Sports: Individualism Runs Amuck. Whatever Happened to T.E.A.M.?

SLRG president Jon Last takes a research driven look at why putting a sports marketing emphasis on individual players may be easier, but ultimately less effective than building brands around teams.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but the more that I see sports marketing focus primarily on the creation and promotion of star players, the more disappointed I become.

Still, I get it.  It’s easier to attract casual and less engaged fans by building stories around individuals.  We love superheroes and rags-to-riches tales.  It’s easy to see the quarterback throw four touchdown passes, while it takes greater understanding to appreciate how a solid offensive line gave said quarterback the time to do so.

Research has shown the proliferation of fantasy sports also pulls allegiances to individual players. And, as perverse as it is, we are also fascinated by “train wrecks.”  As the coveted younger generations continue to congregate around social media, it’s a lot easier to tell stories and build brands around individual athletes through these channels than for a more abstract entity like a sports franchise.

But easy doesn’t necessarily mean better, or long-term.  Some of the more introspective fan research we’ve conducted questions this overemphasis on individualism.  This research has often uncovered an enduring continuity that comes from building a relationship with a team.

I can draw a metaphor between rooting for a team — one that’s constantly evolving — with raising a child.  The team will always be there, long after the “generational talent” of the moment has flamed out.  Like a child, the team may enthrall you one day and frustrate you the next, but it will always be your team, replete with memories even in the down times.

The legendary former NFL referee and current observer of the sports landscape, Jim Tunney, likes to speak to the value of “T.E.A.M,” as an acronym for “together everyone achieves more.”  That powerful concept evokes what formalized sports can teach us about life values like personal accountability and striving toward a greater collective good.

In my personal journey as a youth baseball coach, I still celebrate the time seven years ago when our team wound up one game short of qualifying for the Senior Little League World Series. I remember a conscious de-emphasis on superstars.  Everyone had a job to do. Even the reserve players took pride in their role of helping make the starters better in practice and being ready when and if called upon.  And everyone shared in our collective success.

If you think about it, that spirit of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is a potentially more powerful engagement lever than putting the preponderance of your marketing eggs in the basket of an individual.

I wonder if today’s superstar-centric sports culture is, to some extent, a byproduct of the current cultural fixation with amplifying individual differences at the expense of coming together for a common purpose.  The enduring nature of the latter seems to offer more potential lifetime customer value than simply latching onto a shooting star.