June 14th, 1998. Around 4:00am. I’m glued to the TV and I’m going to witness history in the making, but I am not yet aware of this. He steals the ball from Malone. He slowly and patiently crosses the mid-court line. The game is down the stretch, in the clutch, but he’s not in a hurry. He doesn’t need to. Champions are never in a hurry. Everything is under control, under his control. He is aware he’s going to make it, no matter what. Again. No matter if all the pressure is on him. No matter if 20,000 people are screaming and yelling trying to distract him. No matter if he’s in the twilight of his outstanding, unique career. No matter if he knows he’s probably dancing for the last time. No matter if the entire world expects he’ll make it. Any different outcome would be considered a total failure. His defender on one side, he on the other. A pull-up jumper from the elbow, one of the most essential, beautiful, and unguardable moves in the game. Fundamentals at their best. Poetry in motion, someone coined. The ball is shot drawing an arc in the air. Time stops. Fans hold their breath for endless instants. Their hearts hope this one will end differently, but their brains know it won’t. His teammates know it won’t. His opponents know it won’t. Needless to say, nothing but net. His scratchproof halo of invincibility is still intact. Once again, Michael Jeffrey Jordan is on top of the world. Once again, he reminds everybody why he is the GOAT. Once again, he shows everybody why he is one of the few iconic athletes able to transcend the borders of sports. Omnipotence in flesh and blood.

Michael Jordan shooting his last shot in game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals (image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edmondleetv/5038315022)

The moment I just described is the only one I have witnessed in sports history that made me cry—by the way, I still get goosebumps nowadays when I think about it. That instant should explain why sports are so popular and powerful. After 20 years, I remember that moment vividly because it is bounded inextricably to the intense emotion I felt in that very second. This is what sports are all about as mass phenomenon. They are so potent because they root in the deepest, oldest part of fans’ brains, where irrational behaviours like feelings and emotions are born. Winning, losing, falling and rising up again, teamwork, joy, discouragement, betrayal, self-confidence, fatigue, pain, fulfilment, revenge, regret, gratification. Sports can mix up all these ingredients resulting in a perfect metaphor of life, the good and the bad. For these reasons, fans like to think about the world of sports as a pristine, idealized realm wherein their heroes—with whom they identify—fight against opponents and adversities, powered by genuine sportsmanlike spirits. This is what I thought myself when I was a kid and a teenager, while I was growing up watching and worshipping MJ and other sublime athletes. And I think it was partially true. What about today? Is there still room for such emotions in professional sports?

I have tried to answer this question after reading the graduation thesis of Francesco Saverio Fraccaro, son of my friend Walter. His work is written in Italian, so I can’t quote its original title. Anyway, it would sound something like “The Economic Impact of Signing a Top Player for a Franchise”. Fraccaro just graduated in Economics at the University of Venice. Being a sports fan, he chose a subject for his thesis that combined sports and economics. This is how the subject was chosen. In his work, he explores from an economic perspective what signing a top athlete means for a professional team—or franchise, as Americans call these organizations. The impact of such an operation is analysed in terms of:

  • revenues
  • visibility and advertising appeal
  • branding
  • merchandising
  • licensing
  • stock value (if the franchise is listed on a stock exchange)
  • multimedia rights
  • attendance and ticket prices (home and away games).

Besides these effects, there are others that are not related to the organization directly, but that are still significant. These include the impact on the economy of the area surrounding the building where the team plays home games. After a top athlete signs with a new franchise, employment rates and the number of restaurants increase in this area, for instance.

All the facts described in Fraccaro’s thesis are supported by numbers, charts, and statistics, as anyone would expect when it comes to an academic paper. In addition to general considerations based on the sizeable bibliography he checked, Fraccaro also explores a specific case, the hiring of the soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo by Juventus Football Club. The numbers related to this athletic and business decision are impressive. Ronaldo signed a 4-year contract and the overall amount of money Juventus would shell out over this period is about 340 million of Euros. At the time of writing, Fraccaro couldn’t draw any conclusions about this specific deal because Ronaldo had played for Juventus for just a few months. Nevertheless, Fraccaro managed to find out some common patterns, thanks to other similar deals that were closed years before. The most interesting to me is the “virtuous cycle rule”. This cycle consists of four items:

  • Increase in revenues
  • Increase in profits
  • New investments
  • Sports achievements such as qualifying for the final round of a prestigious tournament or winning a championship.

Interestingly, Fraccaro stresses the fact that that this cycle can start from any stage as illustrated in detail in this article cited in the thesis. For example, a franchise can manage to increase its revenues thanks to a good sponsorship contract. This leads to larger profits that can be used to make new investments and get better players, which, in turn, allows the team to win a championship. Of course, such an accomplishment boosts revenues so the virtuous cycle rule repeats again. However, it can also happen unexpectedly that an underdog team wins a championship against all odds. For instance, think about the incredible victory of the 2015-16 Premier League by Leicester City. In this case, the franchise has the opportunity to walk through the virtuous cycle starting from the last stage listed above.

Thanks to his thorough research work, Fraccaro’s paper blatantly shows what professional sports are today. The organizations that compete at the top level are full-fledged companies whose primary goal is to make money and not to win. To achieve this aim, no improvisation is allowed. These companies are run diligently and meticulously according to the most updated management theories and guidelines. Balance sheets, profits, and production costs are scrutinized cynically like the board of directors of any traditional company does on a daily basis. They master communication and marketing skills to improve their brand awareness and to increase their fans’—or to put it better, customers’—engagement. In this way, it seems there is no space for any sentimentalism like the one I recalled at the beginning of this post. But, wait a minute, every company in the world sells something. Are these franchises an exception to the rule? Of course, they’re not! So, what are they basically selling? Products? Yes, their merchandising-related revenues are significant, but it’s not their main entry on their corporate spreadsheet. Do they sell services? Not exactly. So, what in the world do they sell?

Marketing studies explain to us how our purchasing decisions are based on sensations and emotions. Once again, the irrational portion of our brain rules when it comes to deciding whether to purchase a good or not. Ring a bell? At the end of the day, I have to bring back what I took out of the equation too hurriedly. Professional sports organizations indeed operate on sentimentalism because they do sell the most valuable thing for human beings: emotions. However, they do it scientifically. They know their fans and their needs perfectly, while at the same time, these same fans search desperately for emotional and athletic thrills. By leveraging all of the most advanced marketing strategies, these organizations expand their market share by satisfying this demand. Very often, all this leads to a relationship between supporters and their favourite team/company so strong that they remain loyal customers for life, the ultimate dream of any marketing director. Sports are one of the few markets wherein this faithful bond is not only possible, but even frequent. And it’s no coincidence that in some countries this fan-team connection is even equated to a sort of religious faith, to some extent. The analogy is fitting because, by its nature, this relationship is a terrific emotional booster, just like religious faith. As explained by Fraccaro, communication plays a key role in the process of establishing such a connection. This is why today the value of top athletes is determined not only by what they can do on the court/field/track or wherever they perform. There are other skills equally important. For example, their ability of using social media cleverly to create a large community of followers who support them, no matter which team they play for, and whose purchasing decisions will be influenced by what their sport heroes do and say. Ronaldo’s numbers are astonishing in this respect: 160+ millions of followers on Instagram, 122+ millions of Likes on Facebook, and 77+ millions of followers on Twitter.

To conclude, in all respects, today’s professional sports are a sophisticated, brilliantly crafted entertainment product, in competition with the video game industry, Youtube, Netflix, etc. It’s not accidental that several professional leagues are thinking about how to change the rules of the sports they govern to make them more media-friendly. Unlike its competitors, however, sports have an invaluable advantage: they can rely on a “natural”, outstandingly strong connection with fans/consumers thanks to their uncanny capability to convey emotions[1]. I am a “victim” of this subtle mechanism as well: after the 2019 NBA finals ended, I couldn’t resist to buy the jersey of my favourite current basketball player, Kawhi Leonard. I adore this player because to me he epitomizes my beloved old-school basketball, which nowadays has sadly almost disappeared.

When I play wearing his jersey, I know I can’t miss a shot. I know that nobody can beat me. I know I’m gonna make it, and that’s a wonderfully priceless emotion.


Notes

[1] Reality talent shows are clear example of how “regular” entertainment products need to be creative to establish a strong emotional connection with their consumers, contrary to what happens in sports. It is known, for instance, that the most desired contestants for such shows are good performers who also have miserable, personal stories, cynically speaking.

Featured image source: https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/selectall/2017/03/19/Northwestern_Crying_Fan.w700.h467.jpg

Credits

I want to thank warmly Francesco Saverio Fraccaro and his father for sharing Francesco’s thesis—which inspired this post—and for proofreading the draft of this article. The thesis can be downloaded here.

Editing assistance by Dr. Emily Braswell.