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SBJ/March 1 - 7, 2004/SBJ In Depth
What makes fans tick?
Published March 1, 2004
On a corner of his desk in the psychology department at the University of Missouri-Rolla, Christian End keeps a framed photograph of his niece and nephew, both decked out in Green Bay Packers garb.
The boy, barely a year old, wears a Brett Favre jersey. The girl, all of 3 months old, is dressed as the tiniest of Packers cheerleaders.
"I'm sure they didn't pick that stuff out themselves," End says, chuckling. "You think maybe they'll grow up to be Packers fans?"
End is sure they will, not only because uncles know this sort of thing, but because, armed with a doctorate in psychology, he has chosen the study of such motivational matters as his niche. His master's thesis looked at the way winning and losing affected NFL fans' Internet habits. His doctoral thesis addressed the way fans responded to threats to their "social identity."
Like many researchers, End can tell you with reasonable certainty that the bond between many of the most loyal fans and their favorite teams is forged during childhood, that they are socialized into following the Packers or the Cubs or the Canadiens in the same way that they are socialized into their family's religion, and that they are likely to carry those embedded habits all the way to the big sports bar in the sky.
Sociologists and psychologists also can tell you why some people follow sports with more passion than others; why most will jump off a bandwagon even more readily than they climbed on; why people who have never been west of the Mississippi will latch onto the Oakland Raiders rather than to a team that's two hours away; and why the promise of Florida and Arizona turned out to be a sports marketing mirage.
They can tell you all that and more.
But is anyone listening? Are owners and executives willing to step away from the core business questions — How many and for how much? — long enough to ponder the more elusive, but perhaps more rewarding, "Why?"
Some franchises do extensive psychographic research. The Arizona Diamondbacks surveyed season-ticket holders on loyalty and branding matters in each of their first three years, then dove in for another close look during their World Series run in 2001.
But many franchises shy away from psychographics because meaningful samples are expensive to gather and analyze. Instead, they try to make the most of the information that is easier to come by — customer demographics and buying patterns.
"The teams can tell you who's there, what their income is and what they like on their hot dog," Trail said. "But that's not going to tell them what's getting those people to the game or keeping them from the game. And that's what they need to know.
"More of them need to start asking why."
Why we're fans
First, let's address why we're sports fans; why we spend our money and time watching other people exercise.
"There are a lot of leisure options out there today," Wann said. "Why do I decide that I'm going to put my money and my time into this?"
About 10 years ago, around the time that Cubs fans were burning copies of the Chicago Tribune on Waveland Avenue after losing 12 home games in a row, Wann created the Sports Fan Identification Scale, which pegged these eight basic motives that drive people to consume sports:
Entertainment: As Freud is believed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. You went to see "Master and Commander" last night. Today, you've got Cubs tickets.
Escape: You can't yell at your boss. You shouldn't yell at your spouse. You can, and will, yell at the Cubs.
Economics: You bet $100 on the Cubs. And Corey Patterson is on your fantasy team.
Eustress: The pleasurable combination of euphoria and stress. You are stimulated intellectually and emotionally as you alternate between the euphoria you feel when Sammy Sosa homers in the first inning, and the stress you feel when a fly ball has him backing up to the wall in the second.
Aesthetic: You appreciate the grace and precision of a well-turned double play.
Family: Your spouse isn't particularly fond of the Cubs but goes to the game to spend time with you.
Self-esteem: Cubs win, therefore you win.
Group affiliation: The other 38,000 people at Wrigley also want the Cubs to win, validating your own affinity for the Cubs, and excusing you for it tomorrow night when they lose in Houston.
Not all the motives that Wann identified are present at all times for all fans. Family and economics, for example, may come and go. But most are present in degrees that vary from person to person.
Group affiliation and self-esteem are almost always in play and form the core explanation for fan behavior. About 90 percent of fans consume sports in a group setting, Wann said. And self-esteem is a core motivator for almost all fans, whether they realize it or not.
Most of the docs agree that our attraction to spectator sports, and particularly our following of team sports, can be explained by "social identity theory," which says that people are likely to behave in manners that improve the way they're perceived by others.
Building a positive connection with other people increases self-esteem. Isolation drags on self-esteem. We look for common ground because it makes us feel good.
Stadiums, arenas, sports bars, chat rooms and water coolers offer vast stretches of common ground.
"Sport provides a source of both group and personal identity," said Jeff James, a Florida State University professor whose work focuses on fan loyalty. "It satisfies basic needs for belonging."
