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Sensor Technology: Key To Improving Sports Fan Experience & Increasing Commercial Revenue

by Matt Roberts 
7th Dec 2018


Even before I started working in sport, going to different events around to world was one of my passions; to date I have been fortunate to attend (as a fan, rather than for work) 5 Olympic games, a World Cup final, 4 European football championships and multiple tennis grand slams. Whilst travelling, it’s often surprised me how poorly commercialized some big events are. There are rarely enough food and drink options and often, as a fan, you struggle to locate the nearest merchandise stands or fan activations; this is despite the thousands of spectators who attend these events, and who are prepared to spend money on their special days out.

When I joined F1, I wanted to ensure that we were ahead of the curve in this area. Improving fans’ experiences and encouraging them to attend our future events was vital and we also wanted to maximise commercial revenue across our 21 annual races; however, at first, it was clear that, with the exception of a few races, F1 had very little knowledge and research into fans’ experiences. No ‘science’ existed to determine the best place to position the sales stands or fan activation points. The solution: to swiftly design and implement 2 initiatives: 1) conduct research on race attendees at 18/21 races (the other 3 already had research in place) whereby we profiled spectators’ nationalities and traits, experience satisfaction levels and perceived value for money; 2) sensor technology at 10 races to understand how spectators circulate the race circuit and engage with the food and drink, merchandise and fanzone activations.

This two-pronged approach was driven by the limitations of ‘claimed’ behaviour in research vs actual data. E.g. merchandise – approx. 60% of fans claimed they bought merchandise, whereas the sensors reported seeing <50% within a 15m radius of the stands measured. This highlights the importance of cross-referencing ‘actual’ data (from sensors) against ‘qualitative’ data (fan surveys) as it increases reliability, meaning that we can make stronger decisions off the back of it.

F1 uses Meshh sensor technology (aka Wi-Fi analytics). Sensors placed around the race circuit pick up signals from Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones (even if the Wi-Fi isn’t connected), and can accumulate data from approx. 80% of fans, providing a very significant sample (up to 250,000 people at some races ) to assist in our decision-making. During the 2017/18 season, we deployed 55 sensors at 10 races, placing them at entrance/exit gates, merchandise units, food and drink outlets, fanzone activations and concert stages. They provided extremely insightful results.

Using The Data To Our Advantage

1. A significant difference exists between fans at European and Middle Eastern races. The latter are more family-centric with high usage and dwell time at family/kids activations. In the Middle East, 30% of attendees preferred to enjoy the activations in the fanzone than towatch any of the Sunday races; whereas European fans are more F1- and race-focussed. One-third spend >3 hours in their grandstand seats, significantly higher than their Middle Eastern counterparts.

2. 1/5 US Grand Prix attendees were ‘concert’-only spectators, coming specifically for Britney Spears and Bruno Mars conferences and not watching any F1 action. An opportunity exists for F1 to sell more music/F1 merchandise to event attendees and also to better inform them about the F1 events earlier in the day with the aim of converting non-fans to F1 fans.

3. The majority of attendees enter via 2-3 gates. This data enables us to ensure that these gates have ample food and drink and merchandise stands, which isn’t always the case. E.g. In one market, 50% of attendees entered through two specific gates, but the merchandise megastore is located a 20 minute walk away at another gate . As many of these fans are unlikely to even know about the store, it is key that we either move the megastore to where the higher volume of fans are, or that we better inform fans entering through this gate about the benefits of attending the fanzone.

4. eSports/F1 simulators are very popular at races. There’s a significant link between increased simulator usage and higher perceived value for money.  By increasing opportunities for fans to participate in these activations across the circuit (currently they are centralised in the fanzone), we can improve their experience and perceived value for money, thus increasing the likelihood that they will return.

These examples are just snapshots of some of the key findings, but a result of them, we have been able to implicate a number of strategic changes to benefit both F1 commercially and fans. We have seen the launch of the F1 Grand Prix app, which has improved wayfindingsand information at races; and have also re-considered ourstrategy surrounding the location of merchandise and fanzone activations (e.g. eSports). It’s paying dividends. Race enjoyment in 2018 increased by 4% whilst satisfaction with ‘information/signage’ increased by 27% year on year, and perceived ‘good value for money’ increased by 5% year on year.

Matt Roberts, Global Research Director at Formula One Management, says ‘We are obviously delighted with the work we are doing in this space and are pleased to see that other sports and entertainment events are doing more of this kind of work to further understand how their fans behave. Fans are central to any event, and work like the above is vital in ensuring that a) they have the best experience, and b) that brands and rights holders are truly maximising their commercial potential at live events. I expect more and more sports rights holders to come on board with similar projects and look forward to seeing the changes first-hand when I visit sports events with my family in the future!’