• March 10, 2010
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

March Madness

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It’s been a while since we last explored the concept of loyalty on this page. I’m not questioning your loyalty, of course—it’s always gratifying to have readers tell me they turn here as soon as their issues of CRM arrive in the mail. Thanks for the support; the checks are in the mail, and there’s more to come as long as you keep talking me up to my editors.

It’s no surprise that professional and college sports generate a lot of loyalty among fans—in a very real sense, loyalty defines fandom. We—boys especially, but it’s becoming much more universal—are trained from the crib to root-root-root for the home team; after all, if they don’t win it’s a shame, right? Holidays and weekends are filled with sports on TV, discussions of sports by our older siblings and relatives, and even tickets to games. Kids’ early memories are cluttered with cute little uniforms, as well as cute little balls and bats and other sports equipment. Some of my juvenile kit included a football helmet, shoulder pads, and boxing gloves. The helmet was for the New York Giants, but the boxing gloves helped lead me to a lifelong fandom for the Oakland Raiders. (A casual examination of the Raiders’ annual penalty yards from the 1970s and early 1980s will explain this.)

School cements the concept of team loyalty. Some high schools spend more resources on homecoming and team tryouts than on tests and lunch. Student athletes get leeway in class attendance for practices and away games—not to mention a lenient approach to grading, especially in schools that are favorite recruiting grounds for sports-centric colleges. 

A perverse development? Well, it only gets worse. Universities are defined (and funded) not by professors or courses of study, but by their prospects in bowl games and tournaments. Look at your college memorabilia. See the dean’s face? No, but your school mascot is plastered on everything from license-plate frames to sweatshirts to credit cards. The meek (and the geek) may inherit the earth, but the hallowed halls of learning will ever be the domain of the jock.

Team sports generate such loyalty that fans might voluntarily break the law to better enjoy a team’s performance. They scalp tickets and gamble on games as though either were a right (and maybe both should be, but that’s another matter)—and they steal from their employers by using work hours for the gambling and ticket buying. Harsh, but true.

Loyalty to a sports team is like your customers’ loyalty to your brand. If you haven’t instilled in them a measure of rabid devotion, you’re not doing your job. In fact, it may even make your job easier: That loyalty allows customers to deliver a modicum of service to each other without any help from you, and bolsters your ability to provide better service to an audience perhaps more willing to forgive a brief or minor hiccup. 

Since it’s March now, let’s focus on one particular sport: college basketball, and the NCAA’s annual championship tournament known as March Madness. At any business with more than one staffer, there’s a fair chance there’s a betting pool going. You probably know the guy (or girl) passing around the tournament brackets. Maybe you’re even in the office pool already, betting on those games yourself.

Nobody’s going to get rich in an office pool, and even the serious bets won’t make much positive difference in individual finances—Vegas oddsmakers know that the only way to win at this is to skim from the action, not the outcome. Yet the betting continues. Why? Because it’s fun. Because it’s what we’ve come to expect. And because we’re loyal to our teams and it’s our way of providing a bit of customer service for ourselves. 

Now go practice your free throws, and see if you can get your customers to be your fans.

Marshall Lager is the coach and star center of Third Idea Consulting. Contact him for an autograph at marshall@3rd-idea.com, or via @Lager on Twitter.

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