All of that gets us a long way toward explaining why we cheer.
Who we cheer for, how vehemently we cheer and how much we'll suffer through before we stop cheering are other matters.
On and off the bandwagon
We are a nation of BIRGers and CORF-ers. And that's nothing to be proud of.
BIRG and CORF are terms coined in one of the earlier studies of
On all six campuses, researchers found that students not only were more likely to wear their colors after a victory, but also were more likely to refer to the team as "we." When the football team lost, it became "they."
Cialdini described the behavior as "basking in reflected glory" and "cutting off reflected failure," or BIRGing and CORFing, acronyms that formed the foundation for social and psychological research that continues today.
|Social identity theory: Says that people are likely to behave in ways that improve the way they are perceived by others in their group.|
|BIRG: Basking in Reflected Glory. People climb on a team's bandwagon because they believe that associating with a winner makes them a winner.|
|CORF: Cutting off Reflected Failure. People distance themselves from a loser for fear that a connection would make them look like losers.|
|Eustress: The pleasurable combination of euphoria and stress that a fan feels during a game.|
|Psychographics: Characteristics based on ideology, values and attitudes, as opposed to demographics, which are statistical characteristics of a population.|
|Deep play: Coined by 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to describe the state in which one is "levered by ecstasy, and one springs out of one's mind."|
|High self-monitor: Person who looks for clues in a situation to tell him how to behave. Less likely to be loyal.|
Low self-monitor: Person who uses internal values and motives to guide behavior. More likely to be loyal.
When fans CORF, they cut the cord on that connection, trying to avoid the negative evaluation that comes with a loss. They leave their team sweatshirts at the bottom of the laundry basket. "We're on a roll" gives way to "they're in the toilet."
The reasons behind the behavior are tied to self-esteem.
"The groups that we belong to form a part of our self concept," said End, the Missouri-Rolla psychologist who has studied BIRGing in today's NFL. "One way we can gain esteem is when the group we belong to compares favorably to another group. That's the driving force behind BIRGing."
Flash back to the scene of 35,000 newly minted Carolina Panthers fans jamming the downtown streets of Charlotte for a pep rally the week before the Super Bowl, many of them wearing shirts that they bought that morning, and you've got a snapshot of textbook BIRGing. Go back in time two years and down the street six blocks to a stadium that was less than half full many Sundays and you've got CORFing at its worst.
End has done some of the more recent research on BIRGing, in part checking to see whether evolutions in media coverage or the emergence of the Internet might have changed the parameters.
In one study, he asked fans to identify their favorite teams, starting with the one they liked best. The majority began with the ones that were most successful at the time.
"Most of us are fans of more than one team," End said. "I grew up in Milwaukee, so I might reach into my bag and say 'I'm a Packers fan.' I'm a Bucks fan, too. I'll volunteer that. But I'm not ever going to mention the Brewers."
Not surprisingly, researchers have found that BIRGing and CORFing become less likely as fans identify more closely with a team.
Fans who lack a deep connection are capable of shifting from BIRG to CORF and back as deftly as a Heisman-winning tailback. Those who identify more closely with the team will dig in during down years, continuing to view the team positively because acting otherwise would jeopardize their view of themselves.
Cubs fans and Red Sox fans, for example, do not CORF.
"Groups that align with some teams are able to change the relevant dimension of comparison," End said. "Instead of it being who won the game, the important thing becomes my loyalty."
While Cubs fans and Red Sox fans would like for their teams to win, they don't take a self-esteem hit when they lose. They wear their scars with pride.
"For them, it's really all about being loyal, and you can't challenge that," End said. "I'm more loyal than you, so I can feel good about myself in comparison to you, even though your team won."
Some psychologists suggest that teams would stand a better chance of connecting with fans if they sold them on the idea that the players are similar to them. While that's a long shot for big-league teams that pay their players millions, it can work for minor league teams.
Robert Fisher, a business school professor who recently moved to the University of Western Ontario after teaching at Southern Cal, found that commonality with the players was the greatest point of attraction for fans attending minor league hockey games in Texas.
He bolstered his argument with another study done by Cialdini, who asked his subjects to read a biographic sketch of Rasputin — the mad monk of Russia — and report back with their feelings toward him. Cialdini altered half the sketches so that Rasputin's birth date matched each reader's.
Those people who shared a birthday with Rasputin softened their evaluation of him.
