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Volume 21 No. 26
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Fan base complexity sets up intense competition for attention

When you see research about sports fans, it tends to be focused on a specific sport or type of consumer, or it is a listing of the most popular sports by attendance or ratings. You rarely see the full description of the typical American sports fan — the number and kinds of sports a person likes and how that varies depending on how interested they are in sports, how old they are, how much time or money they have, or as compared with other free time options. So here are three quick keys to the anatomy of American sports fans (built from “Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll”) to use as a starting reference on the composition of fans.



T-Mobile has had a basketball strategy invested from the NBA down to the high school level. How has that worked for you?

“We chose a sport rather than just a league because we realized people are passionate about the game, and a full relationship engages every aspect of the sport. So when high school kids participated in our programs, they felt even more connected to our brand because they also watched our NBA-themed commercials on TV with Dwyane Wade and Charles Barkley. As a result, our sports strategy matched the company strategy to enhance relationships, increasing our share with basketball fans.”


Are we doing enough in college sports marketing programs to understand the full context of the fan experience?

“For years our students have had a data-driven approach to understanding the fan experience, but too much of what exists focuses on isolated pieces. Not enough is done on the full context. There is no doubt that sports marketers face stiff competition for scarce free time and dollars from within and outside of sports. Our graduates need to be ready to build strategies built on a deep understanding of the full context.”

1. American sports interests are dominated by three sports.
“What is your favorite sport?” is asked as an open-ended question on The ESPN Sports Poll, and more than 100 sports or varieties of sport are mentioned every month. But football, basketball and baseball account for 68.9 percent of all mentions, and 87.9 percent of Americans are fans of at least one of those three sports; 51 percent are avid fans of at least one. And the 11 sports listed in Chart 1 have dominated the interest for the 17 years of Sports Poll and account for 92.5 percent of preferences in sports today.

2. But Americans like variety.
Thirty-three sports properties can claim at least 15 percent of the population in their fan base. And on average, Americans follow nine sports as a fan. Few people are dedicated to one sport, let alone one specific league within a sport. There is no such thing as an “NBA fan” (a sport picked at random for illustration, in Chart 2).

Sports to a fan is like food to a human. As eaters, humans like variety. We have favorite foods and foods we eat more often than others and foods we never eat, but nobody eats just one kind of food. In the same way, sports fans, on average, carry a potential menu of nine sports.

But notice that far fewer NBA avid fans are avid fans of other sports. This suggests sponsorship strategies, like T-Mobile and basketball, that cross the spectrum of one of the big three sports are casting a wider net and may be getting greater success than those that focus on a single property.

3. The bigger the fan, the greater the competition for the person’s time.
Sports fan avidity peaks between the ages of 12-17, when we have lots of time and little responsibility. So they spread their interests over more sports. As we age, we have higher priorities in life than sports and we start to cut back on the number of sports we follow. But it gets worse. There is no such thing as a “sports fan.” We are just people with limited free time and resources, and it turns out that the bigger the sports fan, the greater the interest in activities outside of sports (movies, concerts, outdoor activities, etc.).


The economy is back on top, but labor issues still garner a lot of top votes. Concerns over attendance rose considerably over the last quarter.

Rank (Pvs) Issue Score (% 1st-place votes)
1 (2)  State of U.S. economy  259 (43%) 
2 (1)  Ability of middle-income American families to spend money on sports  230 (10%) 
3 (3)  Pending league/union labor negotiations  223 (33%) 
4 (7)  Attendance trends in pro and major college sports  164 (3%) 
5 (5)  How financial pressure that companies feel will affect sports investments  162 (7%) 

Note: Results from a panel of 30 industry leaders. Participants ranked each of 10 issues, with 10 points being assigned for a 1st-place vote, nine for a 2nd-place vote, down to one point for a 10th-place vote. Percentages have been rounded. Only the top five are listed.

Chart 3 shows the differences in free time priority by level of sports fan avidity. Only true avid sports fans have sports fan activity as a high priority. But avid fans also give the highest priority scores for every one of the eight traits compared with all other Americans. And from current Sports Poll data, avid sports fans also index significantly higher than the rest of Americans on hours spent social networking, going to movies and concerts, and on other non-sports activities. So avid sports fans are also America’s most active segment of the population.

The good news, in addition to sports being a top social priority, is that avid fans are also the most frequent sports spenders and are aware of and appreciate what sponsors do more than the rest.

Bottom line: There is a LOT of competition for your fans’ time and money. While the competition for avid fans is even greater, it’s clear the greatest payoff comes from taking care of them first. That starts by thinking more about the complete fan experience.

Rich Luker ( is the founder of Luker on Trends and The ESPN Sports Poll.

Chart 1: Sporting Interest

Football 38.8% 78.3% 42.0%
Basketball 15.3% 68.6% 28.1%
Baseball 14.8% 68.6% 23.6%
Soccer 8.2% 43.2% 11.6%
Racing 4.0% 55.0% 18.4%
Hockey 3.8% 43.5% 10.0%
Fighting 2.1% 58.4% 21.6%
Golf 1.8% 39.7% 10.2%
Tennis 1.8% 39.5% 8.2%
Skating 1.1% 46.5% 9.8%
High school 0.8% 56.0% 16.9%

(a) Asked to name just the one sport they consider to be their favorite sport.
(b) Asked their level of interest in each of 33 sports.
(c) Fans with the highest level of interest.
Source: Data from 7,510 U.S. interviews of those age 12 and older from January-May 2011, Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll

Chart 2: Crossover Fans

NFL 87.8% 70.8%
NCAA basketball 82.5% 58.0%
NCAA football 81.5% 52.4%
MLB 80.3% 47.3%
High school sports 67.9% 33.6%
Action sports 62.2% 27.2%
Boxing 56.6% 31.1%
Other college sports 55.6% 18.4%
NHL 55.5% 20.0%
Minor League Baseball 53.4% 17.0%
WNBA 52.7% 21.9%
PGA 50.3% 20.7%
Figure skating 50.2% 12.3%
MMA 50.1% 28.2%
International soccer 49.3% 22.1%

Source: Data from 7,510 U.S. interviews of those age 12 and older from January-May 2011, Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll

Chart 3: Setting Priorities

On a priority scale of 0-10, where 0 is no priority and 10 is the highest priority, how big a priority are each of the following to you when it comes to how you use your free time?

Family and friends 7.57 7.07 7.20 7.67 7.85
Personal leisure 6.68 6.40 6.63 6.64 6.85
Non-sports TV 5.90 4.98 5.61 5.94 6.35
Productive leisure 5.16 4.08 5.02 5.30 5.45
Socializing/On the town 4.99 3.94 4.45 5.02 5.68
Outdoor activity 4.94 3.46 4.34 5.09 5.64
Sports fan activity 4.53 0.62 2.00 4.70 7.24
Play sports and exercise 4.51 1.99 3.32 4.62 5.99

Source: 9,000+ scientific random sample interviews with Americans 12 and older from 2008 Luker Lifestyles on The ESPN Sports Poll