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While companies in sectors such as retail have for decades used the insights gleaned from market research to inform their business strategies, the rise of online research this millennium has enabled sporting organisations including rights holders, governing bodies and sponsor brands to do likewise, gaining deeper, more robust and more regular answers to their business questions.

Perhaps the best known use of market research in sport is the government commissioned Sport England Active People survey. From 2005/06 onwards, up to 165,000 adults per year in England have been asked questions around their sporting and leisure habits through detailed telephone surveys, with participation progress versus targets used to inform National Lottery funding received by sports governing bodies. However, the rise of online research has been a game changer by allowing sporting organisations of all sizes to commission or undertake much more regular research, gaining feedback from their customers (many of whom may be based in overseas locations) in a more cost effective way than was ever possible before.
Some of the areas where sporting organisations have benefited from conducting online surveys with hundreds  - or sometimes thousands – of respondents are as follows:

Sports right holders have been able to extensively profile their audiences across numerous demographic and lifestyle indicators in order to paint a clearer picture to potential sponsor brands of the calibre of person they can reach through sponsorship, thus increasing potential sponsorship revenue.

Rights holders have also been able to undertake more extensive event-based feedback in order to refine their offerings ; conduct detailed opinion research into existing and potential future hospitality offerings ; commission pricing research relating to all types of ticket offers ; and conduct economic impact assessments to demonstrate the value of their property to the wider economy.

Sponsor brands meanwhile have benefited most from online research by attaining much more robust measurements of ROI on their sponsorship investments. This has been achieved through the gauging of resulting opinions towards their brand of large numbers of survey respondents, with opinions often tracked on a year-round basis.

Finally, governing bodies have been able to do their own research into understanding perceptions of their sports and reasons why people do (and don’t) participate – rather than relying solely on the Sport England Active People survey results. This has amongst other things helped to provide key insight into how they can better market their sports.   

While sporting organisations have commissioned or undertaken qualitative research such as focus groups (many of which are now conducted online) in addition to the quantitative research described above, the industry is now also embracing areas outside of traditional market research in its quest to obtain the best possible business intelligence. The development of more robust ways to evaluate the impact of social media, the development of better CRM systems and the embracing of “big data” are just three ways in which the sporting industry is already looking to the future. Indeed, given the wealth of information available in today’s world, it is perhaps only through the combining of this information with the online research capabilities described above that sporting organisations of the future can truly prosper.  

By Chris Harvey, Sports Research Professional and former Research Director of SMG Insight / YouGov

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