"The more similar you are to somebody, the more you feel that they are attractive, which then leads you to feel a connection," Fisher said. "Nothing else will have as much bearing on whether you feel a connection."
Connected fans — those whom psychologists and sociologists refer to as "identified" — tend to remain loyal customers.
"The single best predictor of sport consumption is team identification — the loyalty," Wann said. "If I get somebody highly identified with my team, they don't care what the event is. They'll come see Nebraska play International Harvester. This loyalty is so stable. The teams we like when we're 50 are the same as the teams we liked when we were 5.
"What fosters that identification? That's the $500,000 question."
Meet 'Deep Fan'
Bob Mechikoff would like to introduce you to Deep Fan.
Mechikoff, a San Diego State University professor whose expertise is in the historic and philosophical development of sport, came up with the term along with a colleague when the two were studying the behavior of the most avid sports fans a dozen years ago.
They chose the moniker Deep Fan because their subjects reminded them of a study done 32 years earlier by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who identified a practice called "deep play" while observing cockfights held in a village in Bali.
In "deep play," stakes are so high that it would be irrational for anyone to engage in it. And yet engage they do. In Bali, Geertz found a male-dominated culture that attached deep significance to cockfights held every few days in the center of town. The results were powerful enough to swing social hierarchies.
In Mechikoff's view, that accurately described the stakes for some of the most avid fans.
"There is a class of fans out there who form an emotional attachment to a team that some psychologists would say is outside of normal," Mechikoff said. "It can be very uplifting or utter despair. As a Deep Fan, you live and die through the team. It's kind of a mythic experience."
Most of us have met Deep Fan.
James, the Florida State professor who studies consumer loyalty in sports, met his Deep Fan during three seasons working for the minor league baseball team in Midland, Texas, the job he held before opting for a life in academia.
Deep Fan of Midland was a season-ticket holder who had been going to games for decades, sitting in the same seat for every game. One winter, Deep Fan's son got engaged. He and his fiancee set the wedding for a Saturday night in June. When Midland released its schedule, the Saturday night the couple had chosen fell in the midst of a homestand.
"Dad gave them three choices," James said. "They could move the time, move the date or have it without him.
"They changed the date."
When James studies fans, he categorizes them along a psychological continuum: aware, attracted, attached and allegiant. About 30 percent graduate to that final stage in which a team becomes a core part of a person's identity.
"If you ask me what I am, I can say a lot of things," James said. "I'm a father. I'm a professor. I have my religion. For someone with a deep allegiance, that team is one of the first things they'll mention. Sport is one of the prime components of their identity."
In the last 50 years, James said, people have reduced the number of objects that they include as part of their identity, moving away from social units such as the Shriners and the Masons and toward connections they make via mass media. Sport has emerged as one of the components they continue to use.
While Deep Fan can mean different things to different people, the research that spawned the term addressed the influence that 24-hour sports channels, sports talk radio and the Internet would have on sports fans.
Mechikoff said his study accurately predicted that more programming would provide the opportunity for people to become more deeply connected with their favorite teams and athletes, driving viewership for networks and sales for advertisers.
Today, he wonders whether that dynamic is about to turn in the opposite direction.
"Sport is much more distant than what we had when we were becoming fans or when our parents became fans," Mechikoff said. "The event isn't necessarily where you find Deep Fan now, because in many cases he's been priced out. Now, he's at home or at the sports bar, which has become the de facto link. I'm not sure you maintain the personal identification that way."
Sociologists say they know, empirically, that if parents follow a team closely, their children are likely to follow that team closely. Loyal Red Sox fans raise loyal Red Sox children, who grow up to raise more loyal Red Sox children.
"My kids follow the Cubs and the Jayhawks," said Wann, who got his undergraduate degree at Kansas. "They want to stay in the will, after all."
That's a dandy model for the Cubs, who set up shop in 1876, and for KU, founded in 1864.
But it's not something that many pro franchises can rely on today.
Less than one quarter of teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have been around long enough to have touched more than two generations from birth. Only 30 of today's 121 teams existed in 1960 and were playing in the same market that they're in now.
Expansion and relocation have jostled the sporting landscape repeatedly. The leagues awarded 24 expansion franchises in the '60s, not counting eight AFL teams that eventually merged into the NFL and two ABA teams now in the NBA. They granted 14 more expansion teams in the '70s, not counting four teams that survived from the World Hockey Association and two more ABA teams. They added five expansion teams, all in the NBA, in the '80s; 18 in the '90s, and three more since 2000.
