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Lessons in Loyalty from the Sports Industry

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By: Michael Harris, Senior Principal CX Consultant at Oracle |

Posted on June 4, 2024

Blending connections, shared experiences, and the collective celebration of identity to create customer loyalty – a collaboration between James Davies, Mando Connect and Michael Harris, Oracle.

The time, the money, the energy fans put into their favourite teams and leagues over their lifetime is unparalleled. Feeling the elating highs from a win and the crushing blows from a defeat, fans are part of the DNA of the Sports Industry, and their loyalty is unwavering.

The sports industry uniquely defines fan loyalty by its enduring, intense nature, often inherited across generations. Fans visibly support their favourite teams and are emotionally impacted by the game's outcomes, yet their loyalty remains dedicated, and largely unaffected by a competitor.

“Fan engagement strategies benefit the fan in terms of access, enhanced experiences, and rewards, while the brand benefits from increased engagement, revenue, and “fan” lifetime value.”

Simply put, fans are deeply invested. However, nothing is a given, and teams and leagues are recognising fans should be rewarded for their loyalty through fan engagement strategies. Not only do these strategies benefit the fan in terms of access, enhanced experiences, or rewards, but the brand also benefits from increased engagement, increased revenue, and greater “fan” lifetime value.

Brands looking to continuously seek innovative strategies to engage and retain their customers should look towards the sports industry and fan engagement for how to not only gain an advantage against the competition but to turn their customers into diehard fan-level devotees and advocates.

In this article we examine three proven fan engagement strategies to do just that.

Knowledge is Loyalty (Education)

Enthusiasm and fan investment grows with knowledge. When fans understand the ins and outs of a sport or the history and heritage of a team, their experience transforms from casual spectating or peaked interest to active participation and identity defining. It is crucial to recognise that fans are at different stages of their fandom with varying levels of knowledge.

With knowledge, the fan feels a part of something bigger than themselves. Not only providing the fans with information in a one-way street, but by allowing fans the opportunity to apply their knowledge and enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the sport.

When customers understand the "why" and "how" of a product or service, their loyalty solidifies. They're no longer just consumers; they become savvy enthusiasts, well-versed in the brand's language and offerings, now equipped to make informed decisions and in turn building a stronger connection between members and the brand.

Another way that loyalty marketers can use fan education is by creating exclusive content that is only available to members. This could include behind-the-scenes videos, interviews with company executives, or sneak peeks at upcoming products or promotions.

The more fans know, the more invested they become. With each new piece of information, a fan is not just watching a game; they're interpreting it, predicting it, and feeling a part of it. This level of educated engagement is powerful, creating a fun and rewarding environment that fosters long-term loyalty. Brands can harness this same power, ensuring that with every bit of knowledge gained, customers find a new reason to stay engaged, satisfied, and loyal.


  • Knowledge transforms fans from spectators to active participants.
  • Brands should cater to Fans in recognition of their different knowledge stages.
  • Informed fans engage more deeply, feeling part of a larger community.
  • Educating fans about products builds loyalty and transforms them into brand enthusiasts.
  • Exclusive content enhances the sense of value and deepens brand appreciation.
  • Knowledgeable engagement fosters long-term loyalty and a rewarding fan environment.

Case Study: FC Barcelona “More Than a Club” Philosophy

FC Barcelona, one of the world’s most beloved football clubs, has a motto that encapsulates their approach to fan engagement: "Més que un Club" or "More than a club." This philosophy extends beyond the pitch, aiming to educate and integrate fans into the club's culture and history, fostering a deep sense of loyalty.

Barcelona’s approach to fan education is multifaceted. From their museum and Camp Nou tours, immersing visitors in the club’s history, values, and identity, to taking educational steps further by creating Barca Universitas. Courses and masterclasses that cover sports science, medicine, marketing, and leadership in sports managers. By doing so, they not only educate their global fanbase but also contribute to the broader field of sports education.

FC Barcelona's educational strategies demonstrate how teaching fans about a sport’s intricacies and a team’s heritage can transform their engagement into a lifelong commitment. The club’s initiatives have successfully turned casual supporters into educated fans, who are not just followers of the game but active participants in the club's legacy. Brands can learn from this approach, recognising that an informed customer is an engaged and loyal advocate, deeply connected to the ethos and success of the brand.

“Brands can learn from FC Barcelona that an informed customer is an engaged and loyal advocate”

The Heart of Loyalty (Emotional Connection)

“Emotion is the biggest driver of loyalty. Emotion, how an experience makes a customer feel, has a bigger influence on loyalty to a brand than ease or effectiveness.”

