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Fans, Funding, or Both? The Relationship Between Sports Organizations and Spectators

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Despite their multimillion-dollar TV contracts, sport psychologist Dan Wann says that sports organizations taking their fans for granted could jeopardize teams' revenue and sustainability.

In the next installment of Sounds Good's sport psychology series, Tracy Ross and Dan Wann discuss the relationship between sports organizations and spectators in the age of COVID-19, multimillion-dollar franchises, and a seemingly endless supply of sport consumption opportunities. 

"If you go back 70, 80 years, all the [sport] organizations know their lifeblood is ticket sales," sport psychologist Dan Wann begins. "It's not anymore; it's the TV contract. That has a lot more zeroes at the end of that number. I think in some ways, fans have been taken for granted."

Wann says this assumption is likely due to the history of fans continuing to follow teams on a losing streak. "Even the worst teams draw fans," he explains. "In the early '90s, when Racer football was not at all good, there were still people at those games. All those years that the Cubs were terrible, that the Red Sox could never win the World Series, those places sold out."

Sports organizations are not concerned about these diehard fans, Wann says. "It's such an essential part of who they are; they can't imagine their life without following this team. Once the playing resumes or the home games are back to attendance, as long as the fans feel safe, they're going to come back."

"Moderately-identified fans," Wann explains, are sports executives' primary concern. "Those fans are the ones that are responsible for these huge shifts you get in attendance from successful to unsuccessful seasons. When the Racer basketball team has a bad season, 3,500-4,000 people per game. A really spectacular season, 5,000-6,000 per game."

"These are the fans the executives I've talked to are really concerned about. Their level of allegiance to the team is on shaky ground to begin with," he continues. These fans are also more likely to have found other forms of entertainment and recreation they prefer over sport during the year-long hiatus brought on by the pandemic.  

Another potential threat to sports organization revenue is the abundance of sport consumption opportunities. "When we talk about decisions fans make to figure out 'what am I going to do as a sports fan,' the number of options that they have is going to keep growing and growing. It used to be that to consume sport, you could do this or that. Now, your options are almost limitless. Sports teams need to not take the fans for granted because there continue to be more and more spectating options, so the hours that fans have to dedicate to this gets spread thinner and thinner."

Sports organizations have been attempting to capture and maintain spectators' attention with buzzworthy trades and multimillion-dollar contracts. Ross notes two in particular: the St. Louis Cardinals' trade for Rockies star third baseman Nolan Arenado and the Dallas Cowboys' new contract with Dak Prescott worth at least $160 million.

"From the organizations' perspective," Wann replies, "it makes really good sense. You want to make a splash. You want to do something that keeps your team in the media, in the news. The Cardinals' trade was huge. [Arenado] is one of the best third basemen in all of baseball. [The Cardinals] gave up a lot for him, but to get that type of player, you're going to have to give up a lot. That's a really good trade."

"Dak Prescott, you say to yourself, 'well, why didn't they sign him to a long-term contract in the past 24, 36 months? Why wait until now?' The Cowboys and their ownership are outstanding at maintaining their team in the media," Wann continues. "I mean, they're America's team. They figured out a way to get that out there. I think that it's a win for these organizations."

"They're making trades and signing players that are good, and that will likely increase the likelihood that their team is a successful product. There's also this benefit of 'we would really like to have people talking about us and our team and not COVID and our team.' Cardinals fans talking about the trade for Arenado is way better than them trying to figure out whether they have to have a mask and sit in 102-degree afternoon weather at a ball game in St. Louis in August," Wann concludes. 

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