None of those teams has been around as long as color television.
The same population shifts that drove expansion led to relocation. Thirty-one Big Four teams have moved since 1958, when the Dodgers and Giants went west.
More than one-third of current NBA teams (34.5 percent) moved to their current home from another city since 1958. The same goes for one-fourth of the NFL, one-fifth of the NHL and 23.3 percent of MLB. (See chart)
"Those teams aren't going to achieve the same kind of community identity that those older teams have built with their fans," James said. "If you're an expansion team or a relocated team, you're not going to build what they have in Green Bay. Forget about community identity. The community already has an identity."
League footprints have swelled to match the migration patterns of the nation, first to the West and then into the Sun Belt.
Up until 1958, only the NFL had franchises in California: the Rams and 49ers. That changed rapidly after the Dodgers and Giants opened the season against each other in front of what then was the largest Opening Day baseball crowd ever, 78,672. Two years later, the Lakers moved in from Minneapolis. The Angels came in 1961, the Kings as part of the NHL's mass expansion in '67.
San Francisco got its NBA franchise, the Warriors, from Philadelphia in 1962. Oakland got the Raiders in '60, the Seals in '67 and the A's in '68.
Minneapolis lost the Lakers, but added MLB, NFL and NHL franchises between 1961 and '67. Houston went from no big-league franchises to three from 1960 to 1971. Atlanta sprung from nothing to add the Braves and Falcons in '66, attract the Hawks from St. Louis in '68 and land an NHL expansion team in '72. San Diego landed MLB, AFL and NBA franchises in the '60s.
While there was some movement in the 1970s and early '80s — Seattle and Dallas came into their own — the next widespread shift in the pro sports landscape began in 1988.
It has continued steadily since then, with at least one team coming or going via expansion or relocation in all but one of the last 16 years.
Thirty-two of 121 teams — or about one in four — have arrived in the town they now call home since 1988. Go back to 1980 and the number rises to 39, or about one in three.
Within that list of relative newbies you will find the most volatile of sports cities, susceptible to bandwagon highs and fair-weather lows: Charlotte, Phoenix, Anaheim and the entirety of the Sunshine State.
Trail likes to distinguish between spectators and fans when he speaks of consumers in those locales.
"In these expansion cities you have spectators who may go to the game for its dramatic or aesthetic appeal or for the social aspects," Trail said. "Fans go because of a specific connection to the team.
"You aren't usually going to be able to drop in as something new and immediately establish that."
Moving vans, moving fans
Not only is it a mobile sporting landscape, it's a mobile society.
About half of U.S. residents changed homes from 1995 to 2000, according to the most recent Census figures. Eight percent of the nation moved to another state during that span.
It's the continuation of a migration pattern that has changed the loyalty equation for sports franchises. (See chart)
As of 2000, only 32.7 percent of Florida residents were born in Florida. Only 34.7 of residents of Arizona were born in Arizona. Only 41 percent of people in Colorado, barely 50 percent of those in California and only 58 percent of those in Georgia lived in the state in which they were born.
When you put a team in Miami, you are not only asking consumers to embrace something new; you are asking that they disengage a connection that reaches deeper than a ZIP code.
"The loyalty isn't just wrapped up into the team, but wrapped up in the community and what community I identify with," said Dan Mahony, a University of Louisville associate dean who spent less than half of his life in New York but still considers the Giants, Mets, Knicks and Islanders to be his favorite teams. "I can live in Louisville for the rest of my life and I'm still going to be seen as a Yankee. It's part of my personality. My identity will always be as a Northeasterner. So following teams to the Northeast helps keep me tied to my overall identity.
"New Yorkers move to Atlanta, or to Charlotte or in droves to Florida, but they still identify themselves as New Yorkers. It becomes hard to form an attachment with those people."
Those maintained allegiances also can have an impact on a team's next generation of fans.
Again, children are socialized into sports, both as participants and fans. The early agents of that socialization are family members. "It starts at home," James said.
So, if Mom and Dad are rabid New York Giants fans and the family moves to Tampa, but stays home to watch the Giants on DirecTV rather than heading out for Buccaneers games, the chances diminish of the Bucs landing Junior as a deeply connected fan.
"If it's a matter of personal identity for Dad, it doesn't matter where he lives, he's still going to be loyal," said James, who has studied the loyalty-building patterns of children. "And if I like the team because Dad likes the team, I'm going to keep liking the team, too."
