By Barry Janoff
April 16, 2017: With MLB season in full swing, and with the NFL coming off a campaign in which its overall viewing and rating numbers took a hit, many people are wondering, Can baseball reclaim its position as the favorite sport among fans in America?
According to Brand Keys, it has.
Founded in 1984 by Robert Passikoff, New York-based Brand Keys has virtually defined the category of loyalty and engagement metrics and enabled countless brands, marketers, sports leagues, agencies and other clients with whom they work on a consultant basis help to make vital decisions. And, in many cases, build better products and increase profits long-term.
Brand Keys’ annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index examines customers’ relationships with 740 brands in 83 categories. Its Fashion Brand Index highlights consumer buying trends and fashion industry innovations.
And its Sports Loyalty Index delves into the reasons why fans and consumers do or don’t support leagues, teams and players, giving category decision stats and numbers on how to fill seats, build alliances and move merchandise.
To coincide with the 2017 MLB season, Brand Keys released its 25th annual Sports Loyalty Index. Among other key indicators, it showed that Major League Baseball was rated No. 1 in fan loyalty for the first time in a decade, beating out the National Football League, the perennially major league sports’ loyalty leader.
According to Brand Keys, the Top Five MLB teams with the most loyal fans are the Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Robert Passikoff and asked him to take us inside the numbers and emotions that are driving fans.
NYSportsJournalism.com: You just released the 25th Sports Fan Loyalty Index. What trends or changes have you seen over the years that have had the greatest impact?
Robert Passikoff: What has changed dramatically is the way that people bond with sports. When you look at the factors in our survey that make the greatest contribution to fan loyalty — History and Tradition (30%), Fan Bonding (29%), Pure Entertainment (21%), Authenticity (20%) — if you go back 25 years, it was almost a sure bet — no pun intended — that the win-loss ratio, what we call pure entertainment because I don’t want to call it gambling (laughs), was almost always going to drive engagement. It had the lion’s share of what got people involved.
Not to get 'airy-fairy' about how the world has changed, but when you think about it, our surveys make sense, although there is room for interpretation. But if you go back 25 years and more, sports mainly targeted men. Pure Entertainment was the win-loss ratio that drove engagement, but there was always a doorway that you had to walk into first. And a lot of times for football, and for hockey especially, that doorway led to things being more violent. It was in many ways a barrier for women. Baseball and basketball were seen as being less violent than football and hockey. And that’s why baseball usually came up as the No. 1 sport in our Sports Fan Loyalty Index. You have to go back 25 years or more to a time when baseball was the national sport.
NYSJ: How are you able to consistently track the shift?
RP: The order that fans back then based their answers on was Pure Entertainment win-loss — how well the teams played — followed by Authenticity, Fan Bonding and History and Tradition. The reason that this order has shifted (to History, Bonding, Pure Entertainment, Authenticity) is because people are looking for rituals, institutions, the things that confirm who they are. Which is why people are pissed off when someone moves a team, as has been happening in the NFL.
This applies for every category when it comes to branding. Especially with social media. Consumers are more in charge of everything than they were before. They talk to each other before they talk to the brands. They have access to information that advertisers and brands don’t control. So, for them, the things that are most personal, they like the team and the game being part of the community. They like the ritual of tribal ritual, getting together before, during and after the game. That has become most important. And that’s a big shift.
NYSJ: Is that why you see baseball being embraced again after a decade?
RP: Yes. This is my interpretation, and I’m a baseball guy, I grew up with the New York (baseball) Giants in the Polo Grounds. If you look, when the Cubs win, when St. Louis wins, Boston, it isn’t always the Yankees. People like Cubs fans can now say, 'All that time I put into supporting my team, and they win the World Series, isn’t that the greatest thing ever!' Our drivers didn’t shift immediately, but when you go back to the Red Sox finally winning the World Series (in 2004 for the first time since 1918) and then again (in 2007 and 2014), that is a good point to look at and see what has happened now, with baseball again No. 1 in our loyalty index. When teams in the smaller markets are winning, that becomes a big factor.
