Saturday, 13 September 2014

Fandom: What's It All About?

Why do people become fans? Why do they stay fans, even when the team they cheer for is losing or the star they 'worship' behaves poorly? Are fans just really, really loyal customers? And if so, does our customer loyalty theory cover off the whole topic of fandom? 

Let Me Tell You a Story

I love Canadian football - high school, university or the CFL. I know the rules, I can tell when a blocking assignment is missed (duh!) or when the quarterback and the receiver get their signals mixed up. I love watching a play unfold. So because I love the game, I love watching the Laval Rouge et Or play. They play the game like it was meant to be played.  

Does that mean I don't support our Carleton Ravens? Of course not! I've been hoping and praying for the day football would return to Carleton. I remember Panda games very fondly (or at least I'm fond of the parts of the game I remember). I've got season tickets - come say hello if you see me at a home game. But I figure we're a few years away yet from building a tradition of winning like Laval has. So, in the mean time, I'm a two team kind of fan (ok, three teams if Queen's makes it into the final!)

I don't remember when I first started to love football. I suspect it's like hockey, I learned to love it by watching it on TV with my Dad. Back in the day (we're talking the pre-Glieberman era) I was a proud Riders fan. Had the 1971 Riders roster memorized - numbers, positions, etc. It probably helped that Coach Brancato's daughter was in my Math class. Now, I cheer for what I stubbornly insist on calling the Green Riders. I really, really want a watermelon helmet. I love the atmosphere at a Saskatchewan home game - they put the fanatic back into fan.

I'm also a basketball fan, but in this case I'm just learning the game. I started attending a few years ago to watch Sprott students Stu Turnbull and Aaron Doornekamp (need it say it? They were Marketing majors. Woo hoo!) I don't always understand why the referee calls fouls on the Ravens. But I've been to enough games now that I know quality and heart when I see it. That's why when the Ravens defeated the Lakehead Thunderwolves at the CIS Final 8 in 2013, I proudly stood and applauded their players as well as ours. Playing with heart deserves to be recognized.

While I'm still trying to learn more about the game, my lack of knowledge doesn't stop me from having a near heart attack watching plays like this!

And then we come to wrestling. I became a fan of pro wrestling in spite of the fact that my Dad wouldn't watch it. I don't watch it much myself any more, but I still admit to being a fan. Is that possible? Can you still be a fan if you don't watch? 

What I really love is talking with other fans about the wrestlers of old: Edouard Carpentier, Maurice Mad Dog Vachon, Brett Hart, Billy Two Rivers, Killer Kowalski, Gorgeous George, George Hackenschmidt and, yes, even Hulk Hogan (although I agree that the man can't wrestle). I love making up plot lines for the Match of the Century - the match that can never happen because the wrestlers come from different generations.  

I'll assume you recognize the Mad Dog, who sadly is no longer with us. The fellow on the left is George Hackenschmidt. Over the years I've become a bit of a wrestling historian, so I can tell you that in the early 1900s Hack fought a number of matches against American Frank Gotch. Gotch cheated (yes, I recognize the irony of saying that about a pro wrestler) and beat Hack. That kind of poor sportsmanship annoys me. That's why, over 100 years later, Gotch doesn't get his photo in my blog post. And I'm not the only one who 'remembers' something that happened before they were born (see the video below). Are we crazy or just 'true' fans?

And the moral of the story is...?

From the research I conducted with pro wrestling fans, I learned that consumers become fans for many reasons. Sometimes it's because a parent, older sibling or friend influences them, or sometimes it's in spite of what others say. Often times, it is out of patriotism or loyalty to a country or home town. As our expertise as fans grows, we see new dimensions and learn to appreciate a truly gifted performance. We may deepen our connection by learning the history of our favorite consumption pastime. And many times, we stay fans because of the social connections we've made with other fans.

Why Should Consumer Researchers Care?

In his 1995 article called "How Consumers Consume", researcher Doug Holt developed a four-part typology of consumption based on his observations at professional baseball games (nice job if you can get it!) My fan experiences related above highlight many of the dimensions identified by Holt. 

Holt calls it 'accounting' when fans use an interpretive framework to make sense of what they see. That's how I can say Gotch 'cheated', because using the conventions of pro wrestling, a fan can distinguish between 'cheating' and typical actions carried out in the ring. Fans 'evaluate' when they compare what they are seeing with examples from the depth of their experiences. So I can say that Laval 'plays the game like it should be played' or that I recognize 'heart' in the way a losing team played. We 'appreciate' when we have an emotional reaction -- like when I thought my heart would stop when Stu hit that shot. 

