Take a close look at the fans in the stands at the next NFL game in the UK. Or the next exhibition match of Premier League teams in the US. Or when there’s an NBA game in Mexico. What you’ll notice is a virtual rainbow of team jerseys—fans representing a variety of teams from the league or even the sport at large.
They may not be watching their favorite team, but they look to their left and right and recognize they’re in a special club, and they finally have an opportunity to congregate with fellow club members. They may not cheer for the same team, but there’s a sense of unity, still, as fans of the league or sport in a country where such fans are in the minority for now. These are revelations that Harry McIntire has witnessed throughout his career, building up fan bases where they largely didn’t exist before. And yet something magical happens when fans recognize a familiar peer, even if they’re wearing a different club’s crest.
“There is this natural commonality and this bond of being a fan of the sport or the league in particular,” said McIntire, who is the Director of Digital and renowned agency SPORTFIVE. “I think the perfect representation of what this is in America is the Premier League Fan Fest…
“There is this interesting bond that forms as a soccer fan (in the US) because you’re a fan of the same sport that is a bit niche still, and you can have this kind of a natural commonality of having to search hard to find all the best information on your favorite team or see what all the transfer rumors are because…you’re not getting it on all these traditional outlets in the same way you’re getting after the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and so on…”
But cultivating a fanbase of a minority sport isn’t just about connecting existing fans, it’s about developing new ones to join the fold, too. The goal is not to have the sport or team or league remain underground, but to find ways to bring more fans in and foster an ever-growing fanbase to blossom. And just like there are these intersections of commonality among the existing ‘punk rock’ fans, there are points of intersection where future potential fans can find their way onto the path to fandom.
McIntire gave a poignant example of US Soccer star — who plays for Premier League team, Chelsea — Christian Pulisic, who also happens to be a New York Jets fan.
“So when [SPORTFIVE] helps the New York Jets internationalize to the UK market, as they were one of the winners of the [NFL’s international marketing rights for the UK], one of the first things we tried to do was work with Christian [Pulisic],” McIntire explained.
“It was a no-brainer…Now we can work with him to try and communicate the message of the NFL game of what the Jets are in that market and have this soft entry in to potential fans.”
Pulisic is not just a potential familiar face to drive fans to sample the NFL, he represents an opportunity for American sports fans to find a familiar face, a point of intersection with the English Premier League and the sport of footba — I mean, soccer, at large. International players are a meaningful entry point for sports fans in countries abroad to fall in love with the team, the sport or both.
Think about how many South Korean sports fans love Tottenham and the EPL because native son Son Heung-min is among their top players. Or why so many sports fans in China started watching the NBA when Yao Ming burst onto the scene, many of them becoming Houston Rockets fans (though the passion of Chinese fans for Kobe Bryant is incredible, too). For teams hoping to build an international fan base, activating around a native son can be a powerful arrow in the quiver. But it can’t be everything; it’s a foot in the door, but the goal is to develop fans that fall in love with the entire team.
“Fans are smart. They do research on their own because they’re just excited and interested in the club,” said McIntire, discussing SPORTFIVE’s work with German top-tier club Borussia Dortmund (aka BVB). “If we were marketing to the US market by just putting (American player) Gio Reyna in every single place possible, we’d be missing the boat because there are people who became fans of the club because of Gio or because of [former Borussia Dortmund player] Christian [Pulisic]. But at the same time, they’re now BVB fans…
“So yes, the player might be a vehicle at the beginning to try and get someone excited about a club, but it’s not the end goal. The end goal is how you turn into a fan of the club itself.”
Look, it is different for fans that live in the club’s home area. They are surrounded by a town full of fans of the same team, they can go to the historic grounds and see the team in person, and they can see the organization and its activity in the surrounding community. But just because it’s different that doesn’t mean fans around the world aren’t significant and can’t be just as passionate and dedicated. It’s just different.
But there’s something that’s common to pretty much any and all sports fans — they want to know the club sees them. That they matter and that the club will engage and serve them just as they do for those back home.
“[Making] a fan feel appreciated is always the goal. Because people wanna be heard…” McIntire said, discussing his work developing international fans through a localization strategy. “[These teams] are cultural representations of the local identity.”
There’s a magical point on the fandom path at which the team or league becomes part of one’s identity. It doesn’t happen overnight, nothing truly significant does, but each impression, feeling, touch, and tweet accumulates. There is no magic pill that makes a fan a fan, let alone a fan for life. It’s all of what was discussed in this article — and then some. The way McIntire put it, the strategy is like stacking a lot of pebbles, with the occasional boulder of a tentpole event or mass-gathering, to construct fandom.
“When I think about social, it’s like that daily grind, that pebble, if you will, that’s just building up and you just gotta keep doing it day after day after day,” said McIntire. “You know, you’re looking six months from now, you’re gonna be so impressed that you built a mountain of pebbles, but you shouldn’t forget you can have those tentpole moments where you can build a mountain purely by doing something amazing and massive…
“So just creating those tentpole moments that can collaborate with those pebble ones, so pebbles vs. boulders in a way, allows it all to synchronize together.”
There are reasons that sports fandom conjures up some of the most intense emotions humans can feel. There’s a sense of identity, unity, family, and appreciation. And there’s a powerful synergy when that all comes together, an everlasting flame of fandom alights, burning for generations to come.