Thought Piece | Human Behaviour

Making a moment: Unlocking the emotion that drives sports fandom

Author: Lee Gibbons
Date: 21/02/23

Making a moment: Unlocking the emotion that drives sports fandom

“Put your phone down and enjoy the moment”. I have children old enough for their own phones, so I am in no way a stranger to that comment.

And I know I am fighting a losing battle, certainly when you see the above shot from earlier this month that was all over the internet. LeBron James breaking the NBA’s all-time scoring record, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and every fan in the stadium, except for Nike CEO Phil Knight, more focussed on capturing the moment on their phones than taking it all in with their own eyes.

I also know I’m a hypocrite for saying it. I’ve spent the last 20 years in sports marketing, the majority of which has seen digital and social marketing at the centre, working to land new ways to engage fans through the device now constantly in their hands. For a long time, insights have suggested the driver here is social approval or ‘social kudos’. Being the first to see something, post something or share something, especially if you are there to capture it live, as I thought was being demonstrated by those fans at the


We have a unique approach to creative activation at Sport UNLIMITED. We use our Human Understanding Lab and the neuro- and behavioural science expertise that it holds, to go beyond what consumers ‘say’ and ‘do’ and understand how they ‘feel’. When we apply that thinking to sports fandom, it means we can unlock the non-conscious emotions and motivations that drive fandom. When you know ‘why’ a fan is a fan, i.e. the underlying reasons that even they find hard to articulate, you can deliver a whole new level of engagement.

Our Lab recently conducted a webinar, How to optimise sports marketing: Unlocking the emotions that drive fandom. This was focused on a nationally representative piece of research looking at fans from 8 different sports, across different audience segments and different levels of fandom, and the implicit drivers that fuelled their fandom.


Belonging is that intrinsic desire to connect to, or be a part of, something bigger, and being a fan offers that immediate connection as part of a wider group. Belonging was one of the four core drivers of fandom we saw consistently across all sports and all groups.

Conversely social approval was consistently one of the least stated human needs that sport fandom addresses. While in other walks of life, status, popularity, and reward amongst our peers are drivers of our decisions, it seems that we aren’t looking for that from our sports fandom.


In addition to belonging, the core human needs that were met through sports fandom, across all sports and segments were:

  • Play: the more traditional thrill, excitement and adrenaline inducing moments that sport throws up.
  • Pleasure-seeking: that dopamine hit. Hedonistic escapism. Getting lost in the sport we love.
  • Novelty: our need to be surprised by the unexpected. Never knowing what will happen next or what the heroes on the field of play can do.

So, there are other reasons leading fans to capture these moments on devices

It’s about extending the opportunity or holding on to it for longer that drives the need to capture it. Freezing the memories and being able to revisit those thrilling exciting moments that got our hearts racing.

It’s about escaping the mundane, seeking pleasure at a time when we most need to get lost in the sport we love. We can remember when we were part of something great, with like-minded individuals whom we didn’t even know, but together experienced something that had never happened before. We were part of something bigger and we have the memories recorded.

Even if this revisiting may never happen, in the heat of the moment, the urge to save it for later and hold on to it for longer, drives us strongly and tells us to capture it.


It’s essential rights-holders and sponsoring brands take into account these implicit needs when trying to engage their fans. The traditional metrics: understanding who the fans are, and what they do or say, are still important, but disregard how they ‘feel’ at your peril.

This insight can have a tremendous impact on fan engagement. Instead of enabling social approval, brands should focus on bonding and using memories to feel the thrill again, at the touch of a button. It gives back control to the fan, empowers them. Brands that can do that will win their hearts as they reach them on deeper, more emotional levels.

But of course, the strength of the emotional drivers varies for fans of different sports and fans of different demographics. Not all fans are alike. If you would like to understand that further… you know who to call. Drop me a line at

For more information around our findings, check out our on-demand webinar here.