Come!
Arsenal Fan TV:
Arsenal 1-4 Chelsea | There Are Too Many Week Minded Bottle Jobs At Our Club
Tottenham TV:
32,000 subscribers1,307 subscribers12,402 subscribers1,000,000 subscribers27,000 subscribers
What they thought
'Fantastic vid, sneaks into my top 3 vids of the year just behind binging the whole Sunderland Netflix doc and watching Charlton's last minute winner on repeat. Love a bit of tragi-comedy'"The nocturnal piece-to-camera beautifully foreshadows the ensuing nightmare at Wembley in a way that's almost Blair Witch Project-esque"'Very tinpot...perhaps unsurprising for a club whose stadium is built into residential homes'“Typical entitled clap-trap from supporters of a team which has won a couple of faux trophies in the past 10 years and still think it’s a big club”“Eyescraping visuals and horrible acoustics, culminating in utter disappointment. Classic Spurs, basically.”