SBJ/December 10-16, 2012/Opinion

How fan, sponsor reactions factor into team decisions

Have you wondered if the Washington Nationals fully thought out their plan to bench star pitcher Stephen Strasburg in the midst of a tight National League pennant race in September? Are they looking back now and asking if their management decision needed to go beyond factoring in the health of a young right-hander’s arm? Did they stop to consider their fans and sponsors?

Or how about when Tony Stewart caused a massive 25-car crash during NASCAR’s October race at Talladega? Was he thinking about how his actions might bother his supporters and hurt his longtime sponsor, Office Depot?

Or perhaps you’d like to measure Red Bull’s October backing of extreme parachutist Felix Baumgartner? Was Red Bull’s marketing team at risk if this space-diving spectacular ended badly? Did they consider risk management and recovery marketing in their decisions?

We ask because maybe you’ve been involved in a similar situation where a key decision held the potential to alienate your fans or sponsors. Did you ask those hard questions and make informed, risk-based decisions? If you didn’t, we’ll throw some gas onto the glowing ember of your satisfied sponsorship thinking.

Social psychologists often talk about avid sports fan behavior in two distinct ways. The first holds that supporters of winning teams “bask in the reflected glory” of their team’s most recent victory. It’s called BIRGing and is best explained when fans tell each other, “We won!” all while making themselves unofficial members of the team.

The converse is called “cutting off reflected failure” (or CORFing) and is usually articulated as, “They lost.” In these instances, fans distance themselves from the team and place blame on the various parties who, in their mind, bungled the event’s outcome.

Both BIRGing and CORFing are widely accepted concepts.

So, one interesting aspect of Strasburg’s summer saga was the very real issue of fan and sponsor reaction toward the Nationals for benching the team’s best pitcher in the name of investment protection. If fans got mad, did they stay mad for long? Did it anger them even more when the Nationals lost Game 5 of the division playoffs to the St. Louis Cardinals? Worse still, were the Nationals’ sponsors concerned about alienated fans enough to consider not renewing their sponsorships or reducing their future rights fees or activation spends?

We know the decision to remove Strasburg (15-6; 3.16 ERA, 159.3 innings pitched) was reportedly made by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson and tied to total pitches thrown. It was supposedly worked out as early as spring training and designed to lengthen the career of a franchise-defining player who might lead this team for years to come.

On many athletic levels, it was logical. Who wants to wear responsibility for causing the elbow overuse that potentially destroyed a young man’s career?

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg had an innings limit set for him by the team, which made him unavailable for the postseason.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
But when Washington’s season ended, some fans were probably looking for someone to blame. And while Nationals’ management probably served as the first target, there is a distinct possibility some Washington sponsors caught subliminal heat as well.

How do we know that? Well, not so long ago, a pair of researchers from Northern Kentucky University investigated whether fans who were mad at a team might also blame the sponsors of the team. The genesis for that thinking comes from the balance theory (by psychologist Fritz Heider) that can be interpreted to suggest that if a fan loves a team and a sponsor supports that same franchise, the fan will feel good about the team’s sponsors.

Is it possible, the NKU researchers asked, for the reverse to hold? Could fans, mad at the Nationals for benching Strasburg, take out their frustration on the brands they saw on the Nationals’ scoreboard … big brands like Coca-Cola, Miller Lite and Geico? Possibly.

Even worse for the Nationals, could sponsors see the inflamed interest of the fans as a reason to reduce the priority of that sponsorship? Perhaps.

From a research standpoint, NKU’s Vassilis Dalakas and Aron Levin looked solely at NASCAR fans and their identification with favorite drivers and their distinct dislike of opposing drivers. Fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. were not going to cheer for Jeff Gordon or Stewart. Further, they were inclined to dislike sponsors of Gordon or Stewart simply for helping underwrite drivers they disliked.

Granted, NASCAR is not baseball and dislike for a driver is certainly not the same as anger at a pro team’s management. But hard-core fans react at every sporting event and sponsors may want to rethink the real downside of fan anger. Team supporters may not hold a grudge long but research suggests fan social identity and avidity can link up negatively with a team’s sponsors.

In Korea, Sanghak Lee from Korea’s Aerospace University is studying whether crashes are bad for NASCAR sponsors because, while creating stronger brand recall, the possibility exists that wrecks influence attitudes toward the brand, making the resultant brand association negative.

Many readers may doubt that but at the very least, some big league sponsors (or Stewart) should question the subliminal risks of in-season decisions and perhaps add logical responsibilities to their sponsorship contracts. If we can have dynamic ticket pricing for games, how far are we away from dynamic sponsorship contracts?

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (norman.oreilly@uottawa.ca) is an associate professor of sport business at University of Ottawa.

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