Fan Loyalty

By: Sumeet Goel

I’m a die-hard Philly sports fan.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, I was indoctrinated at an early age, living, eating and breathing the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers (much to my parents’ chagrin). I stuck with them despite a family move to the New York area, and got a second fix returning to Philly for college (picking up my Inquirer and Daily News from the 7-11 store on the corner of 38th and Sansom every day). And despite subsequent moves to other fan-fanatic cities like Boston, New York and now LA, I remain loyal to my teams.

How much of a fan am I? “Sunday Ticket” is in our house expressly for the purpose of watching the Eagles, loyally viewed in our home man-cave, decked out with Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers gear. In 2008, when the Phillies finally won the World Series after a 28-year drought, I not only cried and bought a round for the entire bar, I subsequently retired and framed my “lucky” Phillies hat, shirt and boxers. To this day, I still sport my Eagles slippers, “lucky” trash can, childhood Eagles football and an Eagles bracelet made by my daughter. My wife notes that I can recite statistics of my childhood heroes, by year, but can’t remember where we went to dinner (for our anniversary, of course) last year.

I share all of this – not to scare you away from engaging HPA on your next assignment – but to beg the question, “Why are we so fanatical about our favorite teams?” What is it about sports fandom that makes it so unique in its loyalty?

My fandom (aka “Phandom” for those of us from Philly) might be extreme, but fans across the globe are just as passionate. Look at Premier League or Serie A fans, or any national team in soccer, cricket or rugby. This loyalty remains, despite free agency, collective bargaining, astronomical salaries, scandals and health controversies that dampen our connection with individual players and management but never the teams themselves.

It leaves you wondering, is it really about the team or is it the city? Or is it the collective experience of the fans? Anyone who lives in Chicago certainly understands that being a loyal Cubs fan is about all three.

Why do sports teams inspire such a singular level of fanaticism? Is there any other product, service or brand that inspires similar passion across a broad population, over multiple decades?  Is there anything other than sports that can generate odes to fanaticism like this op-ed or this confession?  Anything in which consumers can be subjects of in-depth academic research on their mental construct?

My conclusion is: None. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

When I started thinking about this and before I came to this deep and weighty conclusion, my immediate response was to point at Apple. Compared to the history of sports leagues, Apple is a relative newcomer (most notably in the last 10+ years), and continues to generate a lot of hype with their upgrades – despite mocking from competitors claiming “the next big thing is already here.” Lululemon took plenty of heat when the former CEO disrespected his consumer base; but with his departure, the brand has regained its footing and now has enamored the younger generation (including my daughter) with its Ivivva brand.

There are those who prefer Dunkin’ to Starbucks, or vice versa. But is it a passionate product choice? I’m beholden to Starwood hotels, but it’s basically a quid pro quo revolving around my elite status and usage of their branded card. If they suddenly jacked their prices, or Hilton came along and offered me a better deal out of the gate, I’d certainly switch. At one time I was loyal to a specific airline, but only until my elite status expired. Now I just go with the best deal.

Certainly geography plays a significant role in our loyalty. I generally don’t like any pizza that’s not from NYC, I definitely wouldn’t touch a cheese-steak outside of Philly and I’m generally averse to eating Mexican food when I venture East of East LA. For some time there was a push around “Made in America,” but with so many global brands now manufactured in the U.S., borders are blurred.

If not wholly geography or feature based, what is so different about loyalty to a team vs. loyalty to a brand? Perhaps it’s the memories and emotions tied into our favorite team moments? Nostalgia for what we want to believe is still the purest form of pursuit of excellence?

Imagine if you could replicate that same passion for your product or service. Now that would be a case study worth reading.