The true DNA of sports fan-ship

If you ask a sports fan what they love most about being a fan their answers may surprise you. You would expect an Arsenal supporter to say the only thing that matters is Arsenal, whether they can ever replace Van Persie and if they will finish fourth this season. Ask a TwentyTwenty cricket fan leaving the Oval and you’d expect an answer that was primarily about… well, cricket.

But when we conducted a survey a few months ago, talking to 100 sports fans ranging from Gooners pouring out of The Emirates to tourists in town for The Olympics, their responses threw light on what really motivates people to become – and stay – a sports fan.

Only 13% mentioned the sport itself i.e. the players or the match-play.  Just 37% referred to the emotions they feel.  Most of them spoke of ‘an emotional roller coaster’, ‘excitement’ or ‘terrible disappointment’ and the love of ‘not knowing what’s going to happen next’.Perhaps most interestingly, 79% cited coming together with others as their main motivation.  They went on to talk about ‘a shared sense of belonging’, ‘hugging people they’ve never met’ and ‘feeling part of something special’.

This vision of fan-ship doesn’t fit with how most brands and agencies approach sports marketing.  All too often, the activation starts with the sport – not the fan.  It is usually  about ‘getting the fan closer to the action’ (very few sponsorship briefs don’t feature this as an objective,) when in fact it is closeness with each other that many fans are looking for.

If anyone remembers Maslow and his famous ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ you will recall he placed huge emphasis on the human need to ‘belong’, ranking it right after food, drink and safety as being fundamental to our fulfillment.

Sports fan-ship gives us access to an established, active community of like-minded people, with a built-in reason to communicate, share and bond.  By joining and participating in that community – i.e. by displaying our fan-ship – we achieve that sense of belonging.  Crucial to this is the recognition by others that we belong, or at least us knowing that others know we are part of that group.  Participation used to be much more physical.  You had to wear the colours and go to the game.

But as we all know, times have changed.  Social media has exposed and amplified this human need to belong in a massive way.  We constantly look for ways to show friends and strangers with whom we are connected, what we are all about.  ‘This is me!’  ‘This is what I am!’  ‘This is what I Like!’  With a simple click of a Like button, or a blog post, or a share of a YouTube video, or the pinning of a picture, we add that badge of identity to our jacket and gain access to a crowd of people like us.

Sports fans lap this up.  In fact, separate research across 500 UK sports fans showed that 97% claimed to be ‘bigger fans’ as a result of engaging in their sport through social media. Regardless of whether you buy the Maslow-malarkey or not, the power of sport as social glue is undeniable.

It would be all too easy for this piece to descend into the usual call for a deeper understanding of fans across the sports marketing community. However, there is absolutely no doubt that sport is a catalyst for connecting people and that the sports marketing industry has been slow to embrace the sports fan’s new best friend, social media.

This is a rally cry to think beyond the usual tactics and parameters of sports sponsorship activation and explore what ‘the true DNA of fan-ship’ could mean for your association, club or brand.

Josh Robinson, director of creative & integration, Sports Revolution