Irrational Fans Are Good For Sports


In a finding that is likely unsurprising to most in the sports industry, a recent study completed by two University of Sussex economists found that sports fans are irrational in their support of teams. More specifically, “that the happiness that fans feel when their team wins is outweighed – by a factor of two – by the sadness that strikes when their team loses.”

What may be more counterintuitive is that these results likely are a good thing for the sports industry as a whole and sports sponsors in particular. How could that be possible when teams are making their customers unhappy?

First, let’s delve more deeply into the study itself. The economists focused on soccer matches in England and used a mobile device app to interact with study participants. The app would send notifications at different times throughout the day with different questions and participants would record their responses. Participants were asked to rate their happiness on a zero to one hundred scale (with one hundred being most happy). The economists used geolocation data through the mobile app to determine when fans were at stadiums versus other locations. They then compared responses for when fans were watching games (either in-stadium or at home) as compared to other activities.

While fans did experience happiness when their team won, the pain of a loss was much more severe. This is consistent with loss aversion theory in behavioral economics where people consistently exhibit similar results across a wide variety of tasks. What was surprising to the economists is that a loss by a fan’s favorite team had the second worst score on their scale with only taking care of an aging parent being worse.

The economists considered sports fans irrational because they were not maximizing their utility. In this case, fans were not maximizing their happiness and / or well-being by watching sports because teams lose either more or almost as much as teams win and losing makes fans so much more unhappy than winning makes them happy.     

These results again beg the question of how could losing be good for sports teams. As we discuss in our book The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry, all sports teams are going to lose and winning does not guarantee financial success.

Sports teams more consistently achieve financial success by creating authentic engagement and connections with their fans. We provide several examples of sports organizations that have achieved success using this approach even when they were losing such as the Chicago Cubs, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Golden State Warriors.

More recent sports sponsorship examples include the Cleveland Browns “Victory” fridges partnership activation with Anheuser-Busch and the New York Jets partnership activation with Marvel which current features the Incredible Hulk. Both teams have had their on-field struggles which seem to make it difficult to engage their fans.

Both teams also appeared to have completed audience analysis of their fans and created activations that enhance both the team’s and partner’s brand perception. With the Browns, the team turned its losing into a unique opportunity to create “Victory” fridges filled with Bud Light that open when the team wins its first game. With the Jets, the team’s identity is focused on the color green and portraying strength as the team goes into “battle.” Almost exactly the same thing could be said about the Incredible Hulk. Having the Marvel character as a bobble head creates a unique giveaway that resonates with Jets fans even if the team loses.

While the economists did examine three million data points across hundreds of thousands participants, the study featured in the early part of this post does have some potential flaws that the authors themselves discuss. They only examined British soccer fans, mobile app users tend to be younger and more affluent than the general population, and self-reported measures of happiness can be unreliable. The economists did take measures to prevent issues with self-reported measures, but it is clear that some caution should be given to the results of the study.

However, the paper’s title of “Is Football a Matter of Life and Death - or Is It More Important Than That?” is a good summary of the competitive advantage for the sports industry. It is difficult to think of another industry where a company’s main product could fail (i.e. sports teams not win) at such a high rate and the company could retain most of its customers. Many (if not most) sports fans are extremely passionate about their teams whether they win or lose. These fans continue to engage with their favorite teams even though it is not “rational”.