October 21 saw the launch of our latest study, the Truth About Fans. Early this year, we found that 70% of people globally were looking forward to the games in Brazil, and we at McCann Truth Central were no exception, especially since it presented us with a prime opportunity to study sports fans. We all know that with the advent of technology and social media, fan behavior has changed drastically in the last few years, but we wanted to delve deeper into these changes, and reach the heart of what it means for brands.

The launch event took the form of a joint presentation between Truth Central and Octagon, the sports marketing agency within the IPG family. Truth Central presented some of the broader cultural shifts that we’re seeing among fans including:

The New Language of Fandom – In keeping with the movement of the Internet towards a visual web, fans have invented a new spontaneous, witty and highly visual language of fandom in the form of memes and GIFs. These bit-sized pieces of content are mash-ups of sports with virtually every other aspect of pop-culture, from TV to religion, and they serve the function on online repartee among a global network of fans. Whether to jeer rival fans or congratulate favorite players, this is fans’ new lingua franca. Brands need to learn to speak this language in order to best engage with fans.

Social media backlash – However, all this content creation is not necessarily welcome among all fans. Some fans say that social media is detracting from the experience of watching the game. In the words of one fan from Colombia “Social media has made the experience of watching football worse, in the sense that many people don’t pay attention to the match because they are checking their social networks.” For brands, this means that content creation is not the only way to get involved in the conversation. As the quantity and pace of social media content creation increases, there will be a greater need for a more curated sports web. Brands have an opportunity to help fans centralize and curate all their online activity for a more fulfilling sports-viewing experience.

Goodbye to Animal Psychics – With initiatives like the NFL’s Next Generation Statistics and the NBA’s STATS, Big Data is finally coming to sports. This could herald a new democratic era, enabling fans to play manager and coach to their favorite team, as they use hard stats to lobby for all sorts of decisions heretofore left to ‘insider’ experts and gurus. However, it could also lead to a sports dystopia as every match becomes infinitely dissectible, even predictable, and as fans argue over obscure statistics instead of focusing on the moments of sporting heroism and unexpected brilliance that are so crucial to making sports the magical and deeply human activity it is.

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Following the Truth Central presentation, Octagon presented a fascinating segmentation of fan behavior based on fan interactivity. While traditional segmentations have relied on self-reported avidity, Octagon’s research found that in fact, real interactivity was a much better predictor of brand love than avidity. So a fan who might describe himself as die-hard, but is less active on social media, is less likely to engage with a brand as a result of sports sponsorship than a less avid fan who is more plugged in to social media. This is a key learning for any brand interested in targeting modern sports fans.

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The event ended with a conversation between Steve Zaroff, CSO of McCann New York, and Mike McCarthy, who as columnist at ESPN, Sports Illustrated and a number of other distinguished publications provided a true insider perspective on the world of sports. They elaborated on the theme of empowered sports fans by mentioning how some fans operate very much in the mindset of manager and coach thanks to fantasy football. These bespoke teams are sometimes more important to fans than their real-life teams. Mike amused the audience with an anecdote about how the sports stars he speaks with have begun to complain about fans approaching them in the street and chastising them for ruining their fantasy football scores!

According to Mike, as fans develop this intimate relationship with players, either online (through social media) or virtual reality (through video games and fantasy football), it’s real-life access to their favorite sports starts that they’re seeking. While once upon a time, the dream for fans was to be in the luxury box and enjoy the view from the best seats in the stadium, they now want to be out on the pitch and in the locker rooms.

As fans gain this insider status, they’re also beginning to question traditional experts. Mike joked about how he has to be more careful than ever about what he’s saying as the Internet has proved so called experts are only right in their predictions half of the time, at best. Fans are quick to eviscerate you for the slightest misstep, he joked.

For brands, talking to these new fans may sound daunting, but one thing about them hasn’t changed: fans are the most likely to vocalize their passion, evangelize it to others and ultimately, spend more than non-fans. Once brands adjust to the more complex environment in which fans operate, and understand the rules of engagement, they stand to reap the rich rewards of their advocacy and loyal custom.

Methodology: The Truth About Fans is based on qualitative interviews with people watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup in 24 markets globally. Quantitative data was supplied by the Truth About Globalization study, which was fielded in 29 markets early in 2014. Lastly, a focus group was conducted with American teenage soccer fans to understand young fans’ evolving attitudes and behaviors.