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  • Georgie Maynard

Deepening Emotional Connection - where to focus the 'team' or the 'individual'?

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

Recently a client asked us whether fans follow 'teams' or 'players' and which of the two is more prominent in driving emotional connection. The short answer is the two are highly correlated so it is often hard to separate one from the other, individuals need a team within which to shine, and a team is nothing without the individuals within it.

Some will say that the team is bigger than any one individual. The ingrained legacy of the All Blacks story is testament to that. It is no surprise to us that the All Blacks have recorded the highest BenchMark EC Score™ of any team, league or individual evaluated by BenchMark, and by a considerable margin. The All Blacks narrative has developed over generations, connection is deep seated and in many cases established at birth, when babies are, as a right of passage, dressed in baby grows adorned with the silver fern. It's an early sign of the indelible ink that will trace its way around the heart of all Kiwis. However, they too have their own legends of the game, individuals who further developed the aura of the All Blacks: Jonah Lomu, Richie McCaw, Colin Meads, to name just a few.

For most teams, especially new teams (and so many have been established over the last decade across the sporting landscape), they will not be fortunate enough to have the intrinsic advantages that exist for the All Blacks.


It is also inherently true that we engage with stories and the emotions they evoke. Athletes can be great story tellers. It is these stories, and the personalities that go with them, that develop the rapport between fan and athlete. People want to relate to their story, aspire to their position or be inspired by them.

There are three pieces of BenchMark data that demonstrates the important role athletes (and also high profile coaches and management) play in developing an attachment to a team:

1. When there is a highly recognisable, respected individual within a team they will motivate individuals to first follow the team.


In 2018, the North Queensland Cowboys, with talisman Jonathan Thurston at the helm, saw 44% of its supporter base state they first followed the team as a result of a star player or role model. A truly sizeable result that was more than double the rating of the next highest team, the Melbourne Storm. That year the Storm recorded 21%, highly influenced by its golden trio of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, and Cooper Cronk, the latter who had only recently departed.

In 2021, these teams continue to see the influence of these past greats. A similar phenomenon is also now noted for the Melbourne Stars BBL (think Glenn Maxwell), Sydney Sixers (Ellyse Perry, Alyssa Healy), Melbourne (Daisy Pearce, Tayla Harris). However, the average for most teams, sits consistently around 10%.

When highly recognisable figures, integral to the overall game exist, they will draw people into following a team, acting as an important hook for first following. Their value cannot be underestimated, particularly if a team during the tenure of that individual, can then develop a bond that exists beyond the departure of that player...

"I loved the Cowboys the whole time that Jonathan Thurston played with them I still enjoy following the team."

Source: BenchMark 2021 Study

2. Individuals help build a stronger connection to a fan's existing team.

In 2021, we added a new question to the BenchMark design to identify the impact individuals (players, management, or staff) have on perceptions of a team or competition.

Influence of individual on team's BenchMark EC Score™

The results show a strong correlation, the higher the proportion of supporters and fans stating that there IS a person having a positive impact on their view of the team, the stronger the emotional connection score (BenchMark EC Score™) that team or competition has.

Shown in this chart is each summer and winter league team* plotted for both its BenchMark EC Score™ (amongst supporters & fans) and the % of supporters / fans stating there is an individual who has a positive impact on their view of the team.

Richmond performs strongly on both metrics. It is particularly noteworthy that there is a variety of individuals cited as having a positive influence on their view of Richmond, from the president, the management, the coach to the players. This is the ideal scenario where a team is not reliant on the presence of one individual to deepen engagement with a team but where multiple people are influential in enhancing connection.

The scenario is a little different for the Melbourne Stars where a large percentage cite the role Glenn Maxwell plays in driving positive team perceptions. However, the team's BenchMark EC Score™ is more modest and herein lies a potential risk with too much reliance on the fortunes of just one player. This exact scenario was borne out at the Adelaide Crows across the 2019, '20 and '21 seasons. Erin Phillips' presence is highly influential in building positive perceptions of the club. However, in 2020 she spent much of the curtailed season on the sidelines and the team saw a corresponding drop in its BenchMark EC Score™ only to rebound again in 2021, along with the Crows' performance.

However, it is not just about performances on the field of play, individuals can help fill the void in the years where success still awaits. Here Ricky Stuart's influence is apparent in building supporters' positive perceptions of the Canberra Raiders (BenchMark data highlights several coaches playing an important role) and the aforementioned Jonathan Thurston and the Cowboys.

Individuals can be highly influential in enhancing emotional connection to a team, but be wary of the risk of placing all your investment in the one player. To download our summary report on the top 10 teams or competitions who rank highly for positive influencers on the views of the team or competition head here or contact us to receive the full report.

3. A personal connection to an individual develops an even deeper bond to the team.

You will see it in kids' eyes, their pupils dilate, their face beams and stored within their childhood memory bank, and then carried around with them for life, is that moment when they first met their idol.

"I met them [St George Dragons] in 1973 and have followed them ever since no matter how well or badly they are going..."

Source: BenchMark 2019 Study

In addition to meeting your idols, there are other scenarios where an individual entrenches connection to the team: when they come from your local area, take a stand on the issues you care above, uphold the same values, or where there is a personal relationship with them.

BenchMark data again demonstrates this. When we study the open-ended responses provided by Australian sports fans, we will nearly always find that when a sports fan mentions an individual by name or that they have met the players, the sports fan also rates their bond to the team as very strong.

Source: True North Research BenchMark Studies 2018-2021

There are lots of aspects that develop emotional connection to a team and individuals play a an important role. So, our answer to our client is, do develop the stories of your players. They are your ambassadors with the potential to be your greatest asset. Whilst a team is more than an individual, a respected individual will bring in new fans and deliver a deeper connection to your team. So use your assets, tell their stories, engage us in their journey. Let their story be the hook that leads us to your door and inspires an even deeper level of loyalty.

To access our summary report 'the Role of the Individual in Deepening Connection' click here. For the full report with more information on:

  • whether your team or competition has individuals who drive positive connections;

  • which individuals are driving the most positive connections; and

  • how you can use these results to engage more fans and sponsors

Get in touch via the 'Contact' section on our website.

*Winter and Summer League teams include: AFL, AFLW, NRL, Super Netball, Super Rugby, BBL, WBBL, NBL, A League. Also evaluated but not shown in chart are national teams and the competitions, including those mentioned above plus WNBL, W League (now known as A-Leagues Women), Super W, Australian Open, Supercars - all evaluated in 2021.


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