SBJ/August 29-September 4, 2011/Opinion

Teams can better reach fans by knowing what motivates them

Texas A&M’s 12th man. Citizenship in Red Sox Nation. These are just two ways that sports organizations have succeeded in strengthening the connection with their fans.

It is understood that avid fans contribute more to a team’s revenue than their less-avid counterparts. Not only do avid fans spend more money on team-related purchases, but broadcasters and advertisers pay a premium to reach these avid fans and connect them to the products and service they offer.

According to ESPN, only 35 percent of the 222 million U.S. sports fans are considered avid, meaning that there are 144 million spending less than they could be. However, franchises are still faced with the challenge of how to develop fan avidity.

In the past, franchises have given little thought to what internally motivates avid fan behavior. Today, though, new challenges such as increasing costs and competing entertainment options have made retaining and developing fans more difficult, so franchises need every advantage they can get. By examining the psychology driving permanent avid fan behaviors, franchises can better understand how sports fans connect to their favorite teams and use this knowledge to drive fan spending.

Identity theories are especially applicable when it comes to understanding how fans relate to the teams they support and influencing behaviors that reinforce their relationships.

Fans’ identities are formed through their identification with social groups and individual behavioral roles. When fans identify highly with a team-related social group, they demonstrate more loyalty to the group and immerse themselves in the group’s culture. Similarly, when fans identify highly with certain behavioral roles, they act to fulfill the expected behaviors associated with those roles. Franchises that understand and embrace the underlying psychology explaining these phenomena will have a distinct competitive advantage in cultivating fan avidity.

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Texas A&M’s 12th man tradition has helped create a sense of inclusion among the Aggies’ football fans, and has been adopted by pro franchises.
Two easy methods that a franchise can use to activate a fan’s identification with a team-related social group are to clearly communicate the expected behaviors associated with being a group member and to create a sense of inclusion with the team.

Texas A&M’s 12th man tradition has been adopted by many professional franchises. The Seattle Seahawks even retired the number 12 to honor their fans. In response, the fans have prided themselves on this honor and exhibited avid fan behaviors in part to fulfill the expectations that have been set for them.

The Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, employ several strategies to make their fans feel as if they are part of the team. Fans are offered citizenship in Red Sox Nation (for a price) and, after the team won the 2004 World Series, they were given the opportunity to purchase replica championship rings and bottles of wine so that they could celebrate like the players.

To increase identification with the sports fan behavioral role, franchises must increase the total number of people that their fans interact with when occupying the sports fan behavior role and strengthen the relationships with these other people.

Franchises can increase the number of people that a given fan interacts with by creating opportunities for fans to meet each other and fostering a sense of community. Though most franchises offer opportunities for interaction between fans, they have not created an environment where fans feel connected to each other. At live events, franchises should encourage fans to talk to each other, and they should host online communities where fans can continue to interact when they are not together.

The relationships can be strengthened by promoting mutual cooperation among fans and those with whom they interact. This can be accomplished by organizing activities that require teamwork and collaboration. For example, a franchise could host a friendly competition between local schools where the children must work together to paint a mural of the team’s players.

Motivational theories are also highly applicable to the development of fan avidity.

One of the most widely accepted motivational theories posits that motivation is driven by the satisfaction of three innate psychological needs — autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Autonomy is the desire for humans to have full control over their own behaviors. Although it is popular practice to offer fans incentives, such as game-day giveaways, for performing desirable behaviors, this actually decreases feelings of autonomy and can be detrimental to their long-term team-related spending. Instead, franchises can successfully motivate fans by presenting them with several appealing options and empowering them to decide on their own how they want to exercise their avidity.

Competence is the ability to perform a task effectively. Franchises can promote feelings of competence by ensuring that fans receive positive feedback in response to their avid behaviors and by encouraging only behaviors that the fans are capable of performing. When fans perform desirable behaviors, franchises should always communicate to the fans that they are doing a great job of supporting the team.

Lastly, relatedness is the sense that you’re cared for. Fans who feel as if the franchise they root for truly cares about and appreciates their support are much more likely to perform avid behaviors and spend more money on team-related purchases.

It is not easy for a franchise to rethink and refine its methods for engaging and developing fans, especially when current methods seem to be working well. However, those that constantly evaluate their market and react to emerging trends — such as the need to develop fan avidity — will outperform those that do not.

Max Wendkos (max.wendkos@gmail.com) published the thesis “Developing Sports Fan Avidity for Increased Revenue Generation” and is founder of sports startup Fanbeat. Follow him on Twitter @MaxWendkos.

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