Last Updated: December 7, 2020

There are few things more thrilling than being in a packed stadium with tens of thousands of screaming fans as the home team scores at the last minute to win a game. The roaring mixture of cheers, applause, high fives, and pounding feet can make the air seem charged with electricity. Sports illicit powerful feelings in everyone, from the hardcore fan with the painted chest, to the casual observer catching their first game of the season.

When sports teams create commercials and advertisements, they very consciously try to remind fans of the incredible feeling of victory. A trip to the ballpark offers an opportunity to revel in the tradition of a team, the solidarity of fans, and the vicarious glory of winning. Sports marketers have a deep understanding of fan psychology and know just what images, music, and slogans combine to make team loyalty seem like commitment to a faith.

The Psychology of Marketing Sports Teams

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
St. Louis Cardinals “The Confetti Is Still Falling”As the staff and team of the Cardinals return to the stadium at the start of a new season, they mysteriously find confetti everywhere from the previous year’s World Series victory. Text at the end says “The storybook ending, was just the beginning.”Men and women 30-60Response: Being a Champion – The ad invites viewers to remember the exuberance of celebrating the World Series victory. It suggests that all the drama and glory of that season will be repeated in the upcoming one, and makes sentimental references to the team’s winning tradition.
Dallas Cowboys “Be a Cowboy”Authentic looking cowboys on a dude ranch are shown struggling to tame a horse. They call in Cowboy’s tight end Dan Campbell who easily subdues the horse. The amazed wranglers comment that the football player is a “real cowboy.”Men 15-60Authenticity and Relatability – The football player is associated with the real life cowboys who look distinctly Texan. The message is that the team is uniquely and authentically from Texas. This resonates with fans who have intense state pride and see their iconic football team as representative of the entire state.
Miami Heat “Big”The sweaty, serious looking faces of The Heat’s three most famous players are shown in slow motion while text flashes on the screen explaining how much pressure is on them to win a championship.Men 20-60Sports as Drama – The ad frames the basketball players as mythic figures who are about to face an epic challenge. By highlighting the drama inherent in sports, the ad presents basketball as a grand narrative rather than just a game. Viewers are invited to join the story.

What does sports provide?

Sports marketing makes a powerful pitch to consumers. While the goal is to sell products, the message is rarely framed as a transaction for goods or services. Instead, spending money on sports is framed as participation in a massive group activity. Buying a ticket to a baseball game or wearing the jersey of your favorite player suggests that you are a part of that franchise, and everything they stand for.

NFL Franchises by Attendance in 2011

Team:Average Home Attendance
Dallas Cowboys85512
New York Giants79475
New York Jets78986
Washington Redskins76912
Denver Broncos75327
New Orleans Saints73042
Carolina Panthers72292
Kansas City Chiefs72082
Houston Texans71496
Baltimore Ravens71224

Source: ESPN – NFL Attendance Statistics 2011

Many sports teams base their marketing efforts around the sense of community that comes from being a fan. Team loyalty offers consumers a chance to be a part of something greater than themselves. That is why so many sports team commercials feature images of packed barrooms, exuberant tailgaters, and filled arenas. The message is that sports can keep you from being alone. A fellow fan will always be close by to discuss the team or raise a beer in salute.

Sports also offer the average consumer a chance to access all the glory and pride that comes from being a winner. Psychologists use the term “basking in reflected glory” to refer to the sense of accomplishment that comes from cheering on a winning team. It is natural to want to live vicariously through the lives of players who accomplish goals at the very highest levels. The message of many ads is that a player or team’s success is your own. People can taste the thrill of victory when they become sports fans.

By contrast, sports commercials often poke fun at rival fans as a way to psychologically separate hometown fans from their inauthentic counterparts. Fans become extensions of the teams they support. If the fans in a rival city are presented as lazy and “losers”, it offers a subtle way to criticize the city they are from. Playing up geographical rivalries is one of the most common sports marketing tactics. People have pride in where they are from and they reflect that pride onto the hometown team.

Good for the brain, bad for the body?

There is a widely acknowledged link between affiliation with a sports team and positive mental health outcomes. Some researchers have begun to question if sports “fandom” encourages participants to indulge in risky behaviors that ultimately degrade their bodies. A correlation has been shown between watching sports and consuming increased amounts of alcohol and fatty foods. Additionally, the BMI of sports fanatics is regularly higher than the BMI of non-sports fans. “Fandom”, then, has both a positive and a negative impact. The benefits to the mind are offset by the toll taken on the body.

Source: Sweeney, D., & Quimby, D. (2012). Exploring the physical health behavior differences between high and low identified sports fans. The Sport Journal, 15

Segmenting sports fans

It is important for marketers to segment their customers into smaller groups so that they can deliver the ad messages that are most relevant to them. Sports marketers are no different. Teams have to understand that casual and hardcore fans can have wildly different feeling about the same team.

Understanding the contrasting feelings of these two groups of supporters is key for reaching both through marketing. The authors of the article “Sport Consumer Typologies: A Critical Review” highlight the dualistic nature of these two types of fans. Their goal is to create a framework to help marketers understand the qualities that define passionate/casual fans. Their most common traits are contrasted below:

  • Old/New
  • Genuine/Corporate
  • Traditional/Modern
  • Expressive/Submissive
  • Irrational/Rational
  • Symbolic/Civic
  • Die-Hard/Less-Loyal

Source: Stewart, B., C.T. Smith, A., & Nicholson, M. (2003). Sport consumer typologies: A critical review. Sport Marketing Quarterly, 12(4), 206-215.

The importance of psychology in marketing

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Sports teams must understand the psychology of their fans if they are going to turn them into lifelong supporters. For more information on how marketing professionals use psychology, explore more areas of consumer psychology.

Related careers

Fanatics are the most visible fans, but teams often have armies of more casual supporters that all require separate marketing efforts. How will a team appeal to women, the elderly, and children? The marketing departments of every sports franchise depend on the psychological insights produced by professionals like these to connect with the full population of their fans.

Market Analyst – Market analysts conduct comprehensive research into specific markets to help sports teams make informed decisions about growing and evolving. As part of their research, analysts will examine the psychology of past, present, and future fans and the ways that it could shift and change over time. Learn more about Market Analysts.

Merchandising Manager – Merchandising managers are responsible for designing and selecting all of the merchandise that will bear a team’s official logo. They have to understand what the wants and needs of the fans are to determine the products that will be most meaningful to them. Sports keepsakes are often cherished for years. Learn more about Merchandising Managers.