Published on December 2, 2014 by Darin White  

During the 2014 college football season, Sports Marketing students and faculty in the Brock School of Business at Samford University conducted the SEC Football Ultimate Fan Engagement Study. More than 2,500 people completed an online survey that measured their levels of engagement to their favorite college football teams while others filled out surveys at actual games. The results were analyzed and compiled into the SEC Football Ultimate Fan Engagement Index. This index ranks all 14 SEC schools on their level of fan engagement and determines which school has the most engaged fan base in the conference.

“The SEC Football Ultimate Fan Engagement Index is based on the concept that highly engaged sports fans exhibit behaviors that are unique.” said Dr. Darin White, Sports Marketing Program Coordinator and Chair of the American Marketing Association Sports Marketing Academic Society (SIG). “All fans engage in behaviors like attending games, watching games, reading about their teams or purchasing team products, but only highly engaged fans exhibit behaviors that specifically benefit their favorite sports teams in a deeper way.”

It is important to note that deep fan engagement typically takes many seasons to develop. According to Dr. White, “Fan Engagement is similar to a covenant marriage relationship in that it is a lifetime commitment. This depth of relationship doesn’t develop overnight. This is the primary reason the results have Alabama and Auburn fan bases ranked lower in the list. Both teams have added thousands of new fans over the last few years thanks to the national championship success they have experienced. Our research clearly demonstrated that those new fans have yet to develop the depth of relationship that Fan Engagement measures.”

Affection, commitment, dependability, intimacy — these are the descriptions that highly engaged fans use to describe how they feel about their favorite team. They love their team as a devoted friend, a soul mate and a constant companion. When life gets tough they lean on the relationship with the team as a support mechanism and a way of finding joy in life. And like all relationships, this type of fandom doesn’t happen overnight. It typically takes years to develop. Research shows that deeply engaged fans express a sense of security and fit with the team, a long-term commitment to it, a feeling of emotional bonding, and a deep integration with the fan’s core values.

Highly engaged fans exhibit tremendous positive energy towards their team and behave in ways that support the team. For example, they take great pride in sharing knowledge about team traditions with “newbie” fans, they engage in cooperative communication in the stadium and they intentionally promote the team to others. If someone new moves to the community they are quick to seek to win them over to be a fan of their team.

Highly engaged fans are also more forgiving of team failures than other fans and are willing to defend the team’s players and coaches to their friends even though they might face criticism for doing so. Four sports business scholars (Yoshida, Gordon, Nakazawa and Biscaia) first introduced the concept of fan engagement in 2014 in the Journal of Sports Management. Our study builds off of their excellent work.

Fan engagement reflects the extent to which a fan's commitment to a team is enduring and unyielding and produces unique others-oriented behaviors that makes the fan a positive force for team success in multiple ways.

Why should we care about fan engagement?

There are numerous organizations that produce team loyalty information (ESPN, Forbes, etc.) which estimates the size of the fan base for teams based on team loyalty questionnaires. However, team loyalty is merely the attitudinal aspect of sport fans. More important to both teams and sponsors is the fans’ unique physiological social responses related to their allegiance.

How we defined who has the most engaged fans

After extensive research and debate by the students in the Sports Marketing program at the Brock School of Business at Samford University, we determined that highly engaged sports fans exhibit seven behaviors that are either unique from “normal” sports fans or significantly heightened. These seven dimensions include:

BIRGING, "Basking in the Reflected Glory": Have you ever felt absolutely fantastic when your favorite football or baseball team wins a big game? It’s as though you have personally caught the winning touchdown pass! You probably wear your team’s logo for several days, read all the newspaper and internet articles, watch the game again online and initiate conversations about the game. This is known as “Basking in Reflected Glory”’ (or BIRGing). It is the process through which we let the world know that we are associated with a successful team while experiencing a warm glow as we mentally revisit the experience. This public trumpeting of the association one has with a successful team also includes significantly heightened positive descriptions of your team coupled with negative descriptions (blasting) of rival teams.

Management Cooperation: fan's ability to show support for the decisions of the team's coaches, owner, and other staff. After a tough loss do you tend to defend questionable play calls that the coaching staff made which others think contributed to the loss? In doing so you are showing support for team management. Or maybe you post on social media in defense of a player that is being accused of unethical, off-the-field behavior by the news media. You might even feel that such actions will cause some of your friends to think poorly of you, but you do so nonetheless. These are examples of management cooperation.

Performance Tolerance: reflects a sport consumer's engagement by the display of team-related products even during unsuccessful team performance.

Time Commitment: the amount of time a fan invests in watching, discussing, and engaging with a team

Pre-Social Behavior: captures the notion that sport consumers engage in network development such as interpersonal and computer-mediated fan-to-fan helping behaviors on behalf of the team.

Social Bonding: the interaction with fellow fans via social media. Social bonding is the process of development of a close, interpersonal relationships with other fans via a mutual, interactive process through social media. This bond is characterized by emotions such as affection and trust.

Social Media Reach: the number of likes and followers each team has on their official social media accounts.

Note: This study was produced as part of Samford's Fall 2014 Sports Marketing class (MARK 301) which included the following students:  Barnard, Ethon C., Belman, Christopher H., Blount, Jamerson A., Brister, Callie D., Brown, Rebecca L., Carter, Joshua H., Dowdy, Megan E., Duval, Emily A., Fuqua, Bailey E., Gardner, Blake R., Gates, Jeremiaha, Gibson, Darius A., Goodson, Claire E., Gracia, Andres, Jackson, Andrew W., Lorentz, Jennifer L., Nettles, Brandon K., Novkov, Emily C., Patterson, John L., Shabazz, Jamal, Smith, Anna G., Swanson, Zachary M., Wesley, William H.