Sports Fandom: Diehard or Dying?
What makes a fan and why does it matter? Goizueta Professor Michael Lewis discusses the vast disparity in fandom between generations and how sports teams, leagues and networks must adapt to hold ground in modern culture.
Michael Lewis is a Professor of Marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, faculty director of the Emory Marketing Analytics Center, and host of the popular podcast Fanalytics. He joined The Goizueta Effect Podcastto talk about the future of fandom, what defines a fan, and why fandom is an important measure of modern culture. He discusses what sharp declines in fandom for Generation Z mean for sports leagues, teams, networks, and studios. Finally, he unpacks how young women may represent an unanticipated and untapped opportunity for the industry.
Lewis’s work centers on the intersection of sports analytics and marketing, with research ranging from player performance to brand equity. His thought leadership has been featured in The New York Times, Yahoo Sports, USA Today, Bleacher Report, and NPR. To access his research and find out more, visit Lewis’s website at fandomanalytics.com.
What Is Fandom and Why Is It an Important Reflection of Culture?
When people hear the word fan, they often conjure trivial examples, like a jersey-wearing individual sitting in the rafters, or a kid excited for the latest big rock concert. But if you take a step back, at its core, fandom is intense passion for elements of culture. Understanding what people care about, and what they are passionate about, is an important pursuit.
Declines in Fandom in Gen Z Males
Typically, in his academic studies, Lewis conducts quantitative research measuring fandom across teams.
Last summer, however, he commissioned original survey research - The Next Generation Fandom Survey- to take a deeper look into what's happening across generations. America is continually going through a shift in generations. Lewis expected Gen Z to behave similarly to millennials because both are digital natives, albeit with greater intensity for Gen Z. The results surprised him.
Research shows a tremendous drop-off in sports fandom for Gen Z. Millennials turned out to be the most avid fans, with Gen X and the baby boomers slightly less interested than the millennials. In particular, Gen Z males demonstrate a sharp decline in fandom.
To dig deeper, sports fandom is driven by two psychological constructs: self-identity and the need to belong to communities. Gen Z males’ scores on those traits were much lower than Gen Z females, as well as other groups. Gen Z males seem to be alienated from sports with an apathy to commit or connect. Sports fandom is public and lifelong, which sets it apart from other kinds of fandoms, and Gen Z males seem particularly uninterested.
This apathy is mostly reported in the sports realm, not within all fandoms. Gen Z males are lagging, in terms of their peers and other older generations, across all sports except esports. However, in terms of entertainment categories, like music, movies, television, comedy, they score relatively closely to their female peers.
Sports, Gen Z Females, and Female Leadership
Research shows the idea of belonging to something bigger, to proclaim that you are a fan, is more consistent with Gen Z female psychology. This suggests Gen Z females feel less alienated and represent an opportunity for leagues to grow their female fandom.
When it comes to sports and female leadership, positive trends have emerged such as the San Antonio Spurs' hiring of Becky Hammon as assistant coach, to last year's hiring of Kim Ng by the Marlins as the first GM in Major League Baseball. This shift may have to do with women starting to take on more important roles in male-dominated sports. A larger cultural force may be driving both sides, leading to more female representation in sports management and, simultaneously, more fandom on the side of young women.
Until now, the marketing of sports has been segmented to males. However, now we're seeing this shift where different leagues and teams are seeing growth opportunities with women. Businesses want to grow their fan bases, and the female fan has always been a little bit elusive. The classical marketing issue is that businesses want more customers, but new fans and consumers affect the image of the product.
Lewis raises the question: as sports become more inclusive, do they become less appealing to different segments? As a pure theoretical marketing idea, most marketing remains segment-based rather than to the masses. So as a sports league markets to different groups, does it become less interesting to other groups? Does sports shift away from the domain of boys? While this may be positive change, does this shift make sports less appealing to males? While Lewis doesn’t know the answer to that question, he thinks it is interesting to consider.
In The Next Generation Fandom Survey, Lewis and his colleagues studied attitudes, preferences, and behaviors to capture the elusive concept of fandom. They polled participants about the types of sports they engaged with, whether they wore team clothing and collected memorabilia, as well as social media engagement and spending habits. They drilled down further into fundamental psychological concepts like the need for belonging and the importance of self-identity. Fandom is an elusive concept that can be measured in different ways, but fandom also includes an element of magic. Data can’t explain everything. That extra human element is where the magic happens.
Millennials as the Biggest Sports Fans
According to the study, by far, millennials are the most willing to connect with organizations and display their fandom. These fans show loyalty through social media, attendance, and active display of sports shirts and jerseys. Millennials had the highest scores for almost every sport. This generation received a lot of criticism when they were growing up; for example, kids were regularly given participation trophies. But they were also more connected with the internet, had smartphones at a relatively younger age, and received higher levels of encouragement and positive reinforcement. In terms of being connected to society, it could be theorized that the environment millennials grew up in helped them become the most committed fans of any generation. This is an advantage for sports organizations right now because millennials are the core audience. Gen X may pay for pricier tickets, but the millennials are, across the board, the most connected generation. This is why the falloff to Gen Z was so surprising.
The Future of Fandom: Sport by Sport
At the moment, every sport is operating in a slightly different context.
Football, both college and pro football, seems to be the most protected from decline. Whether it's SEC or NFL football, the experience is a true spectacle. Many football stadiums are like huge modern-day cathedrals, built for once-a-week experiences for tens of thousands of people. Football is also almost designed for gambling with millions of fans in a fantasy football league. Across almost all generations, football is the favorite American sport. One potential threat to the sport is the research and concern around lasting side effects of concussions. If kids don’t play football moving forward, will there be a decrease in participation, which translates to a decrease in viewership?
Baseball is fascinating from a fandom perspective. The sport features many of the oldest fans, perhaps because it's too slow-paced for the younger generation. Baseball has adopted more of a local model of fandom, where people are fans of the local team and don't really follow the game on a national level. For example, people in Atlanta love the Braves, but are not so interested when the Mariners play the Pirates. So, baseball marketing ends up being more segment-focused than mass-market focused.
Basketball seems to be the opposite of baseball. Basketball is more of a national game with a younger fan base and tends to do relatively poorly locally. It operates based on a star system. This mantle has been maintained and passed on for a long time, from Larry Bird to Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James. The atmosphere of the basketball court feels like going to a concert and seeing the stars. Do people age out of being a basketball fan because it lacks the relaxing, laid-back pace of baseball games?
The popularity of soccer has been rising in the past few decades and is now especially popular among younger viewers. When Atlanta United started playing, something unusual and unexpected occurred. The Atlanta United team is owned by the same managers that own the Atlanta Falcons, so they have NFL-level production values and resources and the opportunity to play their games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. At the start, no one expected more than 60,000 fans to show up. Atlanta United became a local phenomenon, and the team won the MLS championship a few years later. Lewis reports that when he teaches on campus, he sees more Atlanta United T-shirts than he does for any other Atlanta teams.
On a more national level, the U.S. Women's Soccer Team is one of the big sports stories of the last 20 years and has a ton of fans. It is a team with international dominance that has received a lot of attention. Players like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo back in the day, largely became household names. However, this enthusiasm isn’t translated to all professional women's soccer. While the women's professional league is not growing rapidly in the U.S., the men's professional league is experiencing growth, which may be a case of the substitution effect.
Esports is also a rising phenomenon that is growing in popularity, especially among the younger generation. Fans devote hours a day to playing and watching these video games. The esports environment is all digital, so it provides an unobstructed view into what happens in the fandom. Analysts can see people watching influencers or streamers on places like Twitch, and then actually see how that translates to game usage. So esports gives great insights about fandom. The question is whether esports engenders a fundamentally different kind of fandom, whether the fandom behind these video games is comparable to going to a stadium to watch a game in person.
Sports as a Business
Fans are ultra-passionate consumers; this idea of fandom or passion is relevant to multiple industries. People feel passionate about brands beyond sports. Sports just happen to offer an almost ideal laboratory to study the business side.
Even with recent declines, sports leagues have opportunities and are actively trying to build their businesses. As mentioned previously, the NBA is very much the star-driven league, greatly influenced by star athletes with millions of fans. For example, LeBron James has 80 million followers on social media, while the Lakers have approximately 15 million. But the NBA views that disparity as a positive because they see these athletes as opportunities to develop more of a global business and have been very public about trying to grow their business in places like China. In some ways, the NBA doesn't care if there is a decline in interest in the United States, because there are 1.5 billion Chinese consumers. However, in terms of both sports and Hollywood, indications are that China is less interested in having American culture dominate the Chinese marketplace. To be clear, major, geopolitical forces may dictate where sports as a business evolves.
In baseball, the fan base is relatively aging. It will be interesting to see how the baseball industry will adapt and whether baseball will follow the basketball model and start to move more into the social media space, to make the players the stars rather than the teams.
To summarize the data on the Gen Z fandom suggests that, in the future, the world of sports is likely to become a little bit smaller. Lewis doesn’t know what the decline in sports popularity means for businesses. Each team and league is competitive and will make every effort to figure out a way to keep growing their businesses and bringing in fans. Lewis is curious to see what the future brings in this space.
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