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Volume 21 No. 34
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How teams can use Maslow’s hierarchy to build fan relationship

I have always been fascinated by the simplicity and genius of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have thought about how this theory, from psychologist Abraham Maslow, would apply to the business of sports, and I offer this interpretation of a relationship with season-ticket holders and their growth/development/evolution.

Physical needs: These are the core needs at the beginning of the relationship. The core physical need is enjoyment as enjoyment. For the buyer or the person for whom the buyer is making the purchase, the rationale for making the purchase and initiating the relationship is enjoyment. Affordability in terms of cost and time is the key consideration, which is then applied to the size of the ticket plan, seat location, and the total experience costs such as food and beverage, parking, and so forth. Thus, the amount of initial enjoyment one can afford is the key to beginning the relationship.

Trust: At this level of the relationship, the ticket buyer must begin to form a trust with the organization. This trust can take many forms: believing the organization wants to build a winning team, trusting that the organization wants to enhance the fan experience and make it better, trusting that price increases are fair and good business, and trusting in themselves and that their purchase of a ticket plan was and continues to be a good investment.

These initial two levels of the hierarchy must be met and firmly established within the first two to three years of the relationship if the relationship is to evolve to the higher levels proposed in this particular hierarchy.

Love, belonging and community: Once all of the physiological needs have been met and satisfied consistently, and trust has been established, the relationship can evolve to the point where the ticket-plan holder feels part of the organization and belongs to something bigger than himself/herself. They identify themselves as “fans,” where they sit in the venue as their “neighborhood,” and possibly the fans around them as “neighbors” and perhaps “friends and family.” They refer to the team and its fans as “we,” “us” and “our” regardless of wins/losses because they have identified with the team and become part of a community that belongs to each other and the team.

Sports organizations have created membership platforms with special benefits and opportunities to enhance and support these feelings in some and to attempt to create and instill these feelings in others. The goal of the membership programs is to provide a sound rationale and experience so that the relationship can continue to grow and evolve and be mutually beneficial.

Esteem and recognition: All mutually beneficial relationships are based upon some type of reciprocity. Obviously, the organization benefits from the payments associated with a ticket plan and with any costs related to attending the games in the ticket plan and with being a fan: concessions, parking, merchandise and other team-related purchases. But where is the reciprocity from the team/organization toward the ticket-plan owner? The aforementioned membership programs all offer benefits to the ticket-plan owners, most correlated to the amount of their spend. But others offer benefits based on longevity. Perhaps the most intriguing activity at this point in the hierarchy is how to provide ticket-plan owners with some form of recognition and a feeling of esteem (Sutton Impact, Oct. 5-11, 2015, “How teams demonstrate that membership has its privileges”).

Self-actualization: This can also be referred to as self-realization or even self-fulfillment. It refers to that moment in time or feeling when the love of the team has reached a point when benefits, recognition, team performance, accomplishment, etc., are almost irrelevant with regard to extending the relationship. The relationship continues because it has become an important part of the fabric of the fans’ lives, a behavior that has become part of their lifestyle, and in many cases how they define who they are and what is important to them. Sometimes sacrifices are made because of affordability (time and/or money), but the relationship endures.

The motivations for the relationship have all been internalized. While external factors can play an emotional role from time to time, the relationship has such a degree of investment and importance that renewal is no longer a question.

Self-actualization may be perceived as easier to attain among college football and basketball ticket-plan holders because of the built-in advantage of “school ties” — namely, being an alumnus. But is that really the case? Ticket-plan owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Blackhawks and, most recently, the Golden State Warriors might offer support for the professional model. These examples are offered only in the context of plan owners, not merely fans — like the global following of Manchester United.

I believe that the road to self-actualization can be enhanced and even aided by the sports organization. The first step is very logical: understand the potential lifetime value of every account and treat those accounts on the basis of that value, not the annual expenditure. Secondly, communicate, communicate and then communicate some more. Not an email deluge, but effective meaningful, personal communication like seat visits, events and other forms of face-to-face interaction whenever possible. Remember: Informed people are involved, and involved people can be inspired.

On a personal note, I have achieved self-actualization in my relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I love the Pirates and hold a 41-game plan even though I live more than 1,000 miles away. I am offered opportunities and benefits that I appreciate, but they aren’t critical to my decision to renew my tickets. The most critical factor to me is that basic premise that I said was the key to the hierarchy: my enjoyment of attending a Pirates game and the enjoyment that being a fan of the Pirates brings to me.

As complicated as things can be, never forget about fun and enjoyment and how important those are to your fan base.

Bill Sutton ( is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.