With the shock of Global, National and Local lockdowns around the world, the sporting landscape has changed dramatically in the last few months. While recreational sports involving social distancing seem to be acceptable in many parts of the world, competitive sport, especially team contact sports, may represent unnecessary risks for Covid-19 spread for some time. While I am hopeful that individual sports (tennis, golf, solo sailing, rowing, canoeing, time trial cycling etc) will return relatively soon, this article explores the origins of sporting brand loyalty, and the lessons we might learn in any customer-facing business.
I have often wondered how brand loyalty develops, whether product/service loyalty, national/political loyalty, music artist loyalty and especially how sporting loyalty creates tribes of fanatical fans, all desperate for their team to win!
My own sporting loyalty began in Canada, in a household like many others that loved following the National Hockey League. Having grown up in the 50's and 60's, my father was a dedicated Montreal Canadians fan, when the team created a legacy in the sport that has rarely been matched. One of the biggest rivalries in the NHL when I was growing up was Montreal vs the Quebec Nordiques and, out of resistance to my father's Habs' loyalty, I chose to support Quebec, no matter how great or poor they might be in any given season. My faith in the Nordiques was enhanced by the arrival of the Stastny Brothers (Marian, Peter and Anton), who became one of the most exciting trio scoring sensations in the league. Sadly, Quebec never lifted the Stanley Cup, until the franchise moved to Colorado and became the Avalanche where they proceeded to win two! Patrick Roy was a hero of mine at the time due to his goalie heroics, and perhaps because he was originally from Quebec City and won 2 Stanley Cups with each of the Montreal Canadians AND the Colorado Avalanche.
Most Canadians are very loyal to their local team, and many often seem to cheer for anyone playing the Toronto Maple Leafs. I suspect if the Maple Leafs made a run for the Stanley Cup, and had to beat a whole list of American franchises, Canadians would likely unite in a 'We the North' kind of way they have supported the Toronto Raptors.
My life has had the good fortune of living in a variety of cities in Canada, UK and now New Zealand. This journey has resulted in an awareness of new sports, new teams and new fan experiences over the course of nearly 50 years.
While the Ottawa Roughriders were the closest thing to a loyal franchise that I followed in the Canadian Football League, my passion for the NFL was ignited by the success of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers in the 80's which persists to this day. The most recent Super Bowl was gutting to witness the 49ers lose to the Kansas City Chiefs, even though I only lightly followed the NFL 2019-20 season.
A move to the UK meant that football (soccer) quickly became relevant to my daily life. Growing up in Canada, snow, and the very early weak infrastructure of professional soccer meant that European football was truly a revelation. While working in a London pub, I was asked, 'which football team do you support?', to which I replied - 'I have no idea, who is the closest Premier League team to where we are now?' As simple as that, my loyalty to Chelsea FC was born. From that point on, through no other rhyme or reason, I became a dedicated Chelsea fan, through Russian ownership, 'The One' managerial excellence and craziness, 5 League Titles while I lived in the UK, FA Cups etc. I am loving watching Frank Lampard (former star player) take control of the Club as manager and slowly but surely re-build much success. I often wonder why/how brand loyalty develops - perhaps a chance exceptional customer experience, being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, or simply just an admiration for excellence, in whatever form it might take.
Football World Cups now have more meaning having lived in the UK. Unfortunately, Canada, Scotland (my wife and eldest son are Scottish) and New Zealand (my youngest son is a Kiwi, and we now live in Wellington) often don't qualify, let alone have any chance of winning the whole Cup! (Secretly I support England to win another World Cup after '66!). Bizarrely, Cameroon, and any obvious underdog often become the 'team of choice' to support during a World or European Cup in our household.
Our move to New Zealand has created new appreciation for both rugby and cricket, neither of which really impacted me while living in the UK for some reason. Rugby feels much like hockey back in Canada - it is everywhere, talked about everywhere and played by all ages EVERYWHERE! It is no accident why the All Blacks are a revered brand around the world, it stems from grass roots AND an extraordinary humble and high performing culture at the very highest level. Legacy by James Kerr provides fantastic insight into the culture of the All Blacks from a leadership perspective - if you love sport, and love leadership in any context, this book is for you!
Never in a million years did I expect to really get engaged in cricket as a fan - that all changed during the 2019 World Cup final between NZ and England - the final result was crazy (England won after a Super-over?!). What was so exciting as a sports fan, was sitting on my couch at the other end of the world, watching both the NZ vs England cricket World Cup final and simultaneously trying to watch the Federer vs Djokovic Wimbledon Final. It seemed that they were conspiring to have the most climactic moment of each match happen at exactly the same time! I remember going to bed extremely tired but witness to excellence in both sports.
The final sport that has influenced my life has been platform and springboard diving. As a teenager, I had the chance to train and compete with Cygnus Diving Club in Nova Scotia, and got to represent the province at the Canada Games in Saskatoon. Following a 2-year University Diving adventure, I gave up the sport, moved around the world, met my wife, and raised two sons who are now competitive divers for Wellington Diving Club in New Zealand. Diving has brought amazing role models during my lifetime, including Greg Louganis, whose greatest memorable event was hitting his head on the 3m at the 1988 event in Seoul, and proceeding to win the gold medal! My eldest son admires Tom Daley a great deal, not only for his amazing diving, but also for his family values and the way he manages his personal brand on an international stage.
The current elite New Zealand Diving Team also provides some amazing role models for younger athletes and those who follow the sport - Shaye, Liam, Nathan, Feng-Yang, Lizzie, Yu-Qian, Anton - you are all extraordinary and the Miller family wishes you every success!!
Sports heroes not only deliver role modelling about discipline and high performance in sport, they also set examples (sometimes good, sometimes bad) in the glare of the public eye. For contrasts, think Jack Nicklaus vs Tiger Woods; Roger Federer vs Nick Kyrgios or Wayne Gretzky vs Michael Jordan. All excellent in their own right, but represent role models for very different reasons.
In the end, sporting loyalty is circumstantial and often influenced by who we are with, or where we live. The joy of sport is in witnessing excellence at the highest level, and watching and appreciating the success (and defeat) of athletes and their coaches! Our choice of brands we buy, services we access and teams we follow fundamentally depend on an Emotional Connection to the organisation, product or service, usually influenced by a highly talented person representing that brand.
How do people choose your Brand?