Check out Holt's typology. His contribution was to use the fan experience to help us understand the linkage between the emotions we experience, the ways in which our understanding and appreciation of 'the game' are structured by institutional frameworks (e.g., the explicit and unspoken 'rules') and our interactions with others (family, friends, other fans). This applies to many situations beyond the arena of fandom.

Are fans just really loyal customers? Does existing customer loyalty theory cover all the dimensions of fandom? Perhaps a group will take that topic on for their winter semester project.


Holt, Douglas B. (1995), "How Consumers Consume: A Typology of Consumption Practices," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (1), 1-16.

If you are interested in fans and fandom, check out these books:

Austin, Dan (2005) True Fans: A Basketball Odyssey. Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press.

Hills, Matt (2002) Fan Cultures. NY: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. NY: Routledge.

Queenan, Joe (2003) True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans. NY: Henry Holt & Co.


  1. Great blog post, Leighann. I definitely believe we become fans when we build an emotional connection. That's why we always claim credit for our team's success, saying "WE won" or "WE just need to do [this] to win". Take a look at this post from NY Times:

    Going back to your basketball example - I had the same feeling during the Linsanity era. Shivers every time I watch back! And I'll keep on being a fan because of the emotional connection I had before.

    Definitely work researching...

  2. Thanks, Anthony! I enjoyed reading the NYT article, even though I'm not a big Cialdini fan. He writes about a number of marketing topics, but I've always had reservations about some of his methods. I do think his point about sports representing a modern-day battlefield make some sense and that concept shows up in the sport fandom literature too. It's one of the reasons that some people consider sports to be 'low brow' - too much focus on bodies and brute emotions. Personally, I don't find it all that different from the cathartic effect of reading a good book. Except that even as an avid reader, I've yet to find a book with as exciting a conclusion as Nate Behar's last minute catch at Panda 2014!

  3. Great post Leighann! I took a Sports Marketing class when studying abroad in Glasgow this past Winter semester, one unit covered Sports Fandom. It was really interesting to be able to experience another culture's view on what it really means to be a fan. Of course ,being in the UK, football was widely discussed as it is the most popular sport in Europe. North America may think they have spirit, but let me tell you that Europe is on a whole other level. We were even warned by our local friends to be careful not to wear the wrong colours in certain parts of town on game day!

  4. Thanks, Emily! Interesting to learn that you took a Sports Marketing course. From time to time we've have some interest in having that course offered here at Sprott. Would be interested to know what you'd think of that. I thought I was the only one who was so 'colour-sensitive'. Still can't figure out why Sprott used the double-blue to brand itself when we're in red, white and black country!

  5. When I was growing up the Grizzlies were still in Vancouver. I would go to a lot of games and was extremely loyal and supportive of them even though they were by far the worst team in the league. When they moved to Memphis I seemed to lose that emotional connection with them even though they were the exact same team. I think having that connection with either a player on the team or the organization or city they represent with result in long term loyalty.

  6. I like how you have brought up the misconception of being a fan Prof.Neilson! Growing up in Kenya, we followed the English Premier League football (known as soccer in America) and when I spoke to friends about being a fan of a team, I got different responses. Some people would say they support the team that is winning and others would consider the tactics their team uses and the strength of the team in terms of skill. I feel like it depends on the culture and the way you interpret sports. Someone like me has always indulged in football and I would consider being a fan as someone who would support the team whether they lose or win. The team I have supported all my life has won various tournaments but the Premier League and this hasn't stopped me from supporting them as a fan. When I first got into sports, I began to learn about the different teams and the players that play for the teams and then after watching many many games, my heart fell towards Liverpool (English team) as the spirit they had and the sportsmanship they earned was something that I was looking for in a sports team. The article posted on the link below puts things into a different perspective. The concept of being "addicted" to a sports team brings being a fan to a whole other level. I would like to know what you think!

  7. Great read! I think fandom is a really interesting topic. If people were to buy a product and it didn't work properly, they would probably try and stay away from the brand in the future, however with sports teams people generally stick with their teams through thick and thin. I personally love the NFL, I started watching it in 2004, and I picked my favourite team by picking my dads least favourite team at the time (New England Patriots). I have stuck with this team for 10 years now and I always find it funny how personally offended I feel when someone verbally attacks the efforts of the team. It's as though you feel responsible for standing up for the team you cheer for. As well when your sports team wins a title you feel the need to tell people that you liked the team way before they won and are not a band-wagoner (band-wagoners drive me crazy!). It's even amusing to see how far some people go in the stadium to support their team; if someone starts trash-talking a team, some people see that as a reason for starting a fist fight - which is pretty ridiculous, but patriotic nonetheless. All in all I think fandom is a really neat topic and should be covered more in the textbook because the way people approach it doesn't always make sense so it would be great to learn more about the psychology behind it.

