Beyond the Logo: Creating Sports Fans For Life
On a recent cross-country flight from New York to Seattle, I sat in my undersized coach seat and began watching the TruTV series “Adam Ruins Everything.” During one of the episodes I watched to stave off boredom, the host, Adam Conover, asserted that the die-hard allegiance felt by sports fans toward their favorite teams is illogical. Due to the constant turnover of players, coaches, and schemes, teams look drastically different year after year. To underscore his point, Conover claimed that fans are loyal to a logo and nothing more. This piqued my curiosity and made me wonder. Is that all sports fandom is? Loyalty to a name, a logo, or a color palette? My conclusion: of course not.
The Making of a Fan
In the fall of 1995, growing up in Boise, Idaho, I was swept up in one of the most remarkable feats in sports history. Trailing the division-leading California Angels by 13 games on August 3rd, the Seattle Mariners made an improbable run to the American League West crown. After a decisive win against those Angels in a one-game playoff, the Mariners would fall behind two games to none in a best of five Division Series against the closest thing to royalty in American sports, the New York Yankees. The Mariners yet again made the improbable happen, winning the next two games and setting up another win-or-go-home series finale at the Kingdome.
The deciding game was a back-and-forth affair with booming home runs by legends like Paul O’Neill of the Yankees and Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners. It also featured a home run from an unlikely hero, steady role player Joey Cora. Not the biggest, fastest, or strongest, he represented the best of sports: hustle, tenacity, and heart. After playing into extra innings, the Mariners would start the bottom of the 11th losing by a run. Leading off the inning? Joey Cora. Facing the intimidating glare of Jack McDowell, Cora would lay down a crafty bunt along the first base line, beating out the play at the bag. Next up? Griffey, who would single into right center field, sending Cora to third. With 57,411 fans on their feet, Edgar Martinez then lined a shot down the left field line scoring both Cora and Griffey, sending the once hapless Mariners onto the American League Championship Series. “The Double,” as it is now called, lives on as legend. A “where were you when” moment for Mariners fans everywhere.
Today, I’m still a Mariners fan. What imprinted on me back in 1995 has never left. “The Double” and heroes like Junior, Edgar, and Joey made admiration easy. But my fandom goes deeper than being star-struck. During their resurgence to contention, ‘Refuse to Lose’ was born. What started as a fan-made sign in the bleachers, ‘Refuse to Lose’ became a mantra of the Mariners, the city, the state, the region, and underdogs everywhere. When I’m in the stands today, the players, coaches, and even the stadium is different, but the ethos that took hold back in ’95 is still a staple of the experience.
So, what’s the hidden message in my allegory? Fandom is complex. Emotional. Irrational. And it goes beyond allegiance to a logo. Being a fan of a sports team means becoming a true believer, suspending belief in what will probably happen in favor of what could happen, and adopting a part of that team’s identity as your own. As with religion, it also means you’re not alone. When fans look around, they don’t see race, religion, or ideology, they see people just like them united by a common belief. It’s the connection to other people and something bigger than yourself that defines the magic of being a fan.
For many people, where you’re from signifies who you root for. More than any other type of brand, sports teams benefit from proximity. But why then are there Red Sox fans from Wyoming? Because they love a stylized ‘B’? Or is it because the Red Sox embody the gritty underdogs those fans see in themselves? Yes, back in ’95, I was living in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s not like I could see the spirit on the streets of Seattle. What took hold in me was a mindset and a connection to a group of people who shared the same values.
In relation to what I do every day as a brand strategist, I give Conover some credit… the connection between teams/leagues and their fans is becoming more superficial. Sport brands today have become experts at visual identity and content creation, but that on its own does not make a strong brand. Those are created through connection. Loyalty and passion come from more than a pretty paint job. The disconnect that exists for modern sport organizations is born from a failure to connect to a mentality, attitude, or aspiration.
