Fantasy, Fan Avidity, and What It Means to Be Invested in the Game

“Nikola Jokic signed today, too.” Hearing my brother fill me in on this news had me taken aback. Why? For years, my brother was not much of a NBA fan. He knew Kobe, LeBron, the Lakers were really good and the Heat went on their big three-fueled run, but I would’ve bet a few bucks he didn’t know Nikola Jokic or Jusuf Nurkic. What happened this past year that turned my brother into a NBA fan, who was interested in the players, news, stats, games, and results?

I asked and shouldn’t have been surprised at the answer. What changed was daily fantasy.

Fan Duel, to be precise. He had a few bucks wagered multiple nights throughout the season, and was picking players who, if they performed that night, could earn him a profit. This led to checking stat lines and scores every night, keeping up with injury news, players rising and falling, which teams were the best to ride or toughest to play against, and, well, just about everything else a NBA fan would do, but without a favorite team.


It all comes down to investment. Just like a fan of the Chicago Bulls has some level of their happiness every day tied to the outcome of the previous night’s game, so do those who have money riding on the game, something to be gained or lost depending on what happened in the game. I’m certain there are academics and researchers that can delve deeper into this psychological factor making a fan a fan, but the act of investment — for the wallet, for the emotion, for the community – is the key to turning an observer into a fan.

My brother’s no doubt started as an investment of money. It may not lead him to pick a favorite team, or to start buying tickets to games, but his thirst for the news, games, stats, mobile alerts, and monitoring the games and players day to day — there is no doubt value in that for the league and the media rights holders and corporate partners working with the league. Getting someone to take that first step, make that first wager, can be crucial. Think about the fantasy leagues you’ve done — there is little doubt the ones that involved money were maintained and monitored more closely. We’ve been trained for years to mind things involving money, so a little financial investment in the game is indeed developing new fans every day.

But the most fanatical fans, the diehards, often don’t have money riding on the game. In fact, if the team performs the way the diehards want, they’ll probably end up spending more money on championship gear and playoff tickets. The emotional attachment doesn’t happen overnight, and is often developed at a young age. It becomes part of one’s identity, just like their hometown. It’s part of their daily conversation, their content diet, and how they feel about yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Every day teams are trying to build that emotional attachment at fans — capturing kids because their identity is still being formed and their hearts are open, making fans fall in love with the players and brand, giving them opportunities to build the team into their identity with caps, koozies, and tchotchkes. It gets even stronger when fans meet other fans, and as this group of fans grows, it creates a community that’s impossible to ignore.

Then there’s something about being part of something bigger than oneself, the innate desire to want be accepted and part of the community. It’s why we’re more likely to stand and cheer when everybody else is doing it, how laughter can be contagious when everybody else is laughing, and, heck, when it’s tied to sports, maybe just so your friends, family, coworkers and neighbors will be happier the next day, and to have something to talk about with them. There’s a little bit of FOMO in there, as well. So there is a lot of messaging out there that ties the team to the local identity, and certainly appeals to the feeling that everyone is in on it, so join the party.

What does this analysis and thought experiment mean for the future of sports business, fan development, and the imminent influx of sports gambling and more daily fantasy / wagering? It’s going to facilitate fans making an investment, in the sport or the player or the team. It’s not a one-way street either, fans can start with fantasy and progress to to an emotional tie-in.

The lesson to take away, and to keep in mind, is that the biggest fans are the ones that care. Sure, we love any butts in seats, but the ones that have a reason to care about the game are the ones that’ll watch more and come back for more. There’s different reasons for different fans to care, and the goal is to identify those reasons for each fan psychographic. Then, the messaging, content, and branding can flow from there. Help fans feel good about being fans, and figure how to do that your way, and under any circumstances.

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