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  9. This was a great post to read Professor Neilson! I think of all the blog posts this was most meaningful to me because I work first hand with hockey fans. As a part-time job I work with Ticket Operations for our beloved Ottawa Senators. This allows me to see firsthand how dedicated fans can be to their chosen team (whether they are winning or losing…). When talking about fandom it is very interesting to see the difference in between different teams. Clearly every game there are Ottawa fans but when they play the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadians the jerseys are almost 50/50 in the stands. This is similar to the video you should us in class and how interesting it can be to markets to support a losing team. It provides a different perspective to see the consumer side of things when looking at the amount of money fans will spend watching/cheering on their team. People get so passionate about their teams and I think there is a lot of influence when choosing your favourite team. In my opinion, the two most common factors are usually from an influential person (dad, mom, grandpa, etc.) or where you live (hometown). In addition, this year I went to the John Molson Sports Marketing conference and industry experts were able to provide insight into their daily operations. The sports marketing/management industry is so large that I think it is important to take more time to better understand fandom and how to attract/retain loyal fans. Last game I met a season ticket holder who has had the same seats for over 17 years! People will spend large amounts of money of sports and is defiantly an area of interest for me to work in.

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  11. I also attended JMSM this year and one of the things I learned was how marketing for sports teams poses its own unique challenges. On the one hand, there is a great advantage in having such loyal and passionate customers. However, a couple of factors make sports marketing much different from traditional product marketing. For one, you are inherently limited in your market. The league restricts the geographical zone you are allowed to promote and operate in and fans in other geographies will most likely cheer for, and support financially, their local team. In addition, the passion of the fans can create huge problems when things are going poorly or when decisions are made that the fans don't agree with. Trades, hirings/firings, and contracts and spending are all things that need to be addressed and dealt with. Very few companies have to defend their personnel decisions or justify the salary and compensation their employees receive.

    I'd be interested to hear your opinion on my blog post "Fandom at its Best (Worst?) - Disgusted Jets fans raise $10K to put up 'Fire John Idzik' billboard" which provides an example of fans taking their passion to the next level.

  12. Sad to see that you aren't a Leafs fan! It was interesting to read about how you became a fan of wrestling even though your dad wasn't. I did a blog about collecting and how I am a HUGE fan of the leafs, please don't fail me. Looking through the slides and other research I was intrigued if certain hobbies could be effected by your genetics. My grandfather collected old currency, I never met him or got to enjoy the past time with him, but for some reason I love it! Finding out the history behind coins, the rarity of them. I find it so intriguing but I have never had anyone teach or show it to me. The same could be for fandom, am I destined to like the leafs if my dad or grandfather did? I know it mostly correlated to the city you grow up in or around, but it would be interesting to see how much of it is genetics. As a huge hockey fan, when I attended JMSM, my love for the leafs and hatred for the Habs disappeared when I herd Marc Bergevin speak, the GM for the Canadians. All my hatred for the Habs disappeared. It made me think if its only during the games I'm a die hard leafs fan, and why do I really dislike the Habs so much!

  13. Great piece on sports and what drives the fandom of fuels our local and national sports heroes. I have also ways found it interesting to see fans stick with their teams throughout the agony of years that may come with them (much like Jacob and his beloved leafs above). Of course you can't be seen as a true sports fan if you keep altering your loyalties with respect to different teams and hopping on different bandwagons. It's cool how lately the Los Angeles Kings seem to have an ever growing bandwagon, their success coupled with the fact that they are located in California which means that their fans aren't as devoted to the Kings and hockey as they would be to either the Dodgers or Angeles in baseball. Even though I find the lifetime devotion to a team necessary, I find it very interesting to slowly watch one allegiances change. My roommate and I are New England Patriots fans while our other roommate is a Bears fans. Finally this season it seemed that his allegiance had began to shift as he sees year after year the Bears not produce and to realize that they will never win with Jay Cutler as their Quarterback. This is a close to home example that shows a fan finally getting fed up and severing ties. Another point that tends to bother me being a Sens fan through and though is that the Leafs and Habs fans always seem to belittle them even though they are on a level playing field as those teams (except for their history). Nothing pisses me off more seeing the Sens play in Kanata against the Leafs and their be more Leafs fans in the crowd. Let's hope the Sens can turn this season around and make the playoffs!