Evangelizing the future

Are fans of different sports qualitatively different from one another? And, if so, what difference does it make?

Because my own attachment to soccer in general came late in life and surprised me with the depth of feeling, I work with the general assumption that all soccer fans are like me, are part of what Simon Critchley refers to as the “ecstatic public” (I talk about this book so much that I am getting close to billing Critchley for the extra $2 I may added to his royalties).  And while I will not go into my arguments again here, I feel fairly solid that soccer produces a different type of emotional alignment in general than do other sports.

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That said, it’s not as if my bonds are strong regardless of what league I’m watching.  So, a more interesting question, if one is interested in the growth and momentum for Major League Soccer, would be, “Are fans of MLS as a league different from fans of other U.S. professional leagues?  And, if so, how does that bode for the future?”

Kirk Wakefield, of Forbes, attempted an answer at just this question last week, and you can find his results here.  To summarize, Wakefield surveyed around 2,500 sports fans, divided them by their favorite league and asked a number of questions to gauge how hard core their attachment was to individual teams and the league as a whole.  While you might question his methodology and questions a bit, it still provides us with a bit of insight.

The bad but completely expected news is that MLS fans only represented 3.5% of the total number of those surveyed.  The good news, however, is that, outside of fans of the NBA, MLS fans are the most likely types of fans to think their league is moving in the right direction and plan to watch more of the sport in the future.  Moreover, again, outside of NBA fans, MLS fans are the most likely to evangelize about the sport and their league.  We are also more likely to feel like we are kinfolk with other fans of the league.

All of this makes a bit of intuitive sense, right (although someone may need to explain how the NBA comes out on top of all of these categories).  It’s an exciting and marginal sport in the U.S. We fans cannot help but feel we are insiders of sorts, that we are part of something that will be big in the future. It’s a bit like being a fan of a fledging band or artist. The idea of being there “before it was huge” has its upside (although it can lead to some obnoxiously behavior and attitudes over time).  A league like the NFL is so hegemonic that it neither needs nor lends itself to proselytizers. 

The fact that it is Forbes doing this type of research is itself telling.  The author is both making predictions of future growth of leagues and is offering prescriptions for what the league might do to take advantage of this engagement (e.g., the league should highlight fan engagement programs, reward fan influencers, and integrate the idea of kinship/evangelism into their broadcasts). 

While no one wishes to feel like a tool of a marketing scheme, my guess is that we are all happy to “evangelize”, and will all be happy to see how the league and our individual teams work with us in providing more engagement.

The future is bright, my friends.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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