Fortunately for teams, family ties don't always dictate the outcome. As children grow and are exposed to others, their reasons for connecting with a team can change.
"You still have a chance to get them," James said. "Mom and Dad create the awareness for us. But we can form the personal attachment outside of them. As kids get older, community becomes a strong factor. They listen to peers. To media. That all has to weigh in.
"They say, 'Dad, you can be a Knicks fan, but I'm going with the Magic.' "
They dig in loyally — until Dad is transferred to Houston.
Trail, who teaches at Iowa State, has maintained childhood allegiances to the Dodgers and Lakers even though he now lives in the Midwest. But he also has latched on to the teams of the school that pays his salary. Though he hasn't researched it, he believes there may be a lesson there.
"If you got degrees at Ohio State, Florida and UMass, and you're teaching at some other institution, now what?" Trail said. "In which of those stops does the deepest loyalty develop? Is it where you went first, or where you are now? That might tell us something about the larger picture."
Blue collar vs. white collar
There are those points, many of them, on which the academicians who study sports fans' motivations have more questions than answers, more theories than laws.
We'll call this one the case for Ralph Cramden over Ward Cleaver.
It isn't something that many sports sociologists have researched, and not all of those that we interviewed agreed with the premise, but most said it was worth discussing, and perhaps studying.
It goes like this:
Well into the 1970s, the target customer for a sports franchise was male, blue collar and usually urban.
He went to work early, busted his hump for eight hours and clocked out at 4 or 5. When he headed to a game, it wasn't to impress a client. It was to blow off steam. He could afford to go with some frequency, because teams priced seats with him in mind. When he did go, he didn't take his wife or family.
He took Ed Norton.
Odds are, he was loyal beyond reproach.
"When you had more blue-collar fans, for them, it was a bigger part of that social identity," Mahony said. "When who you are doesn't make you feel good, the teams become much more critical. That's the case not only with sport, but with religion and other things."
Fast forward to Ward Cleaver, a father of two, white collar and living in suburbia. He may take the boys to games on occasion, though it's difficult, considering Little League schedules and the lengthy commute. More likely, he'll take a client.
He will pay more for a ticket. Odds are, he'll abandon ship the second that his wing tips get wet.
"For those who are affluent and are getting recognition for other things, the team attachments aren't as significant as they would be for the blue-collar fan," Mahony said. "They can dump the team when it's no longer helpful. The blue-collar fan can't because it's more a piece of who they are."
They also can take along a legion of friends.
One of Mahony's projects studied the relationship between personality types and loyalty patterns, comparing high self-monitors — gregarious social types who adapt easily to various settings — to low self-monitors, generally introverts who "aren't very good at playing the social game."
"High self-monitors will tell you they'll be loyal because they think it's what you want to hear, but they generally won't be loyal if they don't think it benefits them," Mahony said. "The low self-monitors generally will remain loyal no matter what happens. They're either strongly committed not to change, or they simply don't know how."
Most of the sociologists and psychologists interviewed for this story found our utterly unscientific "Cramden-Cleaver" model intriguing and agreed that it would explain some of the erosion in fan loyalty, though they stressed that they were basing that supposition on theory, rather than research.
The one who had researched loyalty patterns in relation to demographics had not found the expected correlation.
Working as a consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jeff James studied loyalty among season-ticket holders across three seasons.
"When you look at the connection people feel to the team, there's no difference based on demographics," James said. "I don't care if you make $20,000 a year or $200,000 a year, you can be an equally loyal fan. There may be some differences in terms of why you connect, but not in if you'll connect."
What's a team to do?
As he is running rapidly through an abridged list of all the factors that drive fan loyalty — the ingrained connection between Kentuckians and hoops; the passage of a favorite pro team from parent to child — Dan Wann puts on the brakes.
In his head, he can hear the executives who make their living selling sports barking in objection.
"You want to explain to me how you can leverage any of those things?" Wann asks. "All I have to do is move a bunch of people who like basketball to my city? I have to go back in time to get their parents? I can't do any of that."
Because he also does consulting work for teams, Wann has a response at the ready. As a student of societal behavior, he is deeply interested in all that motivates sports fans. Were he a marketer, he would narrow his scope.
"For those people, the key is not finding what fosters identification," Wann said. "The key is finding those factors that foster identification that are subject to influence from a marketing standpoint.
"Why are people running from the NBA today? Because the perception is that the NBA has players who are thugs. That's not something that many of us identify with. And it is something that is subject to influence.
"It's something that matters and it's something you can try to change."