SBJ/20100419/SBJ In-Depth

What makes fans crazy about sports?

Simon Wardle was working on brand consulting projects for global ad giant WPP when it occurred to him that the marketers in the industry he cared most about, sports, had done relatively little to learn about the consumers who determined whether they would fly or flop.

Campbell’s Soup commissioned the agency to research why mothers chose one lunch over another for their children. Coca-Cola wanted a similar study of its consumers. So did ADT.

It struck Wardle that if large, blue chip brands cared about the motivation behind consumers’ decisions, perhaps teams and leagues and their sponsors should care, too.

“This little light bulb went off in my head,” said Wardle, now senior vice president of insights and strategy for Octagon. “In all these other (product) categories, they know why people are making the choices they’re making. And yet in sports, we don’t understand what those emotional motivations are.

“Our industry has a lot of information about who the fans are from a demographic perspective. And there’s a lot of consumption data. You need that information. But when it comes to … changing consumer behavior and figuring out where a sponsor’s brand can exist in that relationship between its target consumer and that entity they invest their time into — the sports they follow — that, for me, seemed interesting. And it didn’t really exist.”

They’re the sort of questions that psychologists and sociologists who study sports have asked for decades, but rarely with the large, diverse sample sizes that a deep-pocketed agency such as Octagon could provide.

“We’ve published papers where the other authors and I were thrilled that we got 1,300 participants,” said Dan Wann, a Murray State professor who has been measuring factors that motivate sports fans for more than 20 years. “I remember a few years back I was working for a company looking at Olympic fan data. They had something like 10,000 people in the sample. I’ve published over 100 articles and probably have 10,000, total.”

What fuels fans’ passions for sports?
Marketing agency Octagon has researched nearly 50,000 sports fans throughout the globe to create Passion Drivers, a project that explains why fans support various sports. For example, the research shows that team devotion drives the passion of most NFL fans, while nostalgia plays a large role among MLB fans. Here are some highlights:
Note: Passion Drivers was created in 2005 and is updated on an ongoing basis. Each online survey is sport-specifi c based on each fan’s level of interest.
Source: Octagon Passion Drivers

Five years ago, Wardle joined Octagon as vice president of research and convinced the firm to let him run with his idea to examine sports fans. Today, it has grown into a mass of data called Passion Drivers, a psychographic study of more than 40,000 avid sports fans that delves into the reasons they follow their favored sports.

Using questions that probed more than 300 potential motivational drivers, Wardle identified 56 attributes that he then bundled into a dozen factors that he termed Passion Drivers (see chart right). By gauging the level of importance of each of them to each fan, he built profiles of followers of each sport.

Some of Octagon’s findings were merely a confirmation of expectation. For example, devotion to a favorite team is the leading driver for fans of the NFL and NHL, and ranked second for fans of MLB and the NBA. The ability of a sporting event to draw fans in, or engage them, ranked highly for fans of football, basketball and hockey. History and the importance of personal memories ranked high with baseball fans.

But a deeper look at the numbers revealed some intriguing distinctions, particularly within fan bases.

When surveying baseball fans, for example, Wardle found enough differences to warrant splitting them into three groups: Field of Dreamers (38 percent), Team Obsessors (32 percent) and Family Connectors (30 percent).

Field of Dreamers are the stereotypical baseball fans, coupling a love of the history of the game with a die-hard devotion to a favorite team. They admire skilled players, consider the game a social event and like talking about it when they’re not watching it. They’re typically 55-64, with incomes above $75,000 a year — boomers who have emptied their nest.

Team Obsessors are the more contemporary version of the hardcore fan, connecting rabidly with a team, listening to sports talk and devouring content online. They tend to be hypercompetitive and feel a deep need to connect with similarly minded fans in order to belong. They generally are 25-34, with household incomes of $75,000 to $150,000 — single men or successful young fathers.