- Forrester

Emotions are the lifeblood of fan loyalty and fan emotion is a direct result of their investment with the sport or team. Through their investment, each fan has their own narrative, from how they became a fan to why they remain loyal today. The sports industry excels in providing outlets for fans' emotion and passion to thrive and be celebrated.

Creating a sense of belonging and loyalty is crucial. Strong emotional connections are important because, while a single bad experience can lead a customer to switch brands, fans are more forgiving. Their emotional investment creates a buffer against disappointment, leading to higher tolerance levels and a greater likelihood of positive action.

A fan always has something to say. Sports teams often face the challenge of keeping fans engaged even when the season is over. They tackle this by maintaining communication, providing off-season content, and engaging with fans through different mediums, whether it be through their social channels or bespoke platforms.

Brands, too, must find ways to sustain emotional connections even when the customer is not actively purchasing. Engaging content, interactive social media presence, and regular updates can keep the brand in the customer’s heart and mind during "off-season" periods. This continued connection only builds and strengthens the community further.

In Mando-Connects 2024 loyalty whitepaper ‘’What the British want from Loyalty Programmes 4.0’’. 20% of Brits say it’s Emotional Bonds that matter the most. They want personally driven benefits that make them feel known and recognised - like personalised user experiences or VIP access to special events. In their 2024 Global Customer Loyalty Report 2024, Antavo found that 52% of loyalty programme owners hoped their programmes would become more emotional rather than rational in the future.

Ultimately, the goal is to transform a transaction into a personal and emotionally significant experience, crafting emotional moments that customers can add to their own story. By doing so, brands can win not just the wallets, but also the hearts of their members, securing profound and enduring loyalty.


  • Fans have unique narratives tied to their emotional investment in a sport or team.
  • Strong emotional connections create a sense of belonging and loyalty.
  • Emotional investment buffers against disappointment, leading to higher tolerance and positive action.
  • Brands can emulate sports by celebrating milestones, social proofing, and crafting campaigns that resonate with customers' values and aspirations.
  • Cultivating rituals and symbols, like iconic products or events, can evoke strong emotional responses.
  • Sustaining emotional connections during "off-season" periods is essential for long-term engagement.
  • Emotional bonds are a key driver of brand loyalty, with many loyalty programs aiming to deepen these connections through personalised experiences and special access.

Case Study: NBA – “NBA ID”

The NBA's introduction of the NBA ID serves as a prime example of how sports leagues can utilise digital platforms to forge deeper emotional connections with fans. By providing personalised experiences and exclusive access to content and benefits, the NBA has leveraged NBA ID to turn casual viewers into passionate, engaged fans who feel a personal tie to the league and its players.

The customisation options available through NBA ID ensure that fans are regularly engaged with content that resonates with them on a personal level. Whether it's following their favourite team's journey through the season or getting the latest updates on players they admire, this tailored content creates a more intimate fan experience. By engaging with highlights and stories of their chosen idols, fans develop a deeper emotional investment in their sports heroes and the narratives surrounding them.

Perhaps most significantly, the voting features associated with NBA ID give fans a sense of empowerment and influence over league moments, which is a powerful driver of emotional connection. When fans participate in making decisions that affect the league, such as voting for award winners or All-Star players, they feel a part of the NBA's inner fabric, cementing their emotional bond with the game.

Additionally, the ability to earn and share digital badges across social networks allows fans to publicly display their loyalty and passion for the NBA. These badges act as symbols of the fan's identity and affinity with the league, reinforcing their emotional ties not just to the NBA but to a community of like-minded enthusiasts.

NBA ID is more than just a membership, it's an avenue for emotional engagement. It transforms the fan experience from passive observation to active participation, with personalisation at its heart. The platform recognises and celebrates the individual fan's role in the broader community, leading to a stronger emotional connection and a more vibrant, loyal fan base. This case study is a testament to the NBA's understanding that emotional connections are built on personal experiences, community involvement, and a sense of belonging, all of which are nurtured through the NBA ID.

Their Voice, Your Brand (UGC, Co-Creation)

Sports marketers have long recognised the power of user-generated content (UGC) in promoting fan engagement. Taking a fan level of education and emotional connection and amplifying their investment, from participant to contributor, and as a result providing an outlet for the fan to express their passion in their own way.

