fan loyalty

Passikoff: Playing to Win for Fan Loyalty

Since the dawn of time, there’s one sports-related truth about men: if they can toss it, pass it, dribble it, kick it, throw it, or strike it ­– they will! What has changed (since the 1970’s anyway) is the amount of money star athletes are paid to toss, pass, dribble, throw, or strike.

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs QB, has a 10-year contract worth $503 million. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors, signed a 4-year NBA contract worth $215 million. NHL player, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers has an 8-year contract worth $100 million. MLB player, Mike Trout, LA Angels, has a 12-year contract worth $426.5 million. Lionel Messi, Major League Soccer, is guaranteed $20 million in compensation. So, we’re talking real money when it comes to all that tossing, passing, dribbling, throwing, and striking. Oh, and fan bonding – but more about that in a bit.

The money-part interests me because, well, who isn’t interested in money? Professionally, Brand Keys specializes in loyalty and engagement metrics that correlate with positive consumer behavior that correlates with profits, which means money. In professional sports, fan loyalty correlates with TV viewership and purchase of licensed merchandise, which correlates with money too. About $12 billion a year for the major leagues’ TV broadcast rights, another $31 billion a year in licensed merchandise sales. So, yeah, major league money.

From a fan loyalty POV, 2024 Major League Sports ranked like this in our 27th annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index

  1. National Football League
  2. Major League Baseball
  3. National Basketball League
  4. National Hockey league / Major League Soccer

For those of you more into sports than research, a correlation is a statistical measure expressing the extent to which two variables are linearly related. FYI, the correlation between the major league loyalty rankings and the highest paid athletes in the leagues was 0.94. The correlation between this year’s league loyalty rankings and individual TV and licensed merchandise sales is high. 0.77. Both major league correlations. And, yes, 21stcentury loyalty is different than it was last century. And this isn’t an oxymoron, it’s reality: People “are loyal” to multiple brands in multiple categories and have multiple interests in multiple categories. It isn’t one or the other anymore. 

About 11% of fans follow multiple sports leagues. But twice that (22%) are one-sport aficionados. My son (the tall handsome one) is an avid Knicks fan. He might watch an occasional baseball game with his old man, but more for familial reasons than any team or game fidelity. Real fans may find one sport more enjoyable. Or something they culturally or regionally relate to. The biggest NFL fans are concentrated in Southern states. The most avid NBA fans are city-folk; LA, Chicago, NYC.

Sports programming plays a big part in creating and influencing “fandom.” More extensive sports media and marketing attracts more more-loyal fans. To be fair, that has more to do with league broadcast contracts than fan accessibility, which is ubiquitous today, but still. (The NFL, our #1, has the largest television contracts, and earns almost $7 billion annually from its broadcasts.) Some sports offer more-appealing experiences. Physicality in football and hockey, strategic elements of baseball and basketball. Curling too. Just saying. And then there are athletes fans admire or have emotional connections to, aka “fan bonding.” 

So, there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to your sports league preference. Loyalty to a team, however, is a bit more well-defined. And important. Anyway, for more on that, see fan loyalty drivers below. They’re important. They can give teams insights into strategic brand building. How fans see their “Ideal team” construct, which turns out to be a lot more than a win-loss ratio. It IDs what they truly expect (that gets them to watch and buy jerseys, hats, and “We’re #1” foam fingers.) It permits teams to conduct apples-to-apples comparisons of the passion with which fans in the team’s home market support the home team. Versus corresponding values for fans of other teams in the same market. If it helps, think of it as a “competition.” For eyeballs, sentiment, and emotions. Oh, and money. A lot of money.

Player salary differentials notwithstanding, it’s worth remembering when you talk the five major U.S league sports, you’re talking about the top 4,922 professional athletes – all of whom play to win. And yet, win-loss ratios do not entirely govern fan loyalty. (Actual game attendance is a nice-to-have, but not a highly-correlated indicator either. If you think about it, when it comes to the really big games like Super Bowls or World Series or NBA Playoffs or Stanley Cups or World Cups, you could fill those venues 50 times over.) So, if not number of wins, and not attendance, what? Well, there are other powerful, emotionally-based factors that need to be taken into account. Percentages indicate the contribution each driver makes to overall fan loyalty: 

History and Tradition (31%)

Is the team part of fan and community rituals, institutions, and beliefs? 

Fan Bonding (30%)

Are individual players especially respected and admired? 

Pure Entertainment (20%)

More important than their win-loss ratio, how entertaining is the team’s play?

Authenticity (19%)

How do they play as a team. Do they play hard? What’s the offense and defense like?

So, the morning line for fan loyalty? Leagues need to pay attention because it correlates sos highly with game viewership and licensed merchandise purchase. But, since loyalty can be influenced if you understand what drives them and how they work, it’s critical leagues and teams strategically manage them to better meet their fans’ expectations. That’s a big win.

Because fan loyalty for leagues, teams, and players makes a lot of dollars. 

And even more sense.

Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

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