Family Connectors see baseball as a way to enjoy time together as a family or engage with others in their community. They are devoted to their local team and enjoy the sport’s history, but are more likely to remember it for the role it played for their family. They also are significantly less likely to follow the team closely, other than by watching or attending games. They skew female, are married with children, and have household incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 — mothers of middle income families.

“One of the dangers of looking at demographics or fan bases is that if you did that, you’d treat baseball fans as this homogeneous group of people that like baseball,” Wardle said. “But what you really find is that not everybody follows a sport for the same reason, and you shouldn’t look at them as if they do.”

Brand preferences among avid fans
click here

Avid NBA fans present an even more perilous path, because they tend to profile almost evenly across all 12 areas that Wardle identified. He found four distinct fan types, but struggled to find a common hierarchy of what meant the most to them. In contrast, the four types of NASCAR fans that he identified all yielded similar psychographic profiles.

“That’s great for NASCAR from a marketing perspective, because one size fits all,” Wardle said. “With the NBA, you have different groups of consumers who demographically may look similar, but in terms of emotional components and what is relevant, these are very different relationships that each of them has with the sport. It becomes a challenge to know what message to market with, and you won’t find the answer in the demographics.”

Motivation vs. numbers

The demographic story of the last decade is a fairly straightforward one.

Gauged by head count, most of the properties ebbed and flowed one or two ticks at a time over the last decade before taking an across-the-board dip beginning in 2008, when the bottom fell out of the economy.

Research shows that college football fans will
connect with images of other fans gathered to
attend or watch an event. Here, fans gather
for an Ohio State Buckeyes football game.

There are a few exceptions. College football showed steady gains in fan levels for eight years before giving some back in the last two (see chart, page 20). So did the NFL, although with a smaller percentage gain. The darling of the 1990s, NASCAR, fell steadily for eight years and then plunged badly last year.

A closer look at the base that matters most — the avid fans who are more likely to buy tickets and merchandise, watch games on TV and visit team and league Web sites — tells a similar story. College football and the NFL were the big gainers; NASCAR the biggest loser.

The rankings barely budged in the last 10 years. Again, looking at avids, the eight properties with the largest U.S. fan bases in 2009: NFL (31.9 percent), college football (23.9), MLB (20.1), college basketball (15.8), NBA (15.3), NASCAR (11.8), extreme sports (11.2) and boxing (11.1).

The top eight was the same in 2001, ordered only slightly differently: NFL (26.2), college football (17.4), MLB (17), NASCAR (15.4), NBA (14.7), college basketball (14.3), boxing (10.8) and extreme sports (10.5).

A large sample like that of the ESPN Sports Poll, tracked consistently over the years, reliably compares the size of each sport’s fan base and gauges its ups and downs. As a scorecard, it’s useful.

Watch the game on TV or in person?
Turnkey Intelligence conducted a survey in April that compared NBA and NFL fans and their preferences for watching games live in person or on television. Here are the highlights:
Sticking with the sofa?
Even if the game ticket cost nothing, more than one-third of avid NFL fans and 22 percent of avid NBA fans would rather watch their favorite team on TV than attend the game.
Q: Assume a game is taking place in the upcoming days. Generally speaking, if tickets were available for purchase would you … ?
  NFL overall Casual Avid NBA overall Casual Avid
Attend the game in person 36% 11% 45% 34% 24% 51%
Watch the game on TV 64% 89% 55% 66% 76% 49%
Q: Assume a game is taking place in the upcoming days. Generally speaking, if tickets were free, would you … ?
  NFL overall Casual Avid NBA overall Casual Avid
Attend the game in person 56% 40% 65% 62% 56% 78%
Watch the game on TV 44% 60% 35% 38% 44% 22%
Why stay at home?
Avid NFL and NBA fans said cost, comfort and convenience were the most relevant factors when deciding to watch a game on TV, rather than attend it in person.
Cost of tickets 84% 72%
Overall cost of attendance 80% 65%
Comfort (seating, rest rooms, crowds, etc.) 57% 39%
Home viewing experience is superior (replays, commentary, viewing angles, HD, etc.) 54% 41%
Hassle/time commitment necessary for attending 52% 42%
Can watch several games/flip between channels 45% 34%
Home alone or at the bar?
Q: When you watch games on TV, do you prefer to watch them …
By yourself 20% 30%
With other people 80% 70%
Q: When you watch games on TV, do you prefer to watch them …
In your home 85% 80%
At a bar/restaurant 9% 14%
At someone else’s home 6% 6%
Source: Study conducted by Turnkey Intelligence for SportsBusiness Journal. Respondents were 18+ and residing in the same market of their favorite NFL/NBA team. Approximately 300 fans of each league were surveyed in an online panel of Greenfield Online, part of the Toluna Group.

