While in the gym recently, I observed a group of people fill the bleachers to watch a casual, non-professional squash tournament. Wherever there is human activity, there is competition. Life is full of competition.
Think about it. Every part of life involves competition. We compete with ourselves through a dozen or more years of school to prepare for a career. We compete for jobs. Once at work, we compete to improve our position and income. Men compete for the prettiest girl (I won). Women compete for the best life mate. We compete for recognition and status and satisfaction in life. Competition is in our nature.
Whatever activity people are involved in, they turn it into a form of competition. And with competition comes an audience. I’ve ridden bicycles, climbed mountains, hiked the Grouse Grind, flown airplanes and jumped out of them. All of these activities, while purely recreational for most, have huge competitive communities. Do you run? There are magazines dedicated to running. Do you Ski? Snowboard? Skate? Competition surrounds these activities. Swimmers compete. Even dog owners compete! And, while I too have golfed and enjoyed the thrill of that game, I’ve often been amazed that millions watch golf on television or will even walk from hole to hole in the pouring rain to watch others try to hit a dimpled ball into 18 small holes in the least number of tries.
The secrets to building an audience
What makes an audience tick? Those who watch competitions, like the squash game going on in my gym, generally know something about the activity. There would be little thrill in watching something if you didn’t know at least some of the rules. But they don’t necessarily play. So what is the secret to building an audience?
There are basically two kinds of audiences: those who watch purely for entertainment and those who watch to see how others compare to themselves.
Some sports, like auto racing, have audiences made up primarily of those who aren’t actively involved in that activity. How many of the millions who watch a Nascar race have ever driven a race car? Others, like golf, are made up of people who do that sport.
In DanceSport, we have many audience members who don’t dance but love the glamour and excitement of what dance represents, especially when it’s a competition. It is an exciting and entertaining sport. These people are giving up a day or an evening of their lives to watch something that they find invigorating and entertaining. If we do it right, they feel their effort was worthwhile. It’s a trade between what they expect and what we, as a dance community, give them.
A bit of education is essential for any audience. To have an enthusiastic audience, you need them to feel that they can understand the basic elements of what they’re watching. So part of our job as a dance community is to educate our audience.
We also need to make our sport more accessible.
Too often those who want to watch dance competitions simply find the price of entry beyond their reach. This restricts the size of audiences and always has us pushing water upstream to gain awareness. We must find ways to present dance competitions without ticket prices that rival the cost of a car payment. Instead of creating competitions for ourselves — maxed out with the most elaborate and costly details — we need to pare them down to make them affordable for an audience of non-dancers. Even though hockey or NFL games cost money to attend, people can watch them for free on television. To be fair, that’s made possible by ad sponsors, but that’s beside the point. The audience is there because they can watch for free.
Also, we can’t expect organizers to do all the work. We need to work together to promote these competitive events. In the world of most pro sports, people are actively involved in communicating information. How many times do you see scores for a major game posted on social networking sites, for example? That’s the power of people!
We need to bring the competitions into communities instead of making people find their way to unfamiliar ballroom locations. Demos and outdoor events like DanceSport BC’s Robson Square Summer Dance Series are critical for gaining this kind of awareness. We need more free events, more ways to expose the public to our sport.
Television shows like Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance are helping because they provide a measure of education as they entertain. But these shows have been going on for years and how much growth have we seen in North America? Not much, because the dance community remains hidden under the radar. Only dancers ever know what’s going on! Worse, when invited to be part of these kind of outreach events, even active competitors often show little interest. It’s amazing how hard it can be to get dancers to show up for demos. We need to be more interested in demonstrating, for the greater good of building our audiences.
I often hear dancers complain that there isn’t a larger audience when they compete, or that there isn’t a larger group of competitors. Instead of complaining, ask yourself what you’re doing to change the situation.
What we really need to do is apply our competitive nature to set new goals in these areas and work towards change.