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By Chuck Leddy
| January 31, 2018
Bobby Orr flies through the air after scoring the 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal. Kevin McHale clotheslines Laker Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals. Keith Foulke leaps heavenward as he ends the 2004 World Series. Malcolm Butler picks off a pass to save Super Bowl XLIX.
Will Super Bowl LII create a new moment of New England sports lore?
There’s no question great moments are one of the reasons why Boston is regarded as one of the great sports cities in America. But are they the only reasons? Or are there other factors—that have nothing to do with winning and losing—that make a great sports city?
This is the sort of fun, fascinating, and even philosophical question that’s perfect debate material for the faculty at UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management, which celebrated its 70th year in 2017 and is in the midst of building a new $62 million Business Innovation Hub. After all, Isenberg’s renowned Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management has produced a number of prominent alumni, including former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington, Cleveland Cavaliers GM Koby Altman, and PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan. And the world of sports analytics has never been bigger in driving decisions that teams make.
So we asked Isenberg sport management professors and alumni what their research has shown for what drives Boston’s sports passion. Their answers ranged from obvious to out of left field.
1. Winning helps
Let’s get the most obvious reason out of the way. Fans like winning. This century Boston has won more championship titles (10) in the big four professional sports (baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey) than any other U.S. city this century. And each team has won at least one title. When you look at the all-time list of sports titles, only New York has won more than Boston (New York also has two teams in each sport, and its two football teams play in New Jersey. But we digress). As Isenberg Assistant Professor Liz Delia explains, “Having so much success strengthens fandom and the idea that you live in a great sports town.”
More proof of “fandemonium” in Boston? The Red Sox recently set a Major League Baseball record with a sellout streak at Fenway Park of 820 games. And if you want to purchase season tickets to the New England Patriots, don’t expect it to happen in this lifetime. The waiting list is said to be more than 50,000 strong.
“Having so much success strengthens fandom and the idea that you live in a great sports town.” – Liz Delia, Isenberg Assistant Professor
2. Intergenerational tradition
New England is steeped in history, right? Well, so are New England’s sports teams, whose fanbases cut across generations. The Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots all have roots that go back to the earliest days of their leagues. That means kids who are fans today have parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were rooting 50 years ago or more, just like they are now.
Tradition kindles passion. “Boston is unique because you have four major teams that each go back to the origins of their particular leagues,” says Director of McCormack Center for Research & Education at Isenberg Will Norton.
He’s not kidding. The Red Sox were founded in 1901, the Bruins in 1924, the Celtics in 1946, the Patriots in 1960.
“Fan passion binds communities across multiple generations of families and friends,” Norton says. “Even when your team is losing, you’re still part of that multi-generational community.”
3. Innovating within tradition
Boston has always blended tradition and innovation. “When the current Red Sox ownership group came in, they realized Fenway Park was the greatest asset we had,” says Isenberg alumnus Chris Valente, director of sales at Fenway Sports Management. “We had to make changes while maintaining this Crown Jewel.”
Now Fenway has become a 12-month venue for multiple events rather than just baseball games. “We’ve used Fenway for Bruce Springsteen concerts, The Winter Classic, Notre Dame football, and other events,” Valente says. “The Harvard-Yale football game will be happening here next season. We’re always looking to open up access to Fenway in ways that respect its rich tradition.”
More recently, Boston newcomer General Electric partnered with the Celtics to do a lot more than place a sponsor patch on the uniform. GE is also working with the team to provide better data and analytics for the team to monitor its players. It’s the definition of an old-school team like the Celtics embracing new-age technology.
4. Creating our identities
New Englanders relocate to other parts of the country like everybody else. But they never lose their emotional connection to the region’s teams, no matter where they are living. Sports can bring the entire community together, far beyond the latest Duck Boat celebration. “When the Boston Marathon bombing happened a few years back,” explains Delia, “we saw people rallying around the Red Sox, using the team as a way to feel a sense of connectedness during tough times.”
Fans also express individual identity through sports. “A highly identified fan actually sees the team as part of their in-group,” says Professor Janet Fink, Sport Management Department Chair.
In a 2015 study that Fink helped lead looking at why sports fans were attending fewer games in person, and choosing instead to watch them at home, the researchers found that cost was the biggest factor keeping fans on their couches; but watching at home did not stem their enthusiasm for the game. “They’ll define themselves through their fandom,” Fink says. “Boston fans are really, really passionate.”
“Boston fans expect you to be part of the family and to understand the town’s rich history.” – Will Norton, Director of McCormack Center for Research & Education at Isenberg
5. Legendary sports figures
New England sports fans have long celebrated superstars in all four sports. “We’ve been blessed with absolutely iconic sports figures,” says Norton, “including Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, Red Auerbach, Ted Williams, Big Papi, and so many more. There are big U.S. sports markets that simply haven’t had those rich sports personalities.”
But, as fans know, their passion can also make Boston a tough place for stars. “Boston fans expect you to be part of the family and to understand the town’s rich history,” explains Norton. “If you’ve done great things elsewhere, you still start from scratch here. It can be a ruthless environment for players who came up in markets that don’t live, eat and breathe sports, as Boston does.”
6. Fans follow their teams on the court, field, and ice. And their phone.
The only thing better than watching the game is talking about it afterwards. “If you’re not happy with the way the game went, you can go right to Twitter and start blasting away at individual athletes or the coach or the team,” says Delia. “As a result, social media has increased the need for teams and athletes to respond to what fans think.”
And in Boston, a tech-savvy city chock full of millennials and college students, all you have to do to see the passion is check Twitter during a humdrum regular season game, never mind a playoff contest, where you’ll see fans spouting off on every foul, run, touchdown, penalty, and goal.
Forbes ranked the top 20 sports franchises from around the world in social media followers and found the New England Patriots ranked 13th with more than 10 million (European soccer clubs dominated the list). In baseball, only the Yankees top the Red Sox in Facebook fans. And the Celtics young stars (Kyrie Irving has more than 10 million Instagram followers) have propelled the team’s social media universe to new heights, after the Celtics became one of the first NBA teams to establish Facebook and Instagram accounts a decade ago.
The Patriots have always been exploring new digital tools and technologies, according to Isenberg alumnus Chris Starck, Director of Corporate Partnerships at Kraft Sports & Entertainment. The team was “the first professional sports team to have an official team website, Patriots.com, which began back in 1994,” he says. “Today, we use a variety of digital and social media platforms to reach Patriots fans around the world year-round.”
Digital media also offers sports marketers new opportunities to engage fans. “With digital technologies, we get so much data about how fans engage,” says Isenberg Assistant Professor Matt Katz. “All this data allows teams and marketers to create behavioral profiles of types of fans, enabling more personalized communication.”
So what will the future of sports in Boston look like? Imagine virtual reality allowing all sports fans to experience a Red Sox game as if they were there, on the field at Fenway. Or what if a camera inside Tom Brady’s helmet allowed fans to see the field at the same time he sees it, or a camera inside Jaylen Brown’s Celtics jersey let fans go up with him on a slam dunk.
“Fan engagement in Boston will only continue to grow,” Valente says, “but as technology evolves that engagement will get channeled in new directions.”