Passionate Fans

Posted Aug 21, 2011

The link between fan affinity and sponsors

Note: The following research article discusses how sports partnerships relate passionate fans and brands together based on a common love for a team or organization. The Chicago Bears take great pride in their fans as well as the businesses they align themselves with through sponsorship. The goal for all is the same – to come together to cheer on the team to victory.

How fan affinity transfers to the sponsor: the case of passionate fans of the Chicago Bears

In this article, we report findings from our first study with one of our founding sponsorship research partners, the Chicago Bears.

We address two fundamental questions. First, how does fan affinity transfer from the team to the sponsoring brand? Accordingly, we examine how a property and sponsor can measure the dollar payoff from the sponsor activation strategy. Second, in the male-dominated sports audience, are females getting the brand message? This is an important question, because sponsorship categories, such as fast food, beverages, and groceries, include products where the buying decision is frequently the female head of household. Despite the advance of enlightened males in our culture, women still make over 80% of household buying decisions.

Before we answer the question regarding who’s getting the message, let’s first review how sponsorships transfer the fan’s affinity for the property to the brand and the role of the property in helping the sponsor reach its objectives.

How does fan affinity transfer to the brand?

Passionate fans devote attention to game media (broadcasts, online presence, and print publications) and attendance at events. Teams with more passionate fan bases, in terms of breadth and depth, attract more sponsorship dollars from brands wanting to associate with the property. With proper activation strategies, brands seek to transfer fan passion from the property to the brand. The emphasis is on activation—as in active in the minds of consumers and active (not passive) in terms of how fans learn about the brand. When the activation works, fans identify the brand as a supporter, partner, and member of the team. The brand thereby becomes distinct from its competitors. Research confirms consumers choose distinct brands; so, the sponsorship provides the brand with a competitive advantage in its positioning in the marketplace. The result is that more passionate fans see the team’s sponsors as more distinct and devote greater share of wallet to these brands.

Aggressive properties see themselves as partners with brands, in some cases viewing themselves as agencies working to promote and achieve a given brand’s objectives. Whether properties like it or not, they are agencies. Some may position or perceive themselves as an alternative media vehicle to communicate brand messages. To do so places the property as nothing more than delivering eyeballs. And, some properties do that pretty well. But, exposure is not why brands are into sponsorships. Prominent, well-established brands want engagement, not exposures. That’s why they pour millions of activation dollars into sponsorships, in order to engage and develop relationships with passionate fans of the property. So, back to the point of terminology, a property does act as an agent in that the team represents the brand to its fan base. The question to the property is: How good of an agency are you?

Led by Chris Hibbs, Senior Director of Sales & Marketing, the Chicago Bears are one of those aggressive properties whose partnership with sponsors means they are interested in measuring how well the property delivers on reaching brand objectives. Accordingly, following the NFL playoffs, we received responses from over 800 Chicago area residents, 75% drawn from Bears’ fans and 25% from a panel of non-fans supplied by our research partner, Socratic Technologies ( The non-fan panel is representative of the Chicago population in terms of gender, ethnic background, and age groups.

We measured fan passion for the Bears ( brand activation, brand distinctiveness, and share of wallet for anchor sponsors of the Bears. Across the board, fan passion predicts media consumption, attendance, and subsequent attitudes and behaviors associated with the sponsors. Passionate fans, compared to non-fans, have significantly stronger attitudes and behaviors toward sponsoring brands. As a way of keeping respondents honest, we mixed competing brands (non-sponsors) with sponsoring brands. Doing so also allows us to compare sponsor performance with competitors, where we also found Bears’ fans seeing the sponsors’ brands as more distinct than the competing brands. This may seem all too likely, except that these competing brands are sponsors of other teams in Chicago targeting the same upscale segments.

Are the key household decision-makers getting the sponsor’s message?

In part, brands sponsor sports to communicate to the male demographic of sports. Not surprisingly, males comprise 72% of our sample of Bears ticket plan holders. The good news for sponsors is that across the more than a dozen anchor sponsor categories we tested, passionate fans (male and female) favor sponsoring brands more than do non-fans. Non-fans are not exposed to the sponsorship, because they never attend and never watch games or otherwise pay attention to related media. In this sense, non-fans serve as our control group. Yet, when we compare male passionate fans to female passionate fans, we see some differences in the categories. Some are expected, some not so much.

We measured buyers’ share of wallet by asking, “When you buy a product in the [product/service] category, what percentage of the time do you choose [brand name]?” Buyers could indicate they never buy in a particular category.

The effect of the affinity transfer in increasing share of wallet was significantly higher among passionate female fans, compared to passionate male fans, for anchor sponsors in the fast food (McDonald’s), groceries (Jewell Osco and Meijer’s), beer (Miller Lite), and overnight delivery (FedEx) categories. Why? Basic psychology tells us we pay attention to what matters most to us. Fast food and groceries make sense, as the female head of household is likely to be more attentive to product categories in which she is the principal decision maker. Similarly, since over half of beer sales occur in the supermarket (55.8% in 2009), it follows that women are the ones most likely to select the brand of beer to put in the basket. Perhaps less obvious is that since administrative staff positions are dominated by females (99% of International Association of Administrative Professionals are female), they are likely to be the primary decision-maker for office deliveries. In sum, these findings confirm that the individual most responsible in the purchase decision for a particular category pays more attention to sponsors in that category.

The Affinity Transfer Payoff

According to industry sources, Jewell maintains 35% market share in Chicago—which approximates the percentage (36.1%) we obtained from our non-fan survey of 214 individuals otherwise representative of the market. In our sample of Chicago Bears fans, however, females who are passionate fans reported spending approximately 15% more at anchor sponsor grocery stores than do non-fans. With average monthly grocery expenditures of $1200 per household (3-4 members), each female passionate Bears fan is worth $180 of incremental revenue per month (or $2160 annually). While rough estimates, one can calculate the value of gaining 926 of these passionate Bears fans as the equivalent of $2 million in incremental revenue (926 *$2160 = $2,000,160).

The groceries category is just one good example of how the affinity transfer model truly works for sponsors. Future reports will highlight key findings from our founding partners. Later in the year we will report on NHL, MLB, and NBA findings. If your property or company is interested in developing similar research through the Center for Sports Sponsorship & Sales, publisher of The Migala Report, please feel free to contact us.

Contact information: Kirk Wakefield,; 254.710.4267.

Special thanks to J.R. Rudgers, Partnership Marketing Development Analyst, Chicago Bears.