But for a property trying to move its numbers or a sponsor seeking a sport that will help it connect with a target consumer, the motivation behind the big numbers is far more intriguing, particularly considering the similarities of demographics from sport to sport.

“It is important to take a look at why people attend, not just what kind of people attend,” said Rick Grieve, a clinical psychologist who coordinates the master’s program at Western Kentucky University and has worked on fan motivation studies with Wann. “Aspects of different sports are going to be appealing to different people. If you can understand what is appealing about your sport, you can market it in a way that people will be most likely to respond positively to it.”

Wann’s early research led to his creation of a measure that many use when studying fans today. At its core are eight basic motives that he found drove people to follow sports:



Economics (gambling)



Group affiliation



The first six are as they sound. Self-esteem is the psychological lift in self-image that you feel when you follow a team that wins. Eustress is the excitement you get from worrying about whether your team will win, and then watching it happen.

Over the years, Wann has used that model to study differences between fans. Recently, he compared the motivational profiles of 886 Southern college students, asking them which of 13 common U.S. sports they followed most passionately and then testing them for the eight basic motives.

Not surprisingly, he found links between motivation and sporting preference. For example, baseball and pro basketball fans were driven more by aesthetics than fans of other team sports. Fans of auto racing and college sports were driven more by group affiliation and family. That sort of data could prove valuable for marketers when they craft their message.

A basketball or baseball fan is more likely to respond to graceful imagery of players, while a college sports or racing fan will connect with images of other fans gathered to attend or watch an event.

Do teams and leagues get it?

All of this motivational data intrigued Wann, as it has a growing cadre of colleagues for going on 30 years. Now coordinator of the graduate program in sport administration at Seattle University, Galen Trail has studied fan motivation in teaching stints at Iowa State, Florida and Ohio State, building his own motivational scale a decade ago.

He has been puzzled, and often frustrated, that even as the pool of psychographic data has expanded, many who work in sports make decisions based simply on demos.

“Every time I get my hopes up that the leagues and teams are finally getting it and aren’t just relying on demographic data, something comes along that shows me that some of them still don’t understand it,” Trail said. “After all this time where a lot of us in academia have been saying you really need to look at what creates the attachment to the team or sport, some teams still aren’t doing that, even though they have the data available to them now. I find that disappointing.”

Wann suggests that the data may actually be doing more harm than good when placed in the hands of executives who aren’t qualified to read it or prepared to make decisions based on it.

“It’s gone from where nobody knew anything to now, I wonder if they don’t know too much and have paralysis by analysis as a result of it,” Wann said. “I’ve been brought into some organizations to sift through data that at some point is overkill. Let’s find a few things you think might matter about these people and let’s get on those.”

Wann cautions against drawing too many inferences from any survey, tracing the motivational roots of his own love of a certain Midwestern baseball team.

“I became a Cubs fan to piss my older brother off, and I’m still a Cubs fan,” Wann said. “Everyone has those stories. And so I’m not surprised when things in the research go boom. There’s so much that goes into human behavior, and being a sports fan is such a complex behavior. You try to learn what you can, but I wouldn’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket.”

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