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Most valuable pitchman

Fan attitudes help determine sports marketing successes

By Scott Becher

June 22, 2000 8:00 p.m. ET

I have been a huge Muhammad Ali fan my entire life. I interviewed him as a teenage reporter for my junior high school newspaper and he won me over for life.

Ali still has such a presence today that he remains atop charts for favorite athlete and most famous athletes. That presence is more than surprising — it's compelling.

And it also explains why he remains a viable corporate spokesman. Unfortunately, many corporate sports marketing decisions are still driven by emotion rather than research or due diligence. But for sponsorship and endorsement relationships to really work, they inevitably must be driven by some strategic appropriateness. If you think fans are fickle about their teams, they can be even more elusive to reach for marketers that are one-step removed from the equation.

Our sports marketing agency recently partnered with a sports poll to better understand what sports fans are thinking. You might call it sports talk radio for the cerebral.

We looked at the differences in fan attitudes across many demographic criteria. We also compared the responses of sports fans in South Florida (our home turf) with fan sentiments nationally. It proves just how sophisticated sports fans are about their loyalties.

Let me demonstrate. Take a question like "who is your favorite athlete?"

Easy, you say. Michael Jordan is everyone's favorite.

Right you are. But after that, it's no slam-dunk. Especially striking is how fans identify with athletes based on ethnicity.

Among white sports fans 18 and older, their No. 2 favorite athlete is Mark McGwire, with John Elway third.

Among African American sports fans 18 and older, the number two favorite athlete is Tiger Woods, with Muhammad Ali coming in third.

Among Hispanics, Troy Aikman was second and Oscar De La Hoya was third.

Now let's add some local flair to these national poll results and see how things change.

Among South Floridians Jordan still rules as their favorite athlete, but a clear-cut No. 2 is local legend Dan Marino, followed by slugger Sammy Sosa.

The fact that Sosa ranks third in an ethnically diverse market located about 1,500 miles from Chicago illustrates the powerful reach of his stardom.

How about this question: When thinking only of the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA and MLS, what is your favorite sports team?

I guess NFL Films had it right when they coined the phrase "America's Team" for the Dallas Cowboys.

Despite their recent slide to the depths of mediocrity (at least by Dallas standards), the Cowboys are by far our country's favorite team, cited by 6.4 percent of the respondents.

Second is that team Ted Turner funded and his Superstation branded, the Atlanta Braves, with 3.8 percent of the votes. Third are the Chicago Bulls, with 4.6 percent (the Bronx Bombers ranked sixth, but try telling that to Yankees fans).

NFL teams occupied seven of the top 11 favorite team slots. Any question about this country's pastime?

In South Florida, as you would expect with most local markets, its root root root for the home team. Sort of.

The Miami Dolphins are the favorite team of 26.1 percent of the region's sports fans.

But surprisingly, more locals identify with the Yankees as their favorite (fourth highest) than the Miami Heat or Florida Panthers (tied for sixth).

And more locals cite the New York Jets over the Florida Marlins as their favorite team. Call it a vote for displacement over dismantling.

When you stop to think about it, research insight like this is essential for sports marketers.

I just don't think many marketers stop to think about it.

More FoxSportsBiz columns by Scott Becher