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The Importance Of Game Atmosphere In Improving Football Fan Perception Of Game Experience

By Eric Hungenberg, PhD, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga; K.C. Mayer, PhD, Roanoke College

College football attendance figures have steadily fallen since 2011, potentially due to a number of reasons including cost, performance, fan generational differences, and increased accessibility to alternative viewing mediums. While there are attendance and financial sustainability concerns among all collegiate levels, Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) athletic attendance and finances are not as stable as the more prominent Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level.

 

Resources at the FCS level are limited in terms of staff, salaries, and the like for sport sales, marketing, and promotional endeavors. Such inequalities place an increased emphasis on these teams’ ability to sustain fan support, attendance, and the auxiliary revenue accompanying games (e.g., parking, concessions, merchandise, etc.), which can be essential to athletic department finances.

 

Existing research has made it clear that a consumer’s game experience, either positive or negative, is predicated upon much more than athletic performance. For instance, attendee satisfaction with game experience has been impacted by an organization’s service benefits (i.e., customer service, facility quality) and environmental features (i.e., stadium design, atmosphere).

 

These factors, among others, can influence attendance, which ultimately shapes an athletic department’s interrelated revenue streams like donations, merchandising, sponsorship, concessions, and media. Additionally, service quality is believed to be a direct antecedent of a service’s brand equity, as it illuminates differentiating qualities among alternative providers.

 

Brand equity can be operationalized as increased loyalty toward a brand through improved perceptions that come as a result of positive interactive experiences, such as attendance. In sports, game satisfaction for consumers has demonstrated an ability to cultivate long-term benefits for sport organizations, such as brand equity. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that brand equity for fans can be realized following an event that is memorable and of high quality.

 

This study was conducted with the intent to illuminate which factors best explain event quality satisfaction among unique FCS patron segments (i.e., season ticket holders, single-game purchasers, and students). Information gained from this research can highlight institutional strengths and deficiencies for these fan groups, which can be leveraged by athletic administrators to sustain and grow spectator support.

 

In all, 531 surveys were collected for the study during six home football games played over a season at a public FCS Division I institution in the southeastern region of the United States. Average home football attendance hovered slightly above the national FCS average. A stratified purposeful sampling approach was employed during each game by placing researchers in numerous locations throughout the stadium, soliciting responses from a variety of stadium locales and ensuring that respondents reflected attendees paying high, medium, and low price points for tickets.

 

The survey comprised of four sections: stadium and service quality elements, brand equity, event quality, and demographic information.

 

The stadium service quality section of the survey consisted of eight variables which included facility design, facility maintenance, game/stadium atmosphere (i.e., special events, stadium environment, excitement), crowd energy, staff, facility access, player performance, and self-service technology (i.e., online resources).

 

Our analysis sought to test causal relationships among the eight stadium service factors, event quality and brand equity. The analyses also permitted an ability to compare responses between season ticket holders, single game purchasers, and students in those areas. Results indicated event quality significantly influenced fans’ level of institutional brand equity. In addition, game atmosphere had the greatest effect on spectators’ perceptions of the event’s quality, while facility access also demonstrated a positive and significant impact, but to a much lesser extent.

 

Among spectator groups, single-game purchasers revealed that game atmosphere, opponent ranking and a competitive game had a significant impact on their perceptions of the event’s quality. For students, only facility design, coupled with atmosphere, played an instrumental role in shaping their opinions of the event’s quality.

 

Dissimilarly, season ticket holders indicated that atmosphere, crowd energy and facility access were influential in their gauging of the event’s quality. Further, season ticket holders’ feelings toward the institution were not as impacted by a positive or negative game experience.

 

These results can help inform athletic department marketing and operational tactics, particularly as the game’s atmosphere was the pervasive factor explaining event quality regardless of fan type. However, the challenge with this finding is that atmosphere represents a very abstract phenomenon. Some have said it reflects environmental cues, sparked by landscapes or accompanying entertainment. Others however, have attributed atmosphere to social stimuli, produced by human emotions and feelings. As a result of this, atmosphere tends to uniquely take shape according to the sport context, underscoring the importance of practitioners taking into account the different sources and groups who co-create atmospherics and how they interact differently with diverse segments.