Trouble on the Horizon
Most sport brands are doing well financially, so it’s fair to ask why connection to a shared mindset matters. The bottom-line is healthy (thank you, massive media rights deals). But, there are many outside influences challenging the health of sport brands. Here are three reasons why sport brands should work to connect on a deeper level:
“I think the NFL, in the long run, is going to have a brand-consistency issue because people are not going to be interested in who wins games anymore.”
1.) Fantasy sports. Over 60 million Americans now play fantasy sports, and it’s not just football. With the increasing growth of daily fantasy sports and entry into budding categories like eSports, fantasy’s estimated $26 billion in revenues is going to continue to explode. For sports fans, this popularity presents a dilemma. In a Slate article, “Does Fantasy Football Ruin Football Fandom?”, Brendan Dwyer, associate professor of sport leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, summarizes, “I think the NFL, in the long run, is going to have a brand-consistency issue because people are not going to be interested in who wins games anymore. I saw how people behaved during the games at sports bars. I saw how torn they were, and I saw the cognitive dissonance they felt in watching both their favorite team and their fantasy team.”
Outside of the conflicted rooting interests, when you control a collection of players that only you can possess, that fantasy team’s results take on more intrinsic meaning, further isolating fans from a larger group. In essence, fantasy sports have shifted focus from the shared enjoyment of a result to one that is much more individualistic and transient.
2.) Player movement. The current state of the National Basketball Association is the best example of how player movement can affect a team’s brand. Lebron James’ decision to join a super team in Miami (and again in his return to Cleveland) and Kevin Durant’s choice to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State are interesting case studies in fan loyalty. Local fans are left to bask in the feeling of hurt, while more casual, national fans are potentially able to more easily move on, trading in their allegiance for another. The opposite situation, where team management chooses to part ways with players, has a similar effect. Often falling back on the adage “it’s only business” by both the team and the players, fans could be pushed into thinking their loyalty to teams is just as transactional.
I’m not making any assertion that I know how to run their business better than they do, but in today’s age of bolstering player marketability, teams are increasingly challenged to create a brand that isn’t tied to specific personalities. When those personalities leave, the team’s identity often follows.
3.) Off-the-field issues. “Remember when ESPN showed sports?” This is a common question that my friends have rhetorically asked over the years. With the 24-hour news cycle and unprecedented access to an athlete’s life outside of sports, our society is hyper-aware of our heroes’ triumphs and transgressions. As sports media has evolved into a larger conversation, off-the-field issues, particularly domestic violence and sexual assault, have become more prevalent, casting a shadow on leagues and their players. Fans are demanding accountability — as they should — for individual, non-sport related actions. This goes beyond players too, with owners, executives, and staff also facing increased scrutiny. So when the relationship between a team and its fans is transactional, off-the-field issues relating to a single, isolated case will affect the overall perception of the brand.
To weather the ever-changing environment, sport organizations, like their non-athletic counterparts, need to take a step back and create a strategic foundation built on empathy for, and understanding of, their audience.
These issues are just a few of the many that are eroding the institution of sport fandom and the associated connection to a larger group of people. To weather the ever-changing environment, sport organizations, like their non-athletic counterparts, need to take a step back and create a strategic foundation built on empathy for, and understanding of, their audience. From here, organizations can begin to develop a brand that goes beyond aesthetics.
The Road Ahead
For sports brands, most financial success has been driven by media rights deals. That fact paired with declining attendance and the rise of cord-cutters makes the relationship between leagues and media companies tenuous at best. It’s well-documented that sports fans feel priced out of the experience. There’s a growing segment of fans that don’t believe what sports leagues and teams offer them is worth the market value. They are unwilling to spend what it takes to maintain sports fandom as a bigger part of their lives.
Developing a brand takes time and resources. But if one thing is clear to me, it’s that sports brands need it. Modern sports fans, especially younger ones, don’t have the same connection to brands as generations past. There’s simply too much else to pay attention to. If sports brands invest in cultivation of the timeless connection between fans and their brand, they’ll be rewarded with lifelong fans like me. Who buy tickets, merchandise, $9 beers, and still can’t wait to talk about “The Double,” 22 years later.