I’ll admit that as a rabid sports fan, I’m old-school. My personal journey to fandom began as a participant, who learned to appreciate the rules and strategy and quickly recognized quickly the truth of the adage “There is no ‘I’ in team.”
Today, as a sports marketing researcher, with a literal front-row seat to the inner workings of sports franchises and leagues, those early lessons -- coupled with a recognition that so much of success is attributable to hard work and taking personal responsibility for your actions -- have only been amplified.
Research has also shown that these values inherent in sports carry a lot of weight in driving the highest levels of fan engagement and long-term customer value. I’ve often reflected that one of the strongest differentiators of college sports has been its ability to go beyond individual athletes and build fan communities around the schools themselves. We’ve found that escapism and personal connection to a sport or franchise and its place within that broader community are the most enduring drivers of fandom.
Yet I continue to roll my eyes at the incessant push toward the deification of individual athletes at the expense of the sports and teams themselves. Teams win championships, not media stars. But too many continue to embrace a lazy narrative that revolves around a cult of personality.
This stat from Axios says it all: In the last 50 NFL drafts, 44 quarterbacks have been selected first, second or third. Only two went on to win Super Bowls as starters for the teams that drafted them. But every year around the draft, we are subjected to sports talk obsession about “generational talents.”
I’ve been witness to the phenomenon that is Tiger Woods. There's no denying his impact on golf and the broader popular culture. But that doesn't excuse ESPN from running a tone-deaf promotional spot for its “First Take” show on the Wednesday before the Masters Tournament, with a blaring headline asking if Woods will ever win again, as Tiger sits at home recovering from his auto accident. I concur with my former colleague, John Hawkins, who called this “another example of how [ESPN’s] crush on famous athletes basically has destroyed whatever journalistic sensibilities it once possessed.” Any golf fan worth his salt to a sponsor knows that The Masters stands above any individual.
I totally understand that star worship and creation has been a strategic response to the incessant push for ratings. But even if such a push does bring in some younger and more casual audience, how valuable are those eyeballs to a sponsor, if they aren’t engaged and committed to the foundational essence of what makes sports unique to other entertainment properties?
From a data-driven perspective, I can assert that a lot of those incremental eyeballs fail to drive sponsor ROI, and the unjustified hype is actually detrimental to building long-term customer value among core fan segments who feel elevating hero worship above all else undermines the core of their engagement.