 

To start, the emphasis placed on game atmosphere among all segments in the study lends credence to the creation of special events afforded to FCS-level institutions based upon their stadium size and intimate spectator environments. To this end, sport managers at the FCS level should capitalize on the access and interactive experiences they can provide to attendees to differentiate themselves from the NFL and larger FBS programs. One FCS example would be to cultivate experiences like Portland State, where its head football coach interacted with fans after home victories at the local bar and grill, and picks up the tab up to $500. By making an event experience their own, FCS programs may construct game experiences which foster their own cultural traditions and history.

 

Other examples intended to further develop involvement and atmospherics among students include those by University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and James Madison University (JMU). At the end of the third quarter, Penn students throw toasted bread in the air from the stands as a tribute to the line “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn,” from the song, “Drink a Highball.” Interestingly, the ritual of throwing toast would prompt engineering students to design a machine to gather toast that landed on the track to alleviate the burden on the maintenance staff. Further, money is raised for food banks to help offset the food loss.

 

At JMU, multiple efforts are made to increase student engagement at games. One tradition involves students hurling streamers in the air after a scoring effort. Another involves the freshman class running across the field from endzone to end zone to kick off the beginning of every season.

 

Other FCS schools, such as Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, and Western Carolina have also adopted this tradition to generate greater engagement from incoming student attendees and build game atmosphere prior to kickoff for others present. Social tactics, like the ones mentioned above, may not be feasible with larger volume crowds, or in other sports such as basketball or soccer, due to safety and logistical challenges associated with stadia designs.

 

The importance of people-oriented atmosphere cited by all segments, and specifically crowd energy from season ticket holders, illuminates the need for event operators to cultivate special events and a stadium setting that emphasizes social interaction. Social platforms provide increased opportunity for fans seeking collective identity of “we-feelings and a sense of belonging.” Moments where fans can “bask in reflected glory” heighten the purchase experience and affirm one’s social existence.

 

These social engagements can certainly be engineered through the creation of in-game fan activities like the ones referenced at JMU and Penn. It can also be produced through pre-game and post-game social engagements with current, as well as former players and coaches, as witnessed at Portland State. A continuation of sport marketers building these opportunities into the game experience creates social cues (e.g., game chants, songs, etc.) that may amplify attendees’ emotional status, nostalgia, and increased likelihood of program loyalty (e.g., repeat attendance, brand equity).

 

In addition to the atmospherics surrounding the game, other variables relating to the stadium venue were discovered to be impactful and distinguishing among fan segments. Like game atmosphere, benefits inherent to FCS game environments offer opportunities for FCS administrators to more prudently and strategically utilize their resources to maximize the experience for relevant and substantial segments. For instance, season ticket holders valued facility access, which reflected the ease by which patrons were able to enter/exit the stadium, and access concessions, restrooms, and other amenities in a timely fashion.

 

Research in consumer behavior suggests that customer perception of value often emanates from the level of financial sacrifice. Consequently, it is likely that increased spending exhibited by season ticket purchasers will adjust their service expectations. Thus, stadium operators should examine opportunities to mitigate time spent in lines for preferred attendees by creating entrance points, as well as concessionaire options, made only available to particular spectator segments. An example of this may be the inclusion of mobile applications that allow designated attendees the ability to pre-order concessions or merchandise items from their seat location.

 

Efforts such as these will continue to make this segment feel valued through being granted special access and perks that can only be provided at the FCS level. Incorporating such offerings builds greater value, both from a utilitarian and hedonic perspective, as it permits attendees unique amenities, with minimal wait time and heightened status.

 

Overall, it was evident that event quality can have a significant influence on attendees’ brand equity. However, it was especially instrumental among those who do NOT possess partiality towards the institution and its football team. For instance, single-game spectators who are not season ticket holders were more impacted by the quality of event-related facets when assessing the institution’s brand equity. As such, sport administrators should be aware of these event elements when designing marketing strategies where the objective is to grow and sustain commitment and loyalty from lesser-committed fans.

 

These results and insights can aid practitioners that manage sport at the FCS level, which at times lack the finances and visibility of upper level athletic departments. These results may be especially relevant at this time as football attendance is declining, to assist with being able to increase support from several attendance segments, and enhance overall event experience for all spectators.

 

Our full paper can be found at this link (Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, May 21, 2019).