We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks and months about ‘playing to your base.’ A political term born in the USA, which means pleasing your core supporters.
It’s not quite ‘preaching to the choir,’ but the intent is making sure that those who have stuck through thick and thin and have shown the most commitment continue to do so.
Another trend that has come from America, with regards to elite sport, is taking those core supporters and ignoring them in the aim of winning new fans that have previously had a more casual commitment to the game. Another way of putting this is ‘taking them for granted.’
This particularly started in the National Football League. Watch one of the regular Sunday games during the season before the playoffs and you may get varying levels of commentary expertise and competence.
Stay around for a little while for the prime time games (traditionally scheduled in America for Sunday and Monday nights, but now also including Thursday nights) and while the commentary may be better, it’s also likely that it may be dumbed down and may also include rambling tangents that may have little to do with the game. This is designed to keep the casual observer interested.
In Major League Baseball, games have mainly moved from daytime to nighttime. Baseball may be the ultimate American sport to have on the TV while doing other things, so this makes sense, but many hardcore fans pine for the days when games were played more in the afternoon heat of an American summer.
Here in Australia, this has manifested itself in a more fundamental manner. While we’ve got a long way to go with football to move past the ‘growing pains’ stage, the FFA’s desire to grow crowd numbers and rope in casual fans has seen the organisation and its league become more and more critical of the active support groups that follow the big clubs and attend their games. So much so that the Melbourne Victory’s Northern Terrace active support group has effectively retired.
Let’s look past what the active support groups do at a game and focus on their attitude. They generally turn up to every game. Their support is passionate and loud. There have undoubtedly been some things done in these groups that should be curtailed, such as the lighting of flares and the destruction of seats, but the situation is improving and these fans mainly keep to themselves anyway. Any casual fan with any idea about the game would, when planning to take his family to an A-League game, look for seats away from these groups.
The heavy-handed response to the active support groups shown by the authorities has been counter-productive. By making it difficult for these fans to continue to support these teams, they risk being left with only the more casual fans, which by their very nature are more likely to have their support wax and wane.
Supporters of the Australian Test Cricket Team have been having a tough time of it lately, but Cricket Australia’s commitment to scheduling the Big Bash during the prime cricket period of each year is certainly a contributing factor to some of the problems the Test Team is suffering from at the moment.
In order to create a coherent schedule, Cricket Australia have also sequestered the domestic limited-overs competition to four weeks at the start of the domestic season in September-October, which meant that there was only one Sheffield Shield match before the first Test this summer.
That Shield match was also played with pink balls in preparation for the day-night Tests to come this summer, matches that exist to primarily bring in more casual fans to attend matches and watch them on television. So again the hardcore supporters suffer.
The AFL is the one Australian sporting organisation who appears to have undergone a similar process and have come out the other side having learnt some lessons. After experimenting with Sunday Night and Monday Night games a few years ago which were poorly attended, the AFL put those games on the scrapheap and went back to more traditional timeslots, with the exception of a selection of Thursday Night games through the year that appear to be well supported.
While the AFL will continue to move away from Saturday afternoon games (as an unspoken commitment to local footy, in much the same way the NFL in America avoids Friday and Saturdays for high school and college football), the AFL has appeared more interested in providing value to long-term committed fans in the last couple of years; by way of scheduling, bringing back kick-to-kick on a limited basis, and addressing food prices.
Without a bedrock of committed supporters, elite sport doesn’t have a base on which to build. Australian football is built on the long-term supporters, many of whom either participate in active support or have offspring who do so. Australian cricket is built on those who love Test Cricket. Hopefully, sporting administrators start to realise what they have and show a little bit of gratitude.