Everyone knows a team is only as strong as its fans. Fan engagement is everything when it comes to sponsor revenue, ticket and merch sales.
Often leagues and teams are challenged with the boosting of digital fan engagement across social media platforms as digital connections through partners increases reach, engagement, fan loyalty and revenue.
Now, meet Eddy Hirono.
He is the co-founder of The Crew, the fan club of Lion City Sailors (LCS), as well as the YouTube channel, Sailor Fan Talk, where Eddy and his ragtag crew of devoted fans, post match day videos of the LCS matches.
You can find him at the various football stadiums across the island on most game nights, belting fan chants as he follows the season progression of his team.
“I’ve always felt like fans have something to say, but nobody is recording. It would be great to have a voice from the fan. To let them feel invested, and be like hey, someone cares about what I think. And I think that’s what the club is doing too. That’s how we started Sailor Fan Talk. Soon, we branched into interviewing staff and ex-players. To be fair, not a lot of people may be interested, but are there 20 people who care? Probably. But maybe next time there’ll be 50,” says Mr Hirono.
The old fan and the “sea”
Mr Hirono, 33, describes himself as the ‘oldest fan’ of the Sailors, after the club’s privatisation in 2020 when Singaporean billionaire and founder of Sea Limited Forrest Li bought a 100 per-cent stake in the club and rebranded the previously known ‘Home United FC’.
This investment has given the LCS the flexibility and resources in the field. They smashed the league record for transfer fees, and boast a current squad valuation of $9.2 million, about four times that of the second highest valued squad in the league.
The LCS 2022 campaign has garnered much attention from both Singapore Premier League (SPL) and general football fans alike after an exciting run in the AFC Champions League, where they beat South Korean team Daegu FC three-nil at an away game, and domestically, they sit at the top of the league.
Off the pitch and in the stands, the Sailors are building something as well.
A push to attract fans saw the LCS partnering ticketing company SISTIC, to provide the convenience of digital ticketing. Food vendors like Old Chang Kee and pyrotechnics were brought in to liven the atmosphere. And with the help of rapper Lion City Boy starring in music videos, it gave the LCS an increased social media presence.
Asides from such partnerships, the personal interaction from the club made fans feel involved as well.
“They (LCS) regularly do things like zoom sessions with the fans to find out their concerns. So we have town hall sessions and open communication. They provide some of the flags we use in the game and even charter buses for travelling to catch the women’s team,” says Mr Hirono.
“While other clubs tend not to affiliate themselves with the fan bases, due to legal implications the fans bring on the club, The Crew is happy to be affiliated with and regulated by LCS,” he adds.
The value of personal interaction the club has with its fans is something that its CEO, Mr Chew Chun Liang recognises.
“Before the match I’ll walk the ground, specifically the areas that our fans walk to make sure everything is ok. After that, I’ll go to the area where the fans congregate and talk to them. Even if it’s just a simple greeting like, thank you for coming. After the game and once I’m done hosting the VIPS, I’ll go and join the fans again. They tend to congregate around the players so I’ll thank them for coming and that is when they’ll share some feedback. I cannot interfere with the game on the pitch but what I can do is to ensure the entire game is a success whether it’s in terms of operations or fans,” says Mr Chew.
As Mr Hirono is excited by the push from the club in attracting and engaging fans, he is not short of ideas to enrich the fan experience.
“I’m exploring starting up a website where we post our fan chants, information like ticket prices and game day news – simple FAQs like where certain things are in the stadium,” says Mr Hirono.
Football may be one of those sports where fans can physically congregate around stadiums and venues and get close enough to the players; but at the other end of the spectrum, there are sports that are watched from a distance, which pose the question of how they can engage their fans.
From cheering on the Sailors in the stadium to cheering on those out at sea
The concept of fan engagement is often related to how celebrities, sports clubs, and even esports players connect with their fan base. Even experts say fan engagement in sports is all about the emotional connection that is created between the team and the fans.
Mr Lukman Nurhakim Samad first started sailing at the age of 40, after watching his kids learn to sail. He is now in charge of the marketing and communications for the Singapore Sailing Federation (SSF).
When it comes to fan engagement Mr Lukman says the sport of sailing relies on the accolades of the athletes in global competitions to bring awareness to the sport.
Sailors like Cecilia Low and Kimberly Lim competed at the Olympic women’s 49er FX regatta in Japan in 2021, where the duo topped the 21-country fleet. It was the first time any Singaporean sailor has done so at the Games.
In a 2021 article on fan engagement, published by the Johan Cruyff Institute, which specialises in sports management education, senior lecturer at University of Bath Rui Biscaia wrote, “If your fan engagement strategy is based mainly on athletes, you will run the risk in the short term or medium term of being in a difficult position if or when they leave the team. Focusing all the strategies on the success of the team is also very questionable because it’s virtually impossible for a team to ensure a consistent performance.” Dr Biscaia is an expert in fan engagement.
Knowing that such engagements are seasonal, Mr Lukman hopes to engage fans through Singapore’s connection to the seas.
“Many people think of themselves as city dwellers but we’re not. We’re all islanders. There’s a lot of roots in terms of sailing and sea sports because of our maritime history. But then again, many people are afraid of water. This fear is something that we want to break. You must be proud of this heritage and embrace the sea. Many of our forefathers came via the sea. Before Sir Stamford Raffles, there was Sang Nila Utama,” he says.
“We’ve been trying to expose sailing through schools and the values that sailing offers. Only half of our regattas focuses on the racing components. We really want to champion three elements: the awareness of coastal sustainability, our maritime heritage, and character development through sailing like independence and survivability. When you’re out at sea, you pick up these values,” he adds.
Mr Lukman says for sea sports, factors like distance, tides, and scale of event limit the ability of the sport from getting up close and personal with the fans. So, broadcasting is the primary means of fan viewership and engagement, whenever possible.
“The most challenging thing about bringing the sport to the audience is the capabilities of the medium – the electronic media. In Singapore, not many are familiar with bringing the sport closer to people in the heartlands, in terms of handling hardware like boats, cameras, and drones. For coastal sports we’re far out at sea, so we try to send the highlights. It’s often never live,” he says.
He also notes that sailing as a sport requires a certain level of knowledge by the fans to be able to follow and enjoy the sport.
“We’re a small community, our demographic is more in terms of profiles. We attract the children of sailors, expats, older fishermen, and generally more adventurous sorts who like the sea. It might be hard to follow the sport initially as there are many technicalities and science involved.” Mr Lukman says.
Make sailing attractive again
“Sailing is perceived as a sport for the rich and it is seen as unaffordable. But that’s actually a myth. If you compare it to a kid who plays tennis, all the equipment and lessons might cost about a thousand dollars. To learn sailing is less than a couple of hundreds and it’s a life skill,” he adds.
Mr Lukman recognises that there are many barriers to engaging fans in a sport like sailing and when it comes to engaging the Gen Z or even GenAlpha who have extremely short attention spans and like the fast, furious.
“Why do we want to spend millions of dollars bringing the sport closer to the land but not many appreciate it? We need to educate them first. Then it is worth spending a large budget or seeking sponsors and getting broadcasters in after we have 40 per cent of young adults who are now interested in sailing,” says Mr Lukman.
In another research paper on fan influence in the the strategies of sporting organisations, Dr Biscaia answered the question of whether “the purpose of fan engagement is to understand consumer behaviour or to change it.”
“I would say neither one nor the other. Of course, it’s important to understand them, but the purpose of fan engagement is about making sure that fans are in touch with each other, that they are part of the community, that they can help the team and the team can help them to create a more meaningful life and value for all parties involved,” he wrote.
There is a long list at the roundtable of stakeholders that go into building a healthy ecosystem. You have your casual fans, the die-hard fans, community groups, clubs, leagues, governing bodies, national bodies, para organisations, and more.
The experience of being together with other people with the same interest is what makes events so exciting and engaging fans through social media allows fans to get that same excitement even when they are watching the game on TV or being live streamed instead of being at the live event.
As these stakeholders engage one another in the daily operations of the sporting activity, in the hopes of seeing the sport they love reaching a greater height, Mr Hirono says that it is a symbolic representation of a wider communal value that society places on sport.
He says: “Whose responsibility is it to grow the league (SPL)? Is it anyone’s responsibility? Why do we even need a professional league? Other sports don’t. It’s the small things that make fans feel vested. Things like Old Chang Kee and beer in the stadium. Things like the marketing director asking us what we need and hanging out with us on Zoom sessions. I think all these really help the fans feel like the club gives a shit about us. So if you’re looking at it from a top-down and bottom-up approach, it’s about 80 to 20 if you ask me.”