SBJ/May 12-18, 2014/People and Pop Culture

Pollster Luntz goes to the heart of fan bases

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Frank Luntz is well-known for his political focus groups and commentary on America’s moods and emotions, but he is shifting away from the vitriol that constitutes modern politics to work in the worlds of corporations, entertainment — and sports.

Luntz isn’t shy about dishing on the collective outlook of a city’s fans.
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Far and away the passion and togetherness in sports makes it his favorite new subject … unless he’s in San Francisco, where he charges extra just to work there; more on that later. By his estimation, he has conducted focus groups in 28 of the 43 cities in the United States that have at least one team in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB, working either for a team, league or municipality and on topics ranging from ticket prices to fan satisfaction.

The focus groups comprise 30 fans. Each fan is paid up to $100 for participation, and each session lasts three hours.

From these groups, Luntz has drawn a variety of pointed conclusions:

Philadelphia fans are haters.

South Florida fans might prefer a nap over going to a game.

Los Angeles fans pretend they are savvy when they aren’t.

Cleveland and Detroit fans are depressed.

And Boston fans: They’re smart.

He also has a dire warning for baseball: No one younger than 30 in his focus groups, he said, cares about the sport.

SportsBusiness Journal spent an hour with Luntz recently, peppering him with questions about the different characteristics of various local fan bases and what the teams in those cities can learn from those observations.

What are New York fans like?
Luntz:
The most challenging, and I actually mean challenging the moderator, challenging the direction I want to go. New York fans more than anyone else fight being pigeonholed, fight the topic.
NEW YORK: Demanding

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What does this mean for New York’s teams?
Luntz:
It’s hard to gauge what really matters, because to New York fans, everything matters. They resist being prioritized because everything is a priority. They are the least likely of fans to want to rank anything. “OK, what is important to you? The concessions? The ability to get into the bathroom? The cost of beer? Getting into the parking lot?” “We can’t prioritize that; it is all important.” And it’s because New York fans care about the overall sports experience. It is not just the game, it is not just the team, it is not just winning and losing. Everything is involved if you are a New York sports fan — from the moment you leave your house to the moment you get back.

BOSTON: “These fans know their history.”

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Boston fans?
Luntz:
They are smart. Boston knows the statistics, Boston knows the numbers. They are not just focused on the game but on the players. … These fans know their history. It is the opposite of L.A. If there is one group I am disappointed with, it’s L.A. They may be intense, but I don’t find them to be sophisticated and knowledgeable. Boston is tough, because unless you know the sport, you have problems up there … and in Boston, everybody has a second team. In some cities, they only like one team. If they are a fan of the football team, they won’t like the baseball team. Not in Boston. You are a fan of all.

PHILADELPHIA: “Takes the cake when it comes to hate.”

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How about Philadelphia?
Luntz:
Philadelphia takes the cake when it comes to hate. Philadelphia and the fans are intense. The scariest moments for me have been in Philadelphia sports groups, when fans disagree with each other because they are the most passionate in their points of view and they have no fear expressing it. … I have no criticism, and I hope you put this in perspective: Fans are different, people are different. I am not judging better or worse, with only a couple of exceptions.

What about South Florida?
Luntz:
Because fans have so many other things to do, there isn’t a commitment. … In Boston, you grow up a sports fan. Fireman: Being a fireman is passed on generation to generation. You have fourth- and fifth-generation firemen, and it’s just the way it is. “My grandfather was a fireman, my father was a fireman, I am a fireman, and my son will be fireman.” Same thing with sports. Not that way in South Florida. Sports is like third on the list, after sleeping and going to a bar somewhere. I do very little sports research in South Florida; there is no passion. Because no passion, no emotion.

CHICAGO: Focused

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Chicago?
Luntz:
They can only prioritize one thing at a time, so when the White Sox are doing well, [that’s it]. … They will love their baseball or their hockey teams or their basketball teams, but they seem to love one team at a time.

CLEVELAND: “It is just sadness.”

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Detroit?
Luntz:
Detroit and Cleveland are remarkably the same, and it is just sadness. Often they look at their teams the way they would look at their city: that the great days are over. They are quiet; they sit back. …

Sports fans are more passionate: They are louder, they are more boastful, more prideful. They like to engage, they love the topic. I do a lot of other issues — a lot of politics, a lot of finance; nothing is as fun as sports. It is not fun in Cleveland, and it is not fun in Detroit. The fans are passive and they just look and feel like they have been beaten. It is sad and you feel for them.

Is that because of the local economies?
Luntz:
Yes, it is a reflection of economic conditions that have made it very difficult for them to enjoy things that aren’t necessities. And sports is not a necessity. There is a significant percentage of football fans who hate their life, are unhappy at home, hate their job, and they live for Sunday. They truly live for Sunday morning when they wake up from about 10 in the morning, East Coast time, all the way through late at night, they come alive. And they are engaged and they are happy and they are eager and get the sense of life — which disappears by Tuesday morning and it gets crushed. And they will tell you what happens on Sunday is the most important thing in their life.

