Fans who cheer together can give sponsors an edge, study finds

Hayward Field track meet

Sports fans who engage with other fans they’ve never met at a multiday sporting event tend to remember the sponsors and want to attend again, according to a UO study.

“Event organizers should think about the extent to which they can develop this sense of fans’ feeling to be part of a group,” said T. Bettina Cornwell, head of the Department of Marketing and academic director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center in the Lundquist College of Business. “This can happen spontaneously, and organizers should know that.”

The study drew from interviews with 232 fans at a six-day international track-and-field event on the U.S. West Coast. The study, led by Cornwell, has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Sport Management.

Baseball, basketball and football games naturally attract loyal followers, including hometown fans, alumni and students of an event’s hosting organization. Multiday events, however, attract people from many locations.

The sporting event covered by Cornwell’s team drew athletes from 175 countries competing in 44 athletic events in front of more than 50,000 fans.

Fans arrive with interest in such an event but without a psychological connection to others. Emotions are considered powerful in sporting events, but previous studies have not considered their role in depth, Cornwell said.

Cornwell, coauthor Steffen Jahn of University of Goettingen and a team of students surveyed fans about their emotions and behaviors on the third-through-sixth days of the event. Two of the UO student researchers, Jeffrey Xie, now an assistant professor at Western Michigan University and Wang Suk Suh, a doctoral student in the business college, were co-authors.

“People at the event were engaged in various things, but also swept up in what others were doing” Cornwell said. “Inside the stadium, a group begins to cheer for The Netherlands. You may know nothing about the athletes, but you get this feeling of being part of that.”

The things people experience in and around the venue, she said, end up being part of the overall event experience.

“Even the ambush marketers — those non-sponsors with related sales booths in the surrounding area — may not be a bad thing if their presence adds to the overall atmosphere,” Cornwell said.

As group connection increased, recall of specific sponsors also increased. Excitement, joy, boredom and overall group atmosphere were emotions that had more positive outcomes for both the event and sponsors when “in-group” feeling was strong.

For instance, a major shoe and apparel company was a sponsor, but separate shoe and apparel companies whose products were relatable to the sport were selling their products outside the venue. Fans who did not feel part of a group were less likely to identify a sponsor.

“The more you feel part of a group, the more you do common things such as pay attention, be involved and want to come back,” Jahn said.

Event organizers should recognize these dynamics, Jahn said, and consider working with off-site venues that might help foster a group atmosphere.

“If surrounding activities such as restaurants and other nearby businesses are open and welcoming and doing things that connect them with the event, that can be part building the feeling,” Cornwell said.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications