What is “belonging”? Why do college sports (and SEC) fans have the strongest connections to their teams?

Around ten years ago, we began working closely with pro teams and colleges to help them better understand how their fans build the strongest lifelong connections. We found that the most engaged fans were those who felt like they “belong” to their teams. They rise and fall together with the team. Fans with a greater sense of belonging attend, view, follow, and spend more than others. Beyond that, they are also more likely to stick with their teams during downtimes and pass on their love of the team to family and friends.

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Among the major US sports, college sports fans have the greatest sense of belonging. Why? The most obvious difference is that many college fans attend the school that they follow. In other words, they have a literal connection with the school. That type of bond just doesn’t exist for most fans of pro sports. Don’t assume that fans and alumni are the same thing though. Other factors help drive belonging higher with college fans.

“Aligned” fans who follow the same school for both football & basketball have higher belonging

  • When we say fans are “aligned”, we mean that they have the same school as their favorite for both college football and men’s basketball. For fans like myself who live and die with their alma mater, it seems unthinkable that fans would follow two different schools. The reality is that only half of fans with a favorite college basketball team have the same favorite college football team. Those with the same favorite team in both sports are more likely to belong.

Following college sports other than basketball or football leads to higher belonging

  • Colleges play more than just basketball and football. The more sports a college fan follows, the greater the connection to the school. Belonging jumps even higher for those who follow other sports, whether that’s baseball, softball, gymnastics, track or more.

Belonging is stronger for home market fans

  • College fans who live in the same state as their favorite school are more likely to feel like they belong than “out-of-market” fans. It’s easier for home market fans to attend games, visit campus, and connect with other fans or alumni. Part of the reason why college sports fans have stronger connections is because they typically live closer to their favorite team than fans of pro sports.

Younger fans feel like they belong more

  • The younger the fan, the stronger their bond with the team. This holds true across all sports, including college basketball and college football. The sports moments they experience as teens or pre-teens have a lasting impact and cement their connections. Younger fans are also more likely to have family and friends to share in these experiences.

Close relationships with other Avid fans lead to higher belonging

  • Avid fans are more likely to belong when they can follow their favorite team together with family or friends. The more Avid fans in the household, the stronger the belonging.

SEC basketball fans have higher sense of belonging than other Power 5 conferences

College fans have the greatest connections to teams. Within college basketball, Avid SEC fans are significantly more likely to feel like they belong to their favorite schools than fans of other Power 5 conferences. In fact, SEC Avid basketball fans are nearly 1.5X more likely to say feel “very much” a part of their favorite team than Big Ten Avid fans.

When we compare the conferences on drivers of belonging, we can see a few of the reasons why this holds true. The SEC doesn’t overwhelmingly lead in any of these categories, but they rank at or near the top across the board. They are the most likely to follow other college sports besides football and basketball (and nearly twice as likely as Avid Big Ten fans). The Big Ten ranks first in “alignment” (same favorite for men’s basketball and football) and home market fans, but the SEC is just behind in both categories. The Pac 12 has both the youngest Avid fan base and the most Avid fans in the household, but the SEC ranks second here as well. Keep in mind these are not the only factors that drive belonging. Others like team performance and family connections to the school play a role as well. It does reveal that the SEC has a relatively local, aligned, and young fan base that loves college sports across the board. The relationships between college fans and their favorite teams are likely to change with realignment, NIL, and the transfer portal over the next few years. We’ll continue to monitor to see how this impacts belonging for college sports overall and each of the conferences as they evolve.