So I am a lifelong Spurs fan. Not the San Antonio kind—the real Spurs. My mum was from Tottenham. Her dad starting taking her to games as a toddler in the '20s. By the time I was in elementary school and growing up in Sydney, she gave me no option, and I have stuck with them for 50 frustrating years. In part that is the nature of being a fan. You live with the highs and lows, you let the object of your fandom 'own' you and at the same time define you.
This was of course World Cup year, and like most of our peers we have a number of clients for whom this is one of their biggest sponsorships. And for many more, an important personal interest. So while we acknowledge there are all kinds of fans, we decided that the big event in Brazil was a good reason to explore the Truth about Fans in a study that ended up covering more than 25 countries.
One South African fan we interviewed pretty much captured my own belief about fandom: “Being a fan means supporting a team through thick and thin. This is more than just a game, this is a lifestyle.”
We become fans because of our history, because “it’s what all the gang follow”, to fit in or to stand out. What you are a fan of, and how you got there, are themselves stories that make us interesting. Or maybe strange. But a fan does not really care if they are universally approved of or loathed. They just love that team, or that performer, or that author or whatever else you are devoted to.
“The best thing about being a fan is that the world stops when your team is playing. It’s like a drug. Being a fan is great” – from The Truth about Fans
Not all fans are equal of course. How do you define being a fan? And people are fans of all kinds of things. Everyone in our office knows I not only love working on Coke, I am a lifelong, four-Cokes-every-day-for-40-years fan and happy to tell anyone I meet why I love it. But I don’t belong to any social-media Coke sites or clubs.
Personally I was a little surprised that when we asked 20,000 people around the world about being a fan of something, only around 40 per cent see themselves as fans. Of that number, 5 per cent say they are die-hard fans. Of course the numbers vary. Higher in the USA, much lower in Hong Kong and China. And this was fans of anything, not limited to football or sports. But as I said it was self-defining. And regardless, the numbers of 'fans' are huge. And among those millions who recognize their devotion, we noted three distinct new behaviors:
Neighbourhood expert to global guru: The shift from the intimacy of being a fan often of a local team, a family tradition, a geographic loyalty...to a world where people are bringing their loyalty to people and teams from places they will never actually see (think the hoards of Liverpool fans in Asia suffering this year's underachieving), but with the ammunition of the digital age they are able to follow every aspect of their heroes and collect more data than they can handle with which to build their pub debates.
Ticket holder to commentator: Fans are now publishing powerhouses. Just watch the twittersphere or your social media of choice go into overdrive when a goal is scored. However, our study showed the world clearly divided between those who think the ability to instantly comment on the game has enhanced the experience and those who think it distracts from real observation and depth of viewing.
Fortune teller to data junkie; We were fascinated to collect the good-luck rituals people in different countries have about their national teams. In Brazil some people believe in putting a full glass of water on top of the TV before the game starts. Ever since Paul the Octopus did such a great job during the 2010 World Cup, it seems you can’t have a major sporting event without an animal tipster. While luck and faith still play huge parts in being a fan, the digital world again changes the experience. When fans don’t like team selections they gang up to create Facebook pages telling the coach to change. No longer trapped by having to be at the ground or in front of the right screen at a limited time, fans are shifting the way sports are played and shared to suit their own lives.
So what for brands as sponsors and fellow fans? Here are five simple rules for dealing with today’s fans:
- Balance the personal and the communal: It’s a deeply personal experience, so respect that, but help fans connect to others who share their passions
- Global brands should have a global perspective: A Hong Kong fan of the Detroit Pistons will know how you're treating their team anywhere, so be careful to include them in your thinking
- Speak the new language of fans: Talk like a fan, share like a fan, be a fan, and help your fellow fans share their joys and heartbreaks in their own words
- Curate, Don’t clutter: Everyone is a commentator now and what fans want is curation, clever distillation of the social media to allow the loyal to get to what is interesting
- Keep the magic alive: Big data threatens to overwhelm the joy, so brands need to help fans balance the advantages of all those stats with humanity and creativity.
In other words, fans now have the option to be as involved as they want and are just looking to be a part of their teams' triumphs and struggles in ways as emotionally involved as ever, but with greater resources to enjoy and express. Hey, never a morning goes by without me checking what's happening with Spurs, even if lately that has been a pretty awful saga.
Dave McCaughan is managing director of McCann Worldgroup Hong Kong