Explaining The Disconnect: Sports Fans ‘Find A Way’

In his February Media Post: Marketing Sports column, SLRG President Jon Last discusses why sports fan perceptions of a still shaky economy are not a contradiction to their more bullish behaviors.

For the past several years, our firm has conducted an ongoing measurement of sports fan attitudes and opinions across a broad variety of topics ranging from the perceived popularity of various sports to the impact of Tim Tebow. But among the most insightful findings that this “omnibus” work has yielded is an ongoing pulse of sports fan sentiment about the economy, personal expectations for short- and long-term spending and pursuit of various leisure activities.

As one can imagine, the economic perceptions data have not painted the rosiest picture in recent years. In fact, the Winter 2012 study, completed just a few weeks ago among a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,200 sports fans, has yielded three-year lows in optimism about U.S. job growth and free spending on luxuries. Similarly, trends continue to bear out what outwardly suggest lingering concerns about time depravity, technology stress, child safety and tempered prospects for a retirement on par with that experienced by the prior generation.

Yet, concurrent with these perceptions, sports fans express what could be construed to be a counter-intuitive desire to buy new sports equipment and “spend actively on useful pastimes.” The new data show a majority of sports fans (four-year high) believe that the year ahead will be better for them personally than the past year and fewer than one in five plans to scale down their lifestyles in retirement. A disconnect? Hardly.

Amidst all the relevant talk of a “new normal,” we’ve looked deeper into the new data to posit a logical interpretation of what could be casually misconstrued as pessimism or inconsistency in consumer attitudes. In a sentence, sports fans have “found a way” to allow their passions to supersede or displace lingering concerns about the world around them.

For some, the interpretation of what appear to be conflicting perceptions is a self assurance that they have risen above the fray. Recognize that also in the 2012 Winter Omnibus study, a significant majority of sports fans strongly agrees that “the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has become more problematic in recent years.” Clearly, the sports fan — affluent and self actualizing — considers him or herself to be in the former category. Pangs of survivor’s guilt have created a more scrutinizing, less brand-loyal and more value-conscious consumer, but he or she is not about to give up their personal sanctuary from the 24/7 on-call stresses of modern life.

And the power of sports as sanctuary rings loudest in some of our recent qualitative work. That actual word was used in a recent focus group conducted among fans, in describing what they derive from their experience. The theme of sports as a viable outlet that re-channels one’s stresses into more productive means is also prevalent. An in-depth interview conducted this past fall with a man enjoying a round of golf at a well-regarded resort yielded the quote, “Most men have mistresses. I have golf!” I won’t vouch for the statistical veracity of his infidelity assertions, but the sentiment goes a long way in explaining the captivating nature of sports as a welcomed release from the day to day.

Put another way, for the more competitive amongst us, being a sports fan provides one with an additional outlet from which we can actualize success. We may not win the promotion at work, but our team’s thrilling come from behind victory can displace a larger disappointment, at least for a fleeting moment.

I’ve often equated my favorite teams to another child. We will stand up for them in good and bad times, and defend their honor. They can make us extremely proud one day and frustrate us the next, but they are always there. And in that release from outside stresses and pursuit of sanctuary resides the true power that we yield as sports marketers.

It’s that power that explains the surface disconnect in fan attitudes that still yields incredible opportunities for those who can understand the human dynamics. That understanding will fuel the most compelling creative output.