On Pirates, sports conferences and big (and slightly smaller) thinking

Abandoning London as the UK’s sports conference season got underway, I’ve spent the past few days in Cornwall. In between the pasties and clotted cream teams, the sea air and, marvellously, the cloudless skies, I found myself idly flicking through the local paper.

image1Now, local newspapers are generally thought to be at best under the cosh and at worst a dying breed, but The Cornishman (St. Ives and Hayle edition) seems to be holding up well – in thickness terms at least. Amid the usual fare – news, opinion pages, a big old property section, the puzzles and competitions page, with sport tucked away at the back – last week’s edition included a meaty pull-out supplement devoted to the Cornish Pirates. For the uninitiated, the Cornish Pirates are the local rugby union team. They play in the Championship, England’s second-tier, finishing eighth last season. They currently play in a 4,000-capacity stadium in Penzance, although plans are afoot to build a new arena. It’s a solid professional sports team.

The Cornishman’s supplement got me thinking a bit about fan engagement, which, not for the first year, is bound to be the hot topic at all the conferences you’ll be attending between now and Christmas – essentially, how sports teams can retain the fans they’ve got in an ultra-competitive marketplace, quenching a seemingly undiminished thirst for content, and how they can secure new followers and generate revenue from them. Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear plenty, much of it absolutely sound thinking, about the competitiveness of the marketplace, sport as a strand of entertainment, and the unlimited opportunities offered by new technologies and platforms. It’ll be an extension of my own sports industry-skewed Twitter and LinkedIn timelines, which are often clogged with links to top tips, handy advice and essential guides centred on how to maximise fan engagement through social media and digital.

But as I was reading up on the Pirates’ chances this season, I couldn’t help but wonder whether too much of this advice, and too much sports conference content, is aimed at the industry’s biggest fishes – the Premier League giants, the NFL franchises, the international federations (and, let’s be honest, the guys with the biggest budgets) – and not enough at the many professional teams, like the Pirates, operating slightly further down the food chain and working at a local and national level, rather than a local, national and international level.

Championship and lower-league football and rugby teams, perhaps even County Championship cricket teams, the vast majority of which are professional organisations, all naturally aspire to do as the big teams do: to have their own bespoke CRM solutions, to be prolific in-house content generating machines and to assemble huge and, yes, engaged social followings. You don’t have to delve too far below the top tier, however, to see the sports industry thin out pretty quickly, financially and in personnel terms.

Resources are limited, and if the reality for a club like the Cornish Pirates is that a local newspaper pull-out remains a vital and effective way of connecting properly with, and engaging a local community of fans, then should sports industry conferences not reflect that reality a little more than they currently do?

It’s only right and proper to explore and discuss what the big, wide digital world has to offer – indeed, local newspapers themselves are doing just that, trying to adapt to a forever changed media world in order to survive – and it’s clearly important to think big. But as you collect your lanyard at your sports conference of choice this autumn, or if you’ve been deemed important enough to speak at one, it might also be worth thinking just that little bit smaller as well.

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