The Money Leagues (Part 4): Fan or Fanatic?

Tonight, we will look at the different types of fans. This post will focus more on psychology of fandom and less on the economics of sports. I hope this information is new to you, and that it opens your eyes to a new way of thinking about being a fan. Most of the source material comes from class notes from the course "The Business of Sport in Europe," so I apologize for the lack of relevant articles.

What makes you, the guy in a business suit with club level seats at Madison Square Garden, different from the guys in row five, who wear varying styles of costume and paint to every game?

Well, according to information processing theory, you are likely a local fan, or a devoted fan at best, and those guys are 100% Grade A fanatical fans. Sports marketers may appreciate your large paycheck and spending habits, but the guys in row five are the fans sports marketers dream about.

What the hell is information processing theory? In this context, it is used to describe how fans develop. Sports fans develop through a halo process, where they acquire and maintain a resevoir of information, called a schema, based on a series of inputs (childhood experiences, friends and family, media, etc.). This resevoir contains expectations, perceptions, and beliefs associated with a schema target, which then develops into different levels. Using this theory, being a sports fan is a sequential process, and fans can move up or down levels based on their current schema. In this model, there are five types of fans, and fans are influenced by three types of motives. Let's talk about their motives first, and then we will look at the different levels of sports fans.

  • Psychological Motives: Easiest explained by saying that people are fans based on the positive emotions and experiences they gain from sports. While at a sporting event, people experience drama and entertainment, escape (an antidote to routine), aesthetic pleasure (experience of memorable events and excellence), and eustress (positive stress and psychological arousal).
  • Socio-Cultural Motives: Even individual sports, like track or swimming, have a strong social dimension to it. Fans engage in this dimension through family interaction, or by seeking group affiliation. Fans also experience a cultural connection, best described by shared celebration of a common interest or as some form of shared humanity.
  • Social Belonging Motives: Fans use sport to identify who they are. Fans with stronger identification are very loyal, and have sport embedded into their concept of self. This can be explained by vicarious achievement, how fans extract a sense of empowerment, social status, and self esteem through identification with a team or sport. The social belonging motives can also be attributed to so-called tribal connections, or an innate desire to re-live ancient ceremonies and primative social practices.

Now you know what drives people to become fans, let's explore the five types of fans.

  • Temporary Fans: Like I said above, fans use identification with a team or sport to define themselves. This is not true for temporary fans, who experience a time-constratined phenomenon. Sports marketers use BIRG theory. Temporary fans Bask In the Reflected Glory of a particular event. Great examples of this are Linsanity and the Olympics. Sure, most people identify with the country in which they reside, but how many people do you think regularly follow women's beach volleyball?
  • Local Fans: Pretty self explanatory, they are constrained by geography, usually a place of birth/childhood or where they currently live. When these fans leave the area, their devotion to the team diminishes, and they may switch to being fans of a new local team. Local fans use being a fan as only a peripheral object of self identification, it is not essential to who they are.
  • Devoted Fans: These fans start as temorary or local fans, but their motivation and attachment toward their sports object increased, and they thus break the boundaries of time and location. Devoted fans are the people who put a big Dallas Cowboy sticker on their truck, even though they live in New York, Philly, or DC. To them, their team is emotionally important, and becomes an important part of their self identification. It is key to note that to the devoted fan, the team is not the most critical or central definition of self in their life.
  • Fanatical Fans: A sports marketer's wet dream, these fans spend money, and promote a positive image of the team they support. They have a stronger sense of self identification, although being a fan is still not the only thing they use to self identify. These fans consider the team an extremely important part of their life, but all activity is of a positive nature. Devoted fans buy season tickets, jerseys for the whole family, paint their faces, dress in costume, and may even build shrines in their home.
  • Dysfunctional Fans: My favorite fan, without these people, there would be no Green Street Hooligans. To the dysfunctional fan, being a fan is the most important driver of self identification. Unlike the fanatical fan, the dysfunctional fan often engages in negative activity. These fans start fights, get wasted, and otherwise attract negative publicity to their team. Sports marketers want these fans to move down to the level of fanatical fan, or devoted fan.

Why is this so important? Because moving up or down fan levels is big money. Sports marketers classify fans to develop marketing and branding strategies, and clearly identifying fans makes the difference between a sucessful ad campaign and a money losing flop.

A great example of the value of moving levels could be taken from my semester in Barcelona. Of the 500 or so students in my study abroad program, I think it would be safe to say that 300 or so spent 20-100 euro on some kind of FC Barcelona apparel or game ticket. The vast majority of students were local fans, supporters of FC Barcelona only because they were studying in the city. On the other hand, I knew a few guys who were lifelong soccer players, and had been Barcelona fans for years. They already had the jersey, t-shirt, and scarf. They are devoted fans. Two of these guys brought back a full jersey kit (socks, shorts, jersey) along with some random FCB attire for family members. One of my friends might have turned into a fanatic, he went to four or five matches, bought a 200 euro track suit, and returned home with an FCB temporary tatoo (just to scare his parents). Local fans might spend a small amount of money on their team each year, but devoted and fanatical fans will spend larger amounts of money season after season, no matter where they live.

What I want to know is what kind of fan are you? Have you ever been a dysfunctional fan? There were definite periods in high school where my friends and I were dysfunctional fans. I'm not going to mention specifics, but we had a lot of fun, which sometimes ended badly for us.

I'm definitely a devoted fan of the Redskin's and Capitals, and a local fan of the Nat's and Wizards (I don't like baseball, and really don't like basketball). When I learned about this in class, I wondered if there could be an "anti-fan." Since going to school in Pennsylvania, my dislike for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins grew into a strong hate. My professors thought that this was similar to a display of being a dysfunctional fan, where my association with my teams led to strong negative activity towards others. But what do you think of my anti-fan theory?

For next week, we will be back to economics, and try to figure out how much professional athletes are worth.

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