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Behavioural Science

What Brands Can Learn From Sports Fandom

Walk into a bar in Boston with a New York Yankees hat, and you may not know what you’re up for. Ditto donning a Manchester United kit in a Liverpool pub. Hopefully, the worst you’ll get is a verbal beating. Cooler heads prevailing, you’re likely to get some gentle ribbing, at least.

While die-hard sports fans may not love the designation, major sports teams are brands. Not “technically brands”, not “also brands”, but brands, full-stop. And they’re big business. The Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League are worth $4.2 billion. FC Barcelona—$3.64 billion. Lest you think team success is the main driver, the New York Knicks—who have two championships in 72 seasons and have lost the most NBA games in this current millennium—are worth $3.3 billion.

Those values don’t put sports teams in the same ballpark as, say, Google and Apple (more like Slack—still no slouch). But think anecdotally for a second: do more people you know care deeply about a sports team or what you’d consider a traditional brand?  Sure, some people do strongly prefer either iOS or Android, Coke or Pepsi, Mercedes or BWM, but does their passion for a product run so deep that they bathe themselves in the brand’s colors and gather with others who identify in the same way to cheer a product reveal? Do they argue—even fight—with those who prefer the rival brand?

Brands may not want consumers getting into physical altercations while defending them to other consumers. Publicly, at least. Because brands would prefer people love them deeply. Brands do want fans, which stems from the word fanatic. But what is it about sports that engenders such passionate fandom? Why do sports fans care so much about, essentially, laundry? Why do they care so much about a brand?

We like to belong

Human beings generally like to be around other human beings. And it helps if those around us share some characteristics with us. According to the psychologist WL Gardner, the need to belong is more powerful than the desire for self-esteem. It’s so strong that it affects our interactions with others.

Affiliations are alluring. Sports teams give people an instant affiliation—a group they can be part of and share moments with, without much introduction or usual ice-breaking needed. Sports fan groups create an instant social connection.

It’s not a surprise, then, that we often hear about brands wanting to foster community. Like a sports team’s fanbase, brands often try to provide a place for people to feel like they belong to something. Make people feel as though they belong, and chances are they’ll return that feeling with loyalty. But making people feel a part of a community organically can be difficult. Many brands try to leverage already-existing communities—these days often through influencer marketing campaigns and partnerships. But perhaps those types of often-awkward partnerships aren’t the answer. While difficult to pull off, brands may be better off trying to create their own tight-knit communities, where members feel connected with one another, and that membership and tribe mean something.

History, location, culture

It’s said that you can’t choose your family. For many, that means you can’t choose your sports allegiances. While sports fandom is clearly a choice, it is a deeply-rooted one. People are often fans of a particular team merely because of location, and that fandom is passed down generations. This brings a strong identifier into the picture—regional pride. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, then, becomes more than just about the specific actions of the baseball teams, but the cities they come from. So when an attack on a team happens, it can feel like a more serious offense.

“Sports may have no cosmic significance, in other words, but to their followers, they matter,” writes Eric Simons, author of the book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession. He continues: “As such, it’s entirely rational for a fan to defend his or her identity against outside attack. It is rational to seek an extra level of proof in allegations that might harm you. It is rational (if intellectually dishonest) to forgive or explain the behavior of in-group members.”

This may explain why sports has an enduring socio-political element. The “Old Firm” rivalry in Scottish soccer, Celtic-Rangers, sees fans of the teams divided on religious grounds. As described in the book How Soccer Explains the World, official supporters’ groups of the soccer club Red Star Belgrade were directly involved in the revolution against Slobodan Milosevic. Though these examples aren’t the norm, they are a window into how for many, sports is much bigger than the game, because sports is in many ways about a sense of place.

Brands want to be global. But sometimes the most local thing is truly global. Jack Daniel’s is unabashedly a product of Lynchburg, Tennessee, a small town whose residents were used in a recent ad campaign. In 2011, Chrysler ran a Super Bowl ad with the tagline “Imported From Detroit” featuring native son Eminem.

Maintaining and playing up local roots isn’t only about celebrating one location. It’s about tapping into something that people recognize and feel deeply—a love of home.

Self-identification

According to Robert J. Fisher, professor of Marketing at The University of Western Ontario, we actively choose to find people or organizations that enable us to have a certain view of ourselves. Fandom is often about how we represent—or choose to represent—ourselves to others. As Fisher says, we want to see ourselves as making good choices and being smart and proud of being who we are.

“Identification is not just with the team — that might be the target or the focal field — but what draws with that is the identification that comes with it,” says Murray State University professor of psychology Daniel Wann.

Day-to-day consumer business may not have the inherent competition found in sports, which doubtless plays a part in the emotion that sports fans feel around events. But that competition ensures that only one team can truly win at the end of each competition, meaning there are many more losers than there are winners.

As a brand, you never ever want to fail, and you never want your public image to be associated with anything negative. But sports teams have to deal with that all the time. Yet, they endure. People proudly sport gear for poorly performing sports teams all the time. They remain proud amidst failure.

Perhaps that’s because, as fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers famously used to say, “Wait ‘til next year.” Perhaps the one thing that drives sports fandom the most is that the time, money, and emotion invested into following this seemingly unimportant thing will eventually pay off in victory. Brands may not have a big season approaching that their consumers are hoping ends in triumph, but hope is a strong emotion. Along with creating a strong sense of community and tapping into history brands might find themselves with fanatics of their own.

 

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