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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Hymers

From Engagement to Immersion - Why Sports Needs to Change Its Focus



Semantics matter. We constantly talk about “fan engagement.” It has been the cornerstone of how teams and organizations strategize around connecting to their fans, yet we don't ever seem to stop and think about what this actually means.


As every rights holder looks to innovate and deepen their connection to fans, it’s starting to feel like the term "engagement" is not enough, almost redundant. A sports fan (fanatic) is by definition engaged—it's implied. Everything every rights holder wants and needs from these people transcends the simplicity of being “engaged.” This term may no longer suffice to capture the depth and breadth of the experiences we seek to create.


To truly innovate and pull sports into the realm of relevance in today's world, we must reimagine and redefine this relationship, transcend traditional notions, and embrace a new paradigm. "Immersion" feels like a more appropriate word for what sports needs.


Engagement implies a certain level of interaction and involvement, but for today's fans—especially the most devoted ones, and to capture the attention of the next generation—this term falls short.


Modern fans are not just passive consumers of sports; they are active participants whose connection to their teams is deeply emotional, psychological, and even spiritual. They are the cornerstone of value for any organization, and growing this core fan base is how to move the needle commercially. This requires relevance. Relevance to the next generation of Gen Z and Alpha fans. What sports seem to fail at with this booming demographic is realizing they live in a world defined by immersion. The ability to rapidly, seamlessly, and simultaneously glide between and step in and out of physical and digital worlds, mediums, and experiences that offer value to them.


Sports' inability and unwillingness to adapt to Gen Z and Alpha’s modus operandi has resulted in a host of excuses and manipulation of data to help explain their own inadequacies. They throw desperate millions at every shining new piece of tech that comes along instead of actually doing the strategic work to understand them, transform, and serve them. From blaming trends and gaming to smaller attention spans, the reality is that sports executives have clung too tightly to the cash cow models and channels for too long. In short, they’ve been unwilling to really innovate and build new models that supersede and ultimately destroy their current ones. Leadership and bravery are sorely missing.


Attention spans of younger people aren't smaller; they’re simply more elastic and value-oriented. They’ll swipe past you in the blink of an eye or go down the rabbit hole for 8 hours straight. They don’t prefer bite-size content and highlights; it's simply all they have been given access to. Piracy isn't a crime; it’s the only viable option they've been given. The bottom line is that times are changing and sport is not. Fans today need and desire more than just engagement to give you value in return; they seek a profound sense of belonging and immersion.


So what does this mean practically? Firstly, let's explore the difference between “engagement” and “immersion.”


1. Definition:

Engagement: Refers to the state of being involved, interested, and emotionally connected to an activity or event. In the context of sports fans, engagement means actively following the team, attending and watching games, and participating in fan activities.

Immersion: Goes beyond engagement, involving a deeper, more profound connection where the individual feels fully absorbed and integrated into the experience. For sports fans, immersion means feeling as if they are part of the team or the event, experiencing a heightened sense of belonging and emotional investment.


2. Depth of Involvement:

Engagement: Fans may watch games, wear team merchandise, and discuss their team with others. Their involvement is active but remains at a participatory level.

Immersion: Fans are deeply engrossed in the experience, often losing track of time and surroundings. They might feel strong emotional reactions as if they are directly affected by the game's outcome, and their connection to the team feels personal, communal, and significant.


3. Emotional Connection:

Engagement: The emotional connection is present but relatively moderate. Fans care about their team and feel happy or disappointed based on the team's performance, but this does not dominate their emotional landscape.

Immersion: The emotional connection is intense and all-encompassing. Fans experience highs and lows as if they were part of the team. The team’s victories and losses significantly impact their emotions and sometimes even their daily lives.


4. Sense of Belonging:

Engagement: Fans feel a sense of belonging to a community of fellow supporters. This is often expressed through social activities like attending games together or participating in fan clubs.

Immersion: Fans experience a profound sense of belonging, almost as if they are a member of the team itself. This deep connection often leads to a stronger identification with the team, affecting their identity and social interactions.


5. Value and Reward:

Engagement: The value and reward come from the enjoyment of watching the games, the excitement of being part of fan activities, and the social connections formed with other fans.

Immersion: The value and reward are much more personal and intrinsic. Fans derive significant emotional satisfaction and personal fulfillment from their immersive experience, feeling a strong sense of purpose and identity tied to their connection with the team.


6. Behavioral Manifestations:

Engagement: Fans may attend games, follow team news, purchase merchandise, and participate in discussions. Their behaviors are supportive and enthusiastic but generally remain within typical fan activities.

Immersion: Fans may go to great lengths to show their dedication, such as traveling long distances for games, creating detailed fan art or content, and organizing large fan gatherings. Their behaviors reflect a deeper commitment and often blur the lines between being a fan and being part of the team’s narrative.


While engagement is characterized by active participation and interest, immersion represents a deeper, more emotional, and personally significant connection. Immersion involves a higher level of emotional investment, a stronger sense of belonging, and behaviors that reflect a profound commitment to the experience.


Gamers will immediately recognize all these things. When you step into the worlds of Minecraft, Roblox, Final Fantasy, WoW, or COD, you are immersed, and connected to others, sharing an experience and part of something bigger than yourself. You feel connected to people you’ve never met, characters that don’t exist, and things that aren’t real. Recognize any of this? It’s ironic because all of this sounds, feels like, and is, membership. The foundations required by definition to have a sports club.


You pay a price or meet the criteria to enter an exclusive realm and community that comes with perks and value, and holds itself to a set of standards. A far cry form what sports and membership feels like in industry today. Gaming took all this from sport and made its own and supercharged it with available technology and a rock solid strategy, while sport has languished and fallen behind, hanging on to a bygone era.


For sport to catch up, it needs to step into this burgeoning world of immersion and offer fans more relevant ways to experience what it means to be a part of a team. Sport can do all this with the right strategic investments and by taking more advantage of the unique benefits it still has. Namely, you can actually do it, actually go there, actually be a character, add to something real, wear an actual kit, share physical experiences. Sport needs to rapidly bridge the gap between the value it delivers and the way it manifests itself in the real world, and how it connects with people and delivers value in virtual realms.


Sport needs to create more seamless access and touchpoints to convert younger audiences and create more core fans. It needs to develop and be more open to new business models. Sport must display and act upon a willingness to invest in initiatives that question, challenge, undermine, and even cannibalize their current cash cows but deliver innovation, relevance, and long-term value. The industry as a whole needs to leave its boots stuck in the mud and get their socks dirty or face starvation.


The need to step away from the approach the fan as a consumer, an asset and a pair of eyeballs and a wallet to be squeezed and milked is desperate. For sport to be commercially viable and culturally relevant today and in the long term, hearts and minds need to be won first, and this requires being where people are, giving them access and making them feel a sense of connection, community and belonging to deliver undeniable and addictive value.


Sport needs to go beyond engaging fans and immerse them in this world by inviting them to participate and interact in way that is in step with how people live their lives today.


They need to be given a private access key to their teams that makes them feel special and opens up the potential to connect them in new and exciting ways. 


At Connected Fanatics we are playing our part in helping sports teams and rights holders transition from engagement to immersion, by making merchandise, the key symbol of connection and belonging for fans, an exclusive access digital point to experiences that allow you to immerse your fans in the club. 


Find out more and get in touch at www.connectedfanatics.com

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