Your Brain on Sports

Neuromarketing and the race to unlock the science of fandom.
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James Figg, by William Hogarth. (Photo: Public Domain)

James Figg, by William Hogarth. (Photo: Public Domain)

In the 1720s, James Figg’s fists made him famous. An accomplished and menacing prizefighter, he caught the attention of William Hogarth, the father of British painting and together the unlikely duo helped propel boxing into legitimacy.

Figg used his popularity to open his own Amphitheater, where matches would be hosted in front of rowdy, teetering crowds, drunk from giant doses of both alcohol and atmosphere. Those who weren’t already attracted to the events by Figg’s celebrity were further enticed by the promotional art of Hogarth that could be found plastered around town.

The crowds grew, and so did the standing of boxing, reaching several towering epochs, renaissances, and Golden Ages before, eventually, modernity. Now, however strong boxing was in its earlier incarnations, its current fight is against its own mortality.

Until that final blow is thrown, though, it’s still a sport that can attract a crowd. That much was evident earlier this month, in the purported Fight of the Century between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, which earned a staggering $500 million in pay-per-view revenue.

The next step is understanding and harnessing the emotional response to sport, pinpointing, at a neurological level, what the brain wants and why—peeling back the skull of a fan and peering in, flashlight and map in hand.

All of those eyes matter, and transform boxing, like any other mass mediated sport, into a vehicle for consumerism. Sports fandom assures marketers and advertisers of what they need: a guaranteed and devoted audience. Better yet, it’s a collective that has already built up brand loyalty to teams and athletes, loyalties that can be shifted onto other products and services. The next step, some believe, is understanding and harnessing the emotional response to sport, pinpointing, at a neurological level, what the brain wants and why—peeling back the skull of a fan and peering in, flashlight and map in hand.

Television rights remain the key figure in the equation, with broadcasters eagerly handing over billion-dollar contracts to the world’s most popular leagues. Advertisers, meanwhile, are just as inclined to pony up millions to have their names associated with the perceived wholesomeness of sport, while a demographic rife with disposable income and an apparent endless desire for new cars, cold beer, