Fan Loyalty

Passikoff: What’s Behind Fan Loyalty

You have to know what fans really expect – because league (and team) loyalty correlate very highly with those fan expectations. 

Robert Passikoff

The New York Knicks 9-game winning streak ended a week ago. They lost to the Charlotte Hornets, 112-105 at the Garden. The Knicks had a 16-point halftime lead after a monster 45-point second quarter. So, a tough loss for us Knicks fans

I say, “us,” because I’ve been a Knicks fan, well, being a born-and-bred New Yorker, forever. Rooted for players like Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley and Earl ”The Pearl” Monroe. Walt Frazier and Cazzie Russell and Patrick Ewing. Not that Julius Randle or RJ Barrett aren’t great. But c’mon. Patrick Ewing, right!? 

The longest Knicks winning streak was 18 straight in 1970. Broken by the Detroit Pistons (110-98). The Knicks did have a 10-game winning streak. But that was back in 1969. The Chicago Bulls broke that. By one point! 102-101. Tough loss! Assuming, of course, you’re weren’t a Bulls fan. And there are a lot of Bulls  (and Pistons and even Hornets) fans out there.

How do I know? Well, you see lots of fans wearing team jerseys (more about that later). And basketball has the second-largest fan base in the U.S.A. About 122 million. Football is #1 with 140 million. Baseball 115 million, soccer 96 million, and ice hockey 74 million. Not that you couldn’t be a fan of more than one sport, of course. Turns out about 45% of fans swear allegiance to one team. Thirty-five percent (35%) of fans follow two sports pretty religiously. And while everyone watches the Super Bowl, the rest range from “watch occasionally” to “actively dislike.” 

There are fans of boxing (56 million), golf (27 million) and tennis (22 million) but those aren’t “team” sports, which is what we measure in our Brand Key Sports Loyalty Index. 2023 is our 31st year, and, like everything else, fandom comes down to expectations. So it’s critical league (and team) marketers strategically manage fan expectations. But, like any other category, you have to know what fans really expect – because league (and team) loyalty correlate very highly with those fan expectations. 

And those correlate very, very highly with fan-behavior. And are leading-indicators of game viewership and licensed-merchandise purchases. To put that into perspective, global viewership of the four major leagues is estimated to be 1.6 billion. And the licensed sports merchandise market is valued at $33.5 billion. So, it’s worth keeping your eye on those expectations, I’d say.

For those of you new to this column, our loyalty and emotional engagement assessments identify the drivers of category loyalty. There are four, which account for 98% of the variance, and describe how people really view, compare, and, ultimately, how they’ll buy / buy-into that category. Essentially a measure of what they’ll do, not what they say they going to do. That’s why these drivers correlate very highly (r = 0.08) with positive consumer (in this instance, sports fans’) behavior. For each driver, we’re able to identify the expectations consumers (or in this case, fans) hold for  those behavioral loyalty drivers.

So, here’s a sports fan-research game you can play at home. Doesn’t matter which league you’re a fan of or whether your allegiance is to one or more teams. Anyone can play. Ready?

Below – listed alphabetically – are the loyalty and engagement drivers for Major League Sports. There’s a brief explanation of what they represent to the fans and to fan loyalty. See if you can pick out the driver where fans hold the highest expectations. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

While you’re thinking about it, you should know that consumer (and fan) expectations grow faster than brands (and leagues and teams) can keep up. On average 25% annually. Brands manage to only keep up by about 7%. So, there’s always a big gap between what consumers (and fans) expect and what they see brands delivering. OK, which one?

How well they play as a team.

Fan Bonding 
Players are respected and admired.

History and Tradition 
Part of community rituals & ‘tribal’ beliefs.

League Standing
Scores and how many games they win.

If you thought League Standing because, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” let me point out that was Vince Lombardi’s opinion, a great football coach but not a market researcher. Winning increases the chemical messenger dopamine, and hits the reward network in your brain, but it’s not where expectations are the fans’ highest. For any Major League sport. 

Yes, yes, I know, you really, really hope your team will win. But be honest. For most fans, in their heart-of-hearts you know they’re more often than not, not going to. There are always the outliers. Historically, the Celtics or Lakers. Or Yankees or Giants. Or Patriots or Packers. Or Canadiens or Bruins. But for the rest, hope is neither a strategy nor an expectation guarantee.

If, on the other hand, you picked History & Tradition, you win. 

It’s the driver with the highest fan expectations. It’s the only thing that kept Cubs fans loyal for 108 years between World Series wins. It’s also why every basketball player currently wears a 6 patch on their jersey. It’s an acknowledgment of NBA legend Bill Russel. A basketball icon and one of the most successful, decorated athletes in North American sports history. Eleven NBA titles, five MVPs, 12 All-Star appearances, totally rocking the No. 6 on his back from 1956-1969.

So that #6 patch? It’s an NBA cross-court, 3-point field goal in the History & Tradition expectation championship!


Featured Image Markus Spiske

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