Is the Superfan Doomed?
The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic has devastated economies worldwide. The entertainment sector may prove the most devastated of them all, when the smoke clears. Forbes recently predicted US sports leagues stand to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion. This estimate assumes the NFL can proceed with even a mitigated season.
With the NBA and MLB both choosing to continue their seasons, precautions have been taken to insure player and staff safety. Most notably, there is no fan attendance allowed in either league. Many others, including FIFA, are contemplating similar rules. On TV, the empty stadiums look like ghost towns.
These days, athletes are more than entertainers. They’ve leveraged our attention to become one of our primary sources of social influence. How will this strange new world affect their ability to influence us? Will fandom survive being left out in the cold?
The changes appear to be the new normal moving forward. No more Tissot Style Watch for Capita Arena. No more Malibu photoshoots (well, not traditional ones). No more poster snapshots taken from under the rim or behind home-plate. How will we know what they’re wearing? How will they show us? Will we care?
The silent abyss of the grandstands presents two issues. We the fans are left with no in-person memories of super-human heroics. We have only lights on a screen to admire. They, the athletes are robbed of our energy. ‘Juice,’ several players and coaches have called it. They have no juice. We have it. We give it to them. They need it.
Both issues can be summarized by a lack of shared memory. This is perhaps an overly-simplified statement, but it suits our purposes here. When two perfect strangers meet and realize they both witnessed the same iconic moment in sports history from across a stadium, a bond is formed. When a fan can tell a retired player about their glory days from the vantage of the nose-bleeds, a bond is formed.
Without those unifying memories, we lose those bonds. Without those bonds, the relationship between fan and athlete changes. Without their ‘fanaticals,’ athletes feel little difference between a workout and a game, between a shoot-around and show-time. And what is professional sport if not a show?
Will the new normal weaken our connection to our icons? League executives are supremely aware of just how valuable that connection is. To put it in dollars and cents, in 2013 the NBA spent $93.6 million on measured media. Their goal was to increase their reach as a league. In 2014 they spent twice that figure. Media pacts with Disney and TNT signed in the same year were estimated to be worth $24 billion over nine years. As a result of the 2014 moves the NBA made, in June of 2020 they were valued at $7.4 billion. To put it plainly, the NBA values the connections fans feel to their teams.
The question still begs answering. Will our connection suffer due to scarcity?
For an example we can turn to Sotheby’s auction-house, one of the premier auction-houses in the world. Before the pandemic, they had reported a surge in sports memorabilia sales. This makes sense, especially if we acknowledge the increasing influence athletes exerted pre-pandemic.
Then, earlier this year, the world shut down. The NBA did so overnight. Yet Sotheby’s had a whole slew of sports items coming up for auction. Three highly anticipated pieces anchored their sports offering. The first were ‘The Ones,’ a pair of game-worn Nike Air Jordan 1’s, valued at $200k. The second item, a 2014 game-worn LeBron James ‘King James’ jersey from the NBA’s famous ‘Nickname Game,’ was valued at around $150. The final item was a game-worn and signed 2001-02 Michael Jordan Washington Wizards jersey valued somewhere between $50-$70k.
In mid-May, Sotheby’s auctioned off ‘The Ones.’ The ever elusive Jordan 1’s were in the classic red & black colorway, and were signed by his Airness himself. The closing price for the kicks was $560,000. Later that week, the ‘King James’ jersey’s valuation swelled to $200k. Sotheby’s sensed a trend.
The auction closed on LeBron’s jersey on July 27th at $56k, 1/10th of ‘The Ones,’ and somewhere around 25% of Sotheby’s valuation. Sotheby’s ‘From the Archive’ auction continued on the 30th of July with the Michael Jordan Wizards jersey. That item closed at $36k. Apparently, there was no trend to be sensed.
Based on this example, it would seem the longer the fans are cut off from their sports idols, the less we feel connected to them. But, upon closer inspection of extenuating circumstances, such a conclusion could prove misleading. Consider ‘The Last Dance.’
In mid-April, ESPN released ‘The Last Dance,’ an episodic documentary about the 1998 Bulls. ESPN edited together hours of grainy, authentic 1980’s & 90’s game footage. You can see Jordan wearing the now legendary Nike Air Jordan 1’s in-game. The public devoured the docu-series. Jordan brand sales spiked. Even second-hand retailers like Goat felt the throttle. Evidently, it would take more than economic disaster to dissuade fans from getting their fix. By the time of the auction, the series was one episode away from the finale. The buzz was palpable. Then, the gavel dropped. $560k.
In March, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers unveiled their new jerseys for the 2020-2021 season. To do so, they used their new quarterback, six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. Specific sales numbers were not shared, but according to the LA Times, the Brady jersey spiked 3,000% in one day. As a team, the Bucs moved more jerseys than the previous 17 days combined. By these numbers, fans in Tampa showed their unwavering support. They did it with their dollars.
In May, after the NFL draft, the jersey sale leaderboard changed. Miami Dolphins first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa, rookie quarterback out of Alabama, usurped the NFL’s #1 spot. A rookie. Outselling an instant Hall of Fame-er. Both quarterbacks have multiple variations of their jerseys in the NFL’s top 10 sellers. The rest of the list includes one rookie and several players on new teams. Cam Newton, formerly of the Carolina Panther and now Brady’s replacement for the New England Patriots, is on the list.
An important take-away from the NFL’s jersey sales is the noticeable lack of nostalgia in the purchasing patterns. These are new jerseys. Some are rookies. As we all know, not all rookies work out. Even a lot of hyped-up veteran signings fail (especially in the twilight of careers). Yet still, fans are spending cold-hard cash. Clearly, NFL fans are invested in the present. Investment in the present intuitively leads to hope for the future. Doesn’t everyone hope for healthy future returns on investment?
Our athletes are far away from us. We cannot go to them. They cannot feel our energy. But, as we’ve seen, limiting access does not decrease our demand. Stating it seems obvious. But, in this strange new world, very little is obvious, especially where human behavior is involved (remember the toilet paper crisis of March 2020? What was that about?). Based on our behavior since the start of this insanity, sports fans are not too far away to care. For our athletes and the sports they play, we still care. We care deeply. Some of us care $560k worth.