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Beyond the stadium: the behavioural science behind sports fandom

04 December 2023

This article first appeared in Shots written by, Nick Blenkarne, Head of Strategy UK.

Any sports fan will tell you that there’s something about experiencing live sport that quickens the pulse and sharpens the senses.

Being a fan means being part of something bigger than yourself: being invested in history and hope; dedicating time, energy - and, yes, cash - in pursuit of those moments of pure joy and togetherness that truly move people and live long in the mind.

Over the years, in our work with major brands, major leagues and major sports events, we’ve consistently felt that there was something special about marketing to sports fans - from the depth of engagement to the breadth of shared memories and stories beyond - but we’ve not quantified it or properly understood how it works and what that means for brands. Until now.

Above: Visa's World Cup FIFA Fan Festival experience in Doha.

A recently conducted survey of 2,007 sports fans from the UK and USA, aged between 18 and 45, with a 50/50 split of male/female, has shined a light on the unique opportunities for brands in marketing to - and with - sports fans.

Based on those insights, here are four big learnings for brands that are rooted in the behavioural science of sports fandom.

Fandom is a performance in itself

Fans intuitively know they play a crucial role in the creation of the spectacle and they look for ways to dial up this involvement, often involving various forms of ritualistic behaviour. Whether it's wearing team merchandise, participating in pre-game traditions, or even having specific game-day routines, these rituals provide a sense of structure and drama. Behavioural psychologist Patrick Fagan points to ‘Co-creation Theory’ to explain this: when people play an active role in creating their experience, they remember it more.

At the World Cup FIFA Fan Festival™ in Doha, Visa tapped into this, by creating a fan experience that enabled consumers to play on a world first interactive pitch. The brand developed unique digital souvenirs that heroed participants' performance. It drove behaviour change, as 25,000 fans signed up and minted an NFT, participating in the digital economy thanks to Visa.

Above: Whether it's wearing team merchandise, participating in pre-game traditions, or even having specific game-day routines, these rituals provide a sense of structure and drama.

The lesson for brands? Help fans amplify their performance. Being a fan means playing a role in the spectacle and the story of the sport that they love. By understanding the different ways that fans prepare, perform and share their experiences, brands can create moments that make it even better, driving greater engagement, affinity and social sharing.

Fans are primed for positive memories

Every sports fan can relate to that rollercoaster of emotions that comes with fandom - from the euphoria of a goal to the frustration of a missed opportunity. These emotional highs and lows create a state of arousal that makes fans more receptive, more engaged, and more able to remember. In fact, 74% of fans in the survey had linked a brand with a memorable sports event.

The very nature of sports experiences dials up those levels of multi-sensory, emotional engagement - from the curiosity and tension associated with not knowing what will happen next, to the appreciation of skill and talent.

Above: Delta Airlines uses their sponsorship of the Seattle Seahawks to make the gameday experience more fun and rewarding.

In short, fans are hungry for more - they actively seek out experiences that will add to their overall enjoyment of the sports experience. So, brands who provide an outlet for this can benefit from the ‘stickiness’ and positive memories that result.

Delta Airlines uses their sponsorship of the Seattle Seahawks to make the gameday experience more fun and rewarding - members of their loyalty club earn one mile for every Seahawks passing yard during all home and away games.

The lesson for brands? Add to the fan experience, don’t try and compete with it. Sports fandom is about leisure time, emotional engagement, and time with friends. It’s about endorphins and dopamine and the positive emotions that flow from that. Start by designing for that level of engagement - from full fanzones to gamification layers to individual photo moments.

Above: To grow their fanbase in Europe, Major League Baseball created a series of new formats and festivals that built a bridge from street culture to sports.

Fans are natural ambassadors

Fans seek out ways to increase their engagement and enjoyment of sports and fandom - both for themselves and by recruiting others to their ‘tribe’. The survey found that 66% of fans said that, when they participated in a brand experience at a sporting event, they shared content about it on social media platforms.

So, there’s a natural opportunity for brands who create meaningful, valuable and fun experiences around sports to reap the rewards of positivity and recommendations.

To grow their fanbase in Europe, Major League Baseball created a series of new formats and festivals that built a bridge from street culture to sports, catering to the passions of existing fans, and providing fun ways for curious would-be fans to learn more through experiencing.

The lesson for brands? To win with fans, help them share their love of the game. From small activations that enable the curious to ‘have a go’ to bigger campaigns that create a movement, brands that play in this space can expect high levels of engagement and positivity - building bridges into new audiences and markets.

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Fans remember brands who step up

Sports fans are savvy to the growing commercialisation of sport, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are opposed to it. Almost three quarters (73%) of fans surveyed said they felt positively about the commercialisation of sport. But what’s important is the applicability of the brand to the sport and the way that they turn up.

Brands that show they understand the sport and share the passion of the fans will find rich rewards, from the brand positive associations created by adding to something that people already love, to the hard commercial returns of increased sales and loyalty.

Corona showed a great example of this. As sponsor of the Mexico national soccer team, the brand created the Native Sportscasters project, to broadcast commentary in native languages, opening up access to the sport in rural areas and bringing the excitement of love sport to less-connected communities.

The lesson? Find the niche where your brand truth matches fan passion points. Fans aren’t turned off by brands' involvement in sports, so long as it’s authentic and valuable. To do so, start with a clear understanding of your purpose and what you can bring to the table. Then dive deep into the fan experience, looking for the small pain points that might be solved.

If you’re interested in learning more about the opportunities for your brand, the report or access to the digital event please email marketing@imagination.com.

Nick Blenkarne, Head of Strategy

Nick Blenkarne

Head of Strategy, Imagination London

As Head of Strategy, Nick is responsible for laying the strategic foundation for inspiring brand experiences working with clients such as Visa, Major League Baseball and LG. Working symbiotically with creative and project delivery teams to deliver insight-driven campaigns grounded in experience, and amplified by compelling content and smart uses of social. With a focus on effectiveness, he employs a mix of planning tools and techniques to ensure those experiences are both solving business problems and adding value to customers.