Sounds Good Explores What Draws Sports Fans to Specific Teams and Players

Dec 5, 2019

In the last installment of Sounds Good's sport psychology series, Tracy Ross and psychology professor Dan Wann, Ph.D., discuss the process of socialization in sport fandoms. This week, they discuss how an individual becomes a fan of particular teams and players.

"I think when you compare the process of becoming a fan versus the process of becoming a fan of a specific team, there are fewer things that go into becoming a [general] fan per se. As we mentioned and discussed last time, socialization is really the driver of a lot of that," Wann explains. "The number of factors that drive an individual's interest in a particular team really blows up. We did a study some years ago, where we had a little over one hundred individuals that we looked at. We [asked them to] tell us all the factors that influence [their] decision to be a fan of [their] favorite team."

"We expected there to be some pretty common responses," Wann continues. "We were wrong. The only commonality we found...was a lack of commonality between all the people. There were over three hundred different reasons mentioned by just one hundred different sports fans. One person actually listed sixteen different reasons why she was a fan of her favorite team. There was very little overlap. No individual factor got anywhere near over 20% of the sample. Geographic location, success of the team, all of those were mentioned by less than 20% of the individuals."

Wann explains that while geography is an important factor in fandom, it is not as significant in the United States population, which has "a lot of geographic mobility." Success is also not a surefire reason for individuals to become loyal fans to one team. Wann laughingly uses his own support of the Chicago Cubs, who just recently ended their 108-year World Championship drought in 2016, as an example. "If you ask one hundred Cubs fans, 'what drew you to the Cubs,' I promise you you'll get a sizable minority of individuals who will mention Wrigley Field. It's not just the team's success. People still enjoy what they're doing as a fan even when the team isn't doing so well. Even when they have that one down century."

The broad spectrum of reasons why individuals become fans of specific sport teams makes it difficult for sports marketers to increase fan identification. "Everybody in the sports marketing world knows that the number one predictor of attendance is identification. [Increasing identification] is really, really hard because there are so many different things that go into why an individual follows a team." Wann warns that relying too heavily on one particular player can be a dangerous sports marketing tactic. "When you are identified with the name on the back of the jersey, not the name on the front of the jersey, the name on the back of the jersey can change."

When asked the likelihood of fans remaining loyal to widely famous athletes, like Tom Brady, Wann says it most likely will depend on the new team the athlete joins. "I think that because of who [Tom Brady] is and the following that he has...as long as he doesn't go to a rival [team]...as long as he isn't within their own division or something, you can certainly root for more than two teams in a league. It's hard to root for two teams in the same conference. It's easy to be a Kentucky basketball fan and a Florida basketball fan. That wouldn't work out very well because you're slicing up that fan pie really thin at that point. [Because of his following], if Brady goes to a different team, historically, he will bring fans with him because he is the face of that franchise. A lot of people, their affinity for the Patriots is wrapped up in Tom Brady. He's going to have fans wherever he goes, and he'll bring some with him."

Murray State fans, including Wann, are currently experiencing a similar phenomenon with MSU basketball's Ja Morant signing with the Memphis Grizzlies. "There's only one reason why I'm [now] a fan of the Grizzlies. It's Ja Morant. I've been to a couple Grizzlies games before, but that's because I'm a basketball fan, not a Grizzlies fan. Now I find myself with partial season ticket package for the Grizzlies solely because of Ja Morant. So when Ja becomes a free agent, and it's time to sign a new contract, if he signs with Memphis, I'm convinced that we'll continue our season ticket package. If he signs somewhere else, that's the true test. Do you identify with that team because of the player or do you identify with that team because of the team?"

"One thing that is always fun to do if you are a sports fan, and you are with a group of other sports fans, [is to] take a moment to sit down and say, 'so how come you like this team? What is it that attracted you to this team in the first place?' You will find in most cases that why you are a fan of this team is completely different from why the other people in the room are a fan of this team, even though you will assume that you are all there for the same reasons. It fires up a really interesting conversation. Fans that I've talked to that have done this said that it was about the funnest hour they've had as a sports fan because they couldn't believe all the insane reasons that people actually liked the same team that they do. Of course, their reasons are completely acceptable," Wann concludes.