What Drives Sports Engagement

Sports Engagement

I know I promised a posting on the scientific evidence around why so many people are passionate about sports, and I am working on it.  But, while waiting to meet with a Professor of Anthropology who has graciously offered to discuss her class on Culture and Sports, I started thinking about the drivers around sports engagement (Thanks to Suraj Rajwani for planting the seed).

The question is, what increases or decreases a persons engagement with their team or their sport?  This will be another good question to discuss with my scientific friends, but in the meantime I thought I would capture a few of my impressions.

Skin in the Game

As we all know, there is a big difference between watching a game where we care about the result, and one where we are indifferent.  The emotional connection is significantly higher in the first case, whereas the second is more of an intellectual, almost artistic, exercise.   Although it can be fun to just watch in amazement at what some of these athletes are capable of, this can wear off after a bit and doesn’t provide the emotional attachment that explains the passion inherent in sport fans.  So, if caring about the result can drive emotional engagement, what are some different reasons people care?  I think a lot of them have to do with having skin in the game.

Notre DameOne way to have skin in the game is to be publicly affiliated with a team.  When all of your friends and acquaintances know you are a fan of a certain team, then there is a correlation between the team results and your behavior.  Teams are, in essence, brands and generally iconic.  They have a mythos about them.  By associating with their team, they tie their identity to the brand.  It is a deeply personal connection.  A study done on brand communities and personal identity shows how people express themselves through their brands.  With a part of their identity tied up with their team, I would say a fan has a lot of skin in the game.


March MadnessAnother way to have skin in the game is to derive a direct result from its outcome.  March Madness started today.  What separates this particular basketball tournament from other tournaments throughout the year and the post season?  The level of engagement is extremely high, even relative to other post season tournaments such as the NIT, or even other sport playoffs such as the college world series or BCS bowl games.  What drives this?

I am sure there are many answers, but what struck me is the importance of the bracket to my personal engagement.  Without having filled out a bracket I would not be interested in any of the games outside those of my team (Go Irish!).  But, having filled one out, and sharing it with my friends and family online, now I have skin in the game.  The competitive nature of the “bracket game” itself makes all these other games interesting because their results impact my success.  Now I can watch any game of the tournament, and have a team I desire to win.  My engagement is 100x.


Sports BettingNot too different from competition, but Suraj reminded me that having money on the table is the most basic way of having skin in the game.  Whether it is a simple side bet with your buddies, or a more sophisticated routine in Vegas, a bet increases your engagement with that event substantially.  Now there is a prize waiting at the end, be it a wad of cash or just bragging rights.  This makes the outcome of the game much more compelling as it will entail a personal result.


So, how does this information impact FANZO?  Obviously, engagement is a huge goal for a consumer social community.  No engagement, no community.  Based on the information above, if we are to increase engagement with our service we should include elements of affiliation, competition and betting.  If done well, this will make more teams and more sports relevant to a single consumer, and therefore drive more engagement.  So, expect to see elements of each eventually in FANZO.  Betting will be tricky, given all the legal constraints, but I imagine we’ll come up with something interesting.  After all, bets for prestige are almost as compelling as those for money.  Just ask my fellow madness bracket players who the reigning champion is…:)

Can you think of other ways to drive sports engagement?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments…

About Paul

Startup founder, father of 3 girls, Notre Dame alumnus, agile practitioner and tech enthusiast. I love building great companies to solve cool problems.
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