“Co-creation and UGC initiatives invite fans to be a part of something bigger than themselves”

Co-creation and UGC initiatives invite fans to be a part of something bigger than themselves, such as contributing to the design of merchandise or participating in decision-making processes through polls. This sense of ownership increases their emotional stake in the team's success and failures, fostering a deeper connection that transcends the typical consumer-brand relationship. This approach not only generates innovative ideas but also builds a community of brand advocates who feel valued and heard.

User-generated content in sports, from fan reaction videos to hashtag campaigns, showcases the authentic experiences and emotions of the fan base. UGC acts as a powerful tool for storytelling, capturing the highs and lows of the season from the fan's perspective. This authenticity resonates with the wider community, encouraging further engagement and contributing to a shared sense of identity.

Recognition plays a crucial role in reinforcing fan loyalty in sports. Teams often spotlight fan-created content, celebrate contributions through social media shoutouts, or offer exclusive rewards for participation. This acknowledgment not only validates the fan's effort but also strengthens their emotional and psychological commitment to the team. Brands can adopt similar tactics by acknowledging and rewarding customer contributions.

By leveraging co-creation and user-generated content, brands can foster deeper emotional connections, turning customers into passionate brand ambassadors. This approach not only elevates customer loyalty but also transforms them into active participants in the brand's story, building a community of shared interests and passion.


  • UGC transforms engagement; fans become contributors, enhancing their investment and emotional connection.
  • Co-Creation builds ownership, involving fans in decisions fosters a deeper connection and sense of belonging.
  • Authentic storytelling through UGC captures genuine fan experiences, enhancing community engagement.
  • Recognition reinforces loyalty by acknowledging fan contributions, validates their efforts, and strengthens commitment.
  • A blueprint for brands, sports industry strategies provide a model for cultivating loyal, engaged customers.

Case Study: Oracle Red Bull Racing – “Make Your Mark”

The "Make Your Mark" campaign elevated fan engagement by offering a unique opportunity: the chance for fans to design the car liveries for the team’s vehicles in the three U.S. races. This initiative aimed to deepen the connection between the team and its global fanbase, demonstrating Oracle Red Bull Racing's appreciation for their support and passion.

Oracle Red Bull Racing's "Make Your Mark" campaign was a resounding success, blending fan creativity with exclusive, immersive experiences. By moving beyond traditional engagement methods, the team not only celebrated its fans' passion but also solidified its position as a fan-first, innovative brand in Formula 1. Illustrating the profound impact of allowing fans to contribute directly to a team's identity, creating a sense of shared ownership that resonates on a global scale.


The sports industry exemplifies a pinnacle of loyalty that businesses across various sectors aspire to achieve. There are many examples that brands can take from the sports industry to masterfully craft a model of loyalty that is deeply rooted in educational engagement, emotional connections, and a culture of co-creation, inviting customers to play a pivotal role in their narrative.

From FC Barcelona's "More than a club" approach, fostering knowledgeable advocates, to NBAs “NBA ID” programme, enhancing emotional bonds through digital innovation, to Oracle Red Bull Racing's "Make Your Mark" campaign, which empowers fans to leave a lasting imprint on the team's identity, the strategies implemented across the industry underscore the transformative power of fan loyalty.

Ultimately, the sports industry shows that loyalty is not a static achievement but a dynamic, ongoing relationship. It is built on the pillars of emotional investment and active participation, supported by a foundation of knowledge and education. This not only elevates customer engagement but also cements a durable loyalty that transcends the transactional nature of business, much like the unshakeable allegiance sports fans have for their teams. Whether on the field or in the marketplace, the true essence of loyalty is made on the foundation of connection, shared experiences, and the collective celebration of identity and passion.

“The sports industry shows that loyalty is not a static achievement but a dynamic, ongoing relationship”

Expectations will only continue to rise, and it is no longer enough to just satisfy; you need to exceed those expectations. Fans expect this, and customers do, too. Brands that understand and implement these lessons from the sports industry will find themselves not just with customers but with fans who carry the torch of their legacy forward.

Editor’s Note:

Michael is a Senior Principal CX Consultant at Oracle, with over 14 years of experience in CX and Marketing, and is a thought leader in the evolution of CX and Marketing. His experience spans work to influence the biggest brands globally in Sports, Retail, Finance, Travel, and Media, such as Oracle Red Bull Racing (The Paddock) and SailGP (The Dock).

Michael specialises in placing the customer and fan at the core of everything and is adept at blending analytics with a deep understanding of human dynamics. Through his innovative approach, Michael is shaping the future of CX and Marketing, consistently delivering impactful results for his clients. A favorite mantra that he shares with clients is “When loyalty is the goal, experience is everything.”