The Nuances of Fan Emotion and Engagement

why are sports fans so passionate
Do you know how your fans feel about your team? The game? The experience?

Consider this: when you ask sports fans why they feel a certain way, each answer is unique. Some will talk about the feeling of being at a game, surrounded by thousands of fellow fans who are all supporting the same team. Others may speak of a favorite player who they follow from team to team, regardless of who they play for. And still others may hardly know much about the game or sport itself, and are more focused on the good time they have when they go to a stadium with family and friends. The emotions felt by sports fans are different for every person, which is why leading sports marketers look at their fans as unique individuals rather than simply one group.

We get it, it can be daunting to analyze hundreds of thousands of different people and their emotions, thus the temptation is to fit them all into one over-simplified group. But there is a better way; one that doesn’t require a massive effort to understand thousands of data points, but also keeps you from disregarding the individuality of different fans.

First, it’s important to recognize that the emotions your fans are feeling are elicited by multiple factors, making the analysis of their emotions multi-dimensional.

Fan emotions can be grouped into three overarching themes:

  1. Game-based
  2. Team-based
  3. Experience-based

When your fans’ emotions are game-based, they’re likely elicited by the game itself, the overall season, the play calling, etc. These fans are more likely to talk about their teams biggest win – or most disappointing loss – as a cause of their emotional response. They use words such as “outcome,” “scores,” “championships,” “winning,” “losses,” “stress” and so on. Your fans in this group are focused on what is happening in the games they watch. Therefore, are more likely to connect with advertisements and marketing that tells a story about THE GAME.

For example, the University of Michigan football program created an intro video that is played at the beginning of every game to get the fans fired up and excited about the game, which focuses on all the highlights of what it means to be a Wolverine (the school mascot). Included in this video are some of the greatest Michigan plays of all time, like Charles Woodson’s one-handed interception against Michigan State. It’s imagery and messaging like this that will resonate most with the fans whose emotions are game-based. Ask a Michigan fan how they feel about that game or that play in particular, and you’ll hear words like “pride,” “amazement,” “satisfaction,” and “excitement.”

The intro video is a prime example of how to leverage the different types of fan emotions in a way that resonates with the target audience. When you understand where the emotions are coming from, you can better tailor your messaging to resonate with your fans the way Michigan has. They leveraged a nuanced understanding of their fans’ emotions to optimize advertising and marketing efforts with this video, resulting in a message that speaks to the fans in their own language and strengthens the connection with their fans.

Further, those whose feelings are team-based are worked up about the team itself, the players, the team’s history and tradition, the coach, and so on. For your fans who fit in this group, the players on the team as well as the coach are very important, as is the history and tradition of the team. Their range of emotions are centered around THE TEAM, THE TEAM, THE TEAM.

If your goal is to increase ticket sales, focusing your messaging around a popular player or a dynamic and celebrated coach will resonate most with these fans. If your team has a storied tradition of excellence, play that up. Fans with team-based emotions will respond more enthusiastically to messaging that emphasizes the traditions and history of their team, their greatest players and coaches.

Going back to the Michigan intro video example, another important element of the video is its attention to the tradition and history of Michigan football. Fans whose emotions are team-based connect with the images of historic Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, rivalry trophies and phrases like “a tradition of excellence.” If you want proof, head to the Michigan stadium to hear the enthusiastic cheers of thousands of fans at key moments of the video that highlight Michigan football traditions.

That said, while there are fiercely loyal fans whose emotions are spurred on by the game or the team, there are also those who simply love the experience. These fans are just as enthusiastic, but for reasons unrelated to the team itself or the game they’re watching.

The emotions of experience-based fans are elicited by aspects such as the community they belong to, the atmosphere of game day, the friends they are with, the city they’re in and more. Fans in this category will mention “memories,” “entertainment,” “fun,” “environment,” “friends” and “expensive.” They are more likely to complain about aspects unrelated to the game or players, such as parking, the venue, service, concessions or the expensive ticket prices. This is the sweet spot where you can personalize messaging and communications to improve ticket sales, merchandise sales and other purchasing behavior.

Tap into why are sports fans so passionate

As with any industry, sports teams have multiple audiences with unique and individual emotions that require a thorough understanding of what drives those emotions. With a better understanding, you can tailor your messages to the target audience so that you’re hitting them with the right message at the right time for optimal engagement. If you don’t delve deeper into the nuances of fan emotions, you could be missing the key to unlocking more profits and a stronger customer base.

The key is identifying which fans you’re speaking to in the messaging (segmentation and persona research) and then aligning communications (message testing) by using optimized emotional language (emotion research or QDA). The results will have your team winning both on and off the field!

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