Last month in this space, I alluded to some of the ongoing conversation that suggests that a political agenda at “The Worldwide Leader” is in part to blame for a viewership downturn that may have precipitated ESPN’s recent workforce reduction. Both the spin doctors in Bristol and their detractors have each been quick to confront this assertion by sharing contradictory survey results. In one corner (dare I say, “the left corner?”) is ESPN, citing research that shows that sports fans do not consider their coverage to espouse a liberal bias, whereas I’ve also seen a recent survey that showed some 60% of sports fans begging to differ. Our research firm has stayed out of this specific empirical debate. That said, we have done enough research on sports fan attitudes to posit the conclusion that stoking such a conversation, regardless of which side of the aisle you walk down, is probably a poor idea if you make your living marketing sports.
In other words, Gary Holmes was spot on in his June 8thMedia Daily Newscommentary, when he suggested that we “save the politics for the ballot box.” As a sports marketing researcher, I can echo his position that sports is a great escape, a diversion from the 24/7 social and mainstream media barrage that overanalyzes everything, often antagonizing those who feel otherwise in the process. I needn’t look any further than my Twitter feed to recognize that there are countless people that have still not moved beyond the divisive and confrontational banter that marked the most recent Presidential campaign. And I needn’t look beyond numerous studies that we have conducted to also conclude that sports fans, for the most part, are looking to avoid the partisan vitriol when it comes to embracing their favorite teams, athletes and sports.
In a series of over 40 attitudinal statements that we have posed to a national sample of avid sports fans for the past eight years, we consistently see the lowest agreement scores surrounding those that suggest, “I’m interested in learning more about the private lives of top sports stars (less than 6% strong agreement in 2017)” and “Once an athlete becomes a public figure, it is acceptable for his or her private life to be open to public scrutiny (15%).” Other proprietary studies that we’ve conducted for multiple teams, sports media and governing bodies affirm that sports is an “oasis” from the day-to-day stresses and noise that pervades society.
One of the most significant fan drivers has been shown to be sports’ role as a lever that brings together people of diverse opinions and backgrounds, through a communal bond built on affinity for the sport or team itself. Charles Barkley was correct when he said that he wasn’t a role model. Just more than a quarter of sports fans in our aforementioned omnibus study strongly believe that professional athletes are role models.
In an even more recent project for a professional franchise, we heard many fans articulate their personal difficulty in identifying with the players on their home team because they perceived them to be mercenaries who followed the money and did not often set the best examples in their community. So, why has there been so much clamoring to get athletes to speak out and take controversial or extreme positions that can only fuel the polarizing divisiveness that makes mainstream news coverage often difficult to watch? Is this another example of “media elites” listening only to their own echo chambers that suggest that the audience covets this type of coverage?
Our research suggests that sports is about optimism. Less than half of fans surveyed in January strongly believed that the Warriors were going to win the NBA title. It’s about the unprecedented upset, hope springing eternal when pitchers and catchers report, my unwavering belief that my beloved Tennessee Titans will win a Super Bowl before I die. And sports fans are particularly optimistic. Our most recent fan omnibus showed four-year highs in fan agreement: that they expected their retirement would be more comfortable than that of their parents; that there was greater job security; that making large discretionary purchases was less difficult, and that they expected to take a major vacation this year. Such confidence does not mesh with diatribes that the world is going to heck in a hand-basket. Rather, it sets the stage for the escapist and aspirational marketing activation that is unique to sports.