I have tried to explain this to players, to take their sportsmanship seriously. For a significant percentage of the population, what happens on Sunday is more important than what happens any other days of the week and you really are playing for people whose lives have been crushed. That’s how I understand Cleveland and Detroit.

ATLANTA: Quiet

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Atlanta?
Luntz:
Atlanta is quiet, and not celebratory. I enjoy watching how fans react to a touchdown, to a goal, to a basket. Atlanta is one of the quietest, least celebratory markets in the country. It is Southern. Atlanta is a big city, but it is still Southern.

Charlotte?
Luntz:
Charlotte is changing, and the football team this year helped along the changes, but these are not people who grew up with these teams, so it is a new experience for them. There is a difference [with] fanships where the parents enjoyed the teams and taught those traditions to the kids, but [that’s] not in Charlotte and Atlanta.

Is it fair to say the passion there is college?
Luntz:
College sports is everything, and even people who didn’t go to the college. The assumption is you are loyal to your college. There are an awful lot of college sports fans who have other teams they liked, schools they did go to, because they went to a smaller school, but they went to a community that had that big university. They are even louder and more intense and more passionate than the most passionate major league [fans].

DENVER: Suburban

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Denver?
Luntz:
The most middle class is Denver. It is middle and upper middle class. Even though they play in the city, the fans feel so suburban. … You don’t have trash talk; their comments are more sophisticated, the English is at a higher level. It is not as much fun because I pick up the best phrases here in New York; you get hip hop here in New York. You don’t get that in Denver. Everybody looks like they just put on a Ralph Lauren outfit.

DALLAS: Proud

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Dallas?
Luntz:
With all due respect, because I like [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban, but when you do sports stuff in Dallas, they want to talk about football. And I know the stadium gets trashed, but they are very proud about it. They will trash it to each other, they will bitch about the screen being too big, they will bitch about everything being too wide, but if someone from the outside takes them on, they really [object]. … “We can complain about our team, we can complain about our stadium, but no one else can.”

San Francisco?
Luntz:
The only fans I find difficult, really difficult, are in San Francisco. There are just overtones; there is other stuff going on in addition to being sports fans. I can’t explain it. But the city: I always charge clients more money to do focus groups in San Francisco, and I don’t like clients coming to watch me in San Francisco because it always is likely to end up in a bad way.

Why?
Luntz:
Fans don’t want to be told they are wrong, they don’t want to be challenged. It is not an entitlement mentality; it is a superiority mentality. “My opinion is correct. You are entitled to your wrong opinion, just don’t express it at my expense.” It is the most judgmental of any city.

Los Angeles?
Luntz:
L.A. I have the worst problem with recruiting because they claim to know what I do. I have done a few groups there where I cringed because they said they watched ESPN every night [and didn’t]. … I don’t know if they are lying; they just don’t take it in. It just doesn’t matter to them. Not in the way in Green Bay what happens to the team matters [or] what happens to the Brewers matters in Milwaukee.

How about Phoenix?
Luntz:
No history, no tradition, so they want to be led. In the sessions I have done there, they want management to give the direction: “How do we cheer, how do we engage, show us.” If you tried to do this in Green Bay, they would kill you. “Don’t tell us what to do.” In Phoenix, exactly the opposite. “We need a new cheer, we need something for the third inning, we need something for the third period.” They want to be led by their teams. Don’t try to lead them in Boston or Philadelphia: You will get booed and that will be end of it.

What’s an example of leading the fans?
Luntz:
Seattle. Seattle wasn’t loud 10 years ago. [Seahawks coach] Pete Carroll not only brought with him a different philosophy of football, [but also] a different philosophy of fanship. You can see both of them hard at work. You went to the Super Bowl: New York was louder with the Seattle fans than they are with the Jets and Giants fans. They know when to cheer, they know when to keep quiet, they are professional, and Pete Carroll made them professional.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Mobile

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How about Washington, D.C.?
Luntz:
There are Washington [Redskins] fans who go everywhere. They are staying at the Redskins’ hotels, which are expensive hotels. “How can you afford this?” The answer is this is their vacation; this is their one thing that they do that is extravagant. The Redskins have the most effective traveling fans of anyone in sports; not the loudest. And you see them in the stadiums, and this for a team that has not won many games.

And the Wizards, Nationals and Capitals?
Luntz:
Washington is such a transient city it takes years of teams’ success for people to start paying attention. And everyone in Washington is from a different place. You really need three years. The Redskins are different. Somehow, when you come to Washington, the Redskins overcome. But baseball, basketball, and to a slightly less extent hockey, and some of that is [Alex] Ovechkin, half the group will support different teams. … When you go to Cleveland or Detroit, they are all Detroit or Cleveland fans, because no one is moving into the city.

NEW ORLEANS: “They think as a group.”

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New Orleans?
Luntz:
Insane. And they so hated the NFL decision [on bounties] about their team. To every last one they thought this didn’t happen. They absolutely believed the spin of the players. They believed they had been victimized because they were successful. And if I would find a fan in a group who would begin to challenge it, it would be almost like a cartoon where the other 29 people [would counter], and then the person would be like, “I am sorry. I got that wrong. The NFL was wrong.” Intimidation is really tough down there. If you are not a Saints fan, you keep your mouth shut, and if you think what happened in Bountygate was correct, you keep your mouth shut. [I] don’t see that in other places. In other places, they will argue over strategy, they will argue over which player to get, they will argue over whether some player should get cut. In New Orleans, they think as a group, they act as a group, they talk as a group.

Cincinnati?
Luntz:
Cincinnati and Cleveland may come from the same state, but a very different attitude. Cleveland is defeatist: “We are hoping for next year, but I know we will lose again. I know we will lose again.” Cincinnati is, “I am hoping for next year because I am hoping for a breakthrough.” … Cincinnati is another town that knows its traditions. They won’t just answer me based on what is happening today but what happened 20 years ago, 30 years ago. … Boston fans do that a lot. I feel like a group of Boston fans could be on ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and do as well as the commentators. They know their stuff and they know multiple sports; Cincinnati knows multiple sports.

INDIANAPOLIS: Moral

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Indianapolis?
Luntz:
Indianapolis has a very high expectation for the behavior of their players and they will not tolerate players who don’t uphold the values of the community. … It matters how you play off the field if they will support you on the field, and I am not used to that. In most Northeastern cities, they don’t care: “Whatever it takes to win, great.” And if they are total f---ups off the field, it doesn’t matter. In Indianapolis, it does — because there is a Midwestern mentality. They look up to the players, they put them on a pedestal, and they want them to be role models.

Aside from market assessments, what about individual sports?
Luntz:
If you are talking baseball, with people under 30, forget it; they are not following it, they are not into it. In my focus groups, under 30, it is a casual connection. It is all basketball, and it is not racial; it is across race. They will do other sports; they will do basketball more than anything else. I have had younger people who actually air dribble with their hands. … Football is more broad based.

Why is baseball struggling so much with young fans?
Luntz:
I don’t know what is going on. It takes awhile; you can’t turn around overnight. It is the personalities; it is not the sport. It will be certain players that bring people in. [Yasiel] Puig has really captured L.A. by storm.

The Dodgers have done such a good job in the Hispanic community; they don’t have as much trouble. The Latino community is very young. … The Latinos feel the team is as much theirs as any other ethnicity. That is not the case in other cities. In other places, there are no young fans.

When I go to recruit for a session, I have trouble finding people who qualify who are under age 18. Baseball will turn around and say, “Oh, we have millions of young fans.” All you have to do is compare generation by generation, what is the sport you watch, what is the sport you attend, what is the sport you care about the most. And baseball does great if you are over 40, and if you are under 30, it already is a disaster.

Editor’s note: MLB provided the following in response to Luntz’s comments: Major League Baseball is thriving among all audiences, including young fans. Since most experts use focus groups with small sample sizes as the beginning of the process for conducting representative research, we are surprised that Mr. Luntz drew conclusions from these small groups whose results are not consistent with the facts from the most widely respected companies in sports research. For example, the ESPN Sports Poll, which looks at 20 years of daily interviews on multiple sports with 12- to 17-year-olds, shows that baseball fan numbers in general have been trending up since 2006 and the avid numbers are up since 2002. In a 20-year span that includes tens of thousands of daily interviews for the ESPN Sports Poll, between 57 percent and 72 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have declared their fan interest in Major League Baseball, with 18 percent to 27 percent saying they are avid fans. In addition, Simmons Research shows that more 6- to 17-year-olds attend baseball games than any other sport, and that baseball is second among major sports in TV viewers among 6- to 11-year-olds and in merchandise sales among 6- to 17-year-olds.

How about football?
Luntz:
Football is the most universal. They have young and old, white and Hispanics, have wealthy and poor, which is why the sessions are the most interesting. I will have a package handler at FedEx who is probably making $30,000 a year sitting next to a 58-year-old female who is a housewife and rich. Football has it all.

Through it all, why do you love sports so much?
Luntz:
We are a very depressed country. We are still down and out, and sports is the best pick-me-up, and it lasts longer than alcohol, it is safer than drugs and it is one of the last things that brings all types of people together. I will fight every mayor and governor who doesn’t want to help a city rebuild and renovate a stadium. … Sports brings us together and it gives us hope when it is in really short supply.

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