Two cents blog

The psychology of the dedicated followers of… sport

by Steve Mair on 6 July 2018

For those of you that have been living under a rock this past couple of weeks, you may not have noticed a small event taking place in the land of Vodka, tiny, neatly stacking dolls and oligarchs. No, it’s not the annual Krylovo cow dung tossing festival (fun fact – last year’s winner hurled a dried organic projectile a distance of 46.5 meters!). No. It’s the festival of a bunch of fella’s throwing themselves around a football field – THE WORLD CUP!

A time of emotional, euphoric highs and anguished, tearful lows – and that’s just in creating the perfect pre-game salon quality hair. But what is it about sports and sporting teams that infect our brains, turning us from regular human beings into fans that will do crazy things all in the name of support for your team. How is it that sports engage, delight, and motivate people to put their lives on hold and become totally engrossed in watching other people play games.

But more importantly, what could businesses learn about the psychological phenomena driving this behaviour that could help instil the same loyalty and passion in their customers?

“This might be our year”

For an example of customer loyalty, you just have to look at the fans of the English team. We last won a major tournament when balls had only just evolved from being made of pig’s bladders and the Beatles were in the charts, we even have our own song about how many (ever increasing) years of hurt since our last victory. But yet we come back, we fill the national stadium for home games and we follow en-mass, spending hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds to watch our heroes play in World Cups. Russia this year, Brazil before that, Germany before that, I could go on! Why do we do it?

The answers lie in cognitive psychology. Firstly, in two cognitive hacks — hope and variable rewards, which, when applied together, can produce some strange and irrational behaviour.

Hope is a powerful emotion, hope is the belief that things will get better no matter the circumstances or the likelihood. No matter the scenario, it gives you the positivity that you (and your team) will endure anything and everything that comes your way.

As sports fans, we understand the power of hope, but we understand less about variable rewards. A classic mechanic in the design of pokies, random reinforcement has your dopamine levels playing out of their skin! Dopamine is the chemical neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. It’s release increases during pleasurable activities, like sex and watching the Germans exit the tournament! Sport, in its nature, is variable, and without a time machine (or some sandpaper) it’s almost impossible to predict the outcome of. There’s no pattern. We become mesmerised by the endless search for another victory and with it that next dopamine hit.

“I’ve invested too much to turn my back on them now”

Hope and variable rewards aren’t the only psychological theories that have us following our sporting heroes to the ends of the earth (otherwise known as Old Trafford). Two others play a part in our strong emotional connection. The first is sunk cost fallacy/escalation of commitment. Essentially, our behaviour is modified as a result of past decisions and actions, even in the face of increasingly negative outcomes we continue the same behaviour. It’s something I’m very aware of. I’m an Arsenal fan. Sunk cost fallacy is the reason we’ll watch a film all the way through, if we reach a tipping point of time investment, even if it’s terrible!

The second theory is cognitive dissonance. In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by someone with simultaneous but contradictory beliefs. As fans age, they begin to invest more and more into our teams in the form of leisure time and disposable income. The discomfort felt as a result of investment Vs the value offered by the team’s performance, should lead to a rational decision – to stop investing time and money, however as a result of our prior beliefs we actually invest more, I must love my team more to justify the costs!

“I’m part of a team, part of a tribe”

You don’t define your team, you are defined by your team. Two things are at work here, self-definition and herd mentality. When people change the way they define themselves, they begin to behave in ways consistent with that belief – I define myself as a fan, I wear the colours, I watch every game, I’m loyal to a fault, but I’m part of the tribe which means being influenced by peers to adopt certain beliefs or behaviours – singing on the terraces, backing an underperforming player in the face of criticism from the fans of other teams etc.

“Remember that glorious night in…” 

Lastly, the final theory is based on self-determination theory (SDT). SDT is concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interference. Fear of missing out, or FOMO as we all know it, is rooted in self-determination theory. As a fan, we want to be part of every moment, just in case we miss something big. In sporting terms, it’s those nights that end up living long in the memory. FOMO is the fear of having made the wrong decision and having to live with it for the rest of your life, especially, while others from your tribe witness or experience it.


Ok, that’s enough about sport – really, I just wanted a vehicle to talk about the World Cup, but the theories discussed above can and do help play a part in helping consumers form habits with brands.

Take hope. Brands that play on the emotion of hope build a deep emotional connection with consumers based on a shared belief that things will get better. Brands that put purpose, trust, authenticity and vulnerability at their heart. In 2011, Jochen Zeitz, the CEO of Puma at the time, said: “What you cannot measure, you cannot change.” As he delivered Puma’s yearly financial results, he also stated that Puma did more than €145 million in environmental damage (water use, land use, air pollution, waste and more). It was a bold, but calculated approach, and the beginning of a more environmentally friendly collection: Puma’s InCycle collection. Today Puma is showing the environmental costs in euros on the price tags of their InCycle products, and they have already succeeded in cutting down those costs by almost 30% – an approach that has been widely recognised and envied by many.

Variable rewards are a classic tactic employed by major retailers to build a long-lasting relationship with a brand. Myer has long sent customers who are part of their Myer One platform variable rewards based on the amount they have recently spent. A moment of surprise and delight that further embeds the customer into the brand.

An example of sunk cost fallacy is the Apple ecosystem. You start with an iPod, possibly in your teens and before you know it you’ve spent thousands of dollars on everything from apps to music to hardware. You are beyond a tipping point from where it is easy to write off that cost. I myself have become one of these “Apple Prisoners’’, having realised my investment when recently considering a switch to Android.

A brand that puts self-definition and tribalism at the forefront is Nike. The ideal self means the conception of how we would like to be. Partly the ideal self is moulded by the elements of our culture. Nike positions its products as instruments of becoming something more, by helping consumers to truly define themselves. Nike helps deliver this message through the power of endorsers, often at a team level, making the brand more desirable and valuable. The brand defines me and my tribe.

While, lastly, a brand delivering on FOMO is the video game Fortnite. An absolute worldwide smash in itself, if you know someone under the age of 21, they’re probably playing it. It literally is the biggest video game in the world right now. The developers have treated the game storyline more like a television series, releasing new storylines or seasons rather than ’new versions’ and with a peak of 3.2 million concurrent players, they’ve got a huge audience. Most recently they ‘teased’ a ‘one-off’ event in-game that users couldn’t miss. So strong was the persuasiveness of the event users endured long queues just to log in to the game. The level of interest created activity similar to that of nefarious DDOS attack. The storyline of the game is constantly evolving, and this sort of one-time event feels special because it gives players a unique experience that allows them to witness a new, big change for the game’s storyline.

So, how do I bring this all back to a conclusion? Easy. Human beings are irrational beasts at the best of times. Support for a sporting team amplifies this behaviour but also offers us insights into how we can tap into aspects of the supporter psyche that will lead to better engagement with brands and the products and services that they supply.

Just think, even when your team is losing, supporters still leave, happy enough to return for the next game and do it all over and over again.

Thanks to an article by Nir Eyal , which inspired this post.


Steve Mair is BCM’s Digital Creative Director

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