NYSJ: Do you directly link the NFL dropping from No. 1 to No. 3 with the franchise moves, St. Louis to Los Angeles, San Diego to Los Angeles and now Oakland to Las Vegas?
RP: Certainly. Even though the Oakland decision came after we conducted this poll, the fact that they have been talking about moving franchises as if they were Monopoly pieces has a big impact on people. I’m an ROI guy. But when we went over our data, I was surprised to see MLB No. 1, NBA No. 2 and the NFL No. 3.
NYSJ: Did you expect the NFL to fall behind the NBA?
RP: The NBA has perennially been third. So we didn’t expect the NFL to fall from No. 1, but we certainly didn’t expect them to be No. 3 behind the NBA.
NYSJ: When you talk about smaller markets, do you see the NBA moving up being tied to LeBron James, who won championships in Miami and now is doing that in Cleveland, as well as the Golden State Warriors winning the title two seasons ago?
"Cubs fans can now say, 'All that time I put into supporting my team, and they win the World Series, isn’t that the greatest thing ever!' Baseball fosters that."
RP: Exactly. It reinforces History and Tradition, where the game and the league are part of fans’ and community rituals, institutions, and then they are rewarded with a title. There also has been a shift over time regarding fan bonding. There are players who fans love. We have always had our stars. But the NFL was more focused on team rather than individual players. They weren’t seen much, if at all, in national commercials aside from United Way. That has changed recently because of new income streams. The financial paradigm has changed. Who the player is has become more important. Which is why in big part the NBA has moved from No. 3 to No. 2. You have many (NBA) players doing national commercials, getting shoe deals.
NYSJ: Is that also part of the reason that the Cubs have helped to drive baseball’s popularity in the loyalty index, because they have players such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and others who are in national marketing but also, for Cubs fans, are part of the community?
RP: Like the old days, when players from the Brooklyn Dodgers, for example, lived in the neighborhood. There is a bonding between fans and players. Baseball has been fostering that feeling. When you look at the four leagues, if you ask people who is a star in hockey, they can give you a name or two, but the truth is that on the ice they look similar because they are wearing helmets (with face guards) and you don’t see hockey players in marketing in broader markets, beyond their team city. But every star basketball player has his own line of shoes. You see them on commercials everywhere. So basketball moved up.
NYSJ: The NFL is in the same situation as the NHL in that all players wear helmets on the field, but do you think the NFL has done a better job of marketing their players?
RP: Their focus is on the super stars. The quarterbacks. Maybe receivers. And not even all the quarterbacks. The NFL can say what they want, but (TV numbers were) down before election and they were down in the playoffs (after the election).
"Consumers are more in charge of everything than they were before. They talk to each other before they talk to the brands."
NYSJ: What about soccer, MLS, as part of the Fan Loyalty Index.
RP: Honestly, it’s not big enough for us to be able to track fan loyalty. The benefit of the game is that all you need is four sticks and a ball to play soccer. You just go out and play. That’s why is it so popular worldwide. FIFA makes all this money. But the fact is that you can go anywhere and see people playing the game. But the United States is different as a market.
Every time they hold the World Cup, everyone is talking about soccer. 'Oh my god, it’s the World Cup. It’s the greatest thing. We’re doing this and we’re doing that with soccer.' America gets hot for soccer. And three months later, only the (dedicated) soccer people are talking about soccer. From a marketing perspective, where do you see them on TV? They make me search for it. They have fans but you don’t see the players around, on commercials, nationally.
They are a lot like the NHL. You go back ten years ago, they screwed up their TV contract. It was, I can’t find them here. Part of it is access. But part of it is that until they start behaving like a major league, they are in a level below, with Nascar. They generate excitement, but we’re not spending a lot of time watching these guys.
Fans Have Spoken: MLB Tackles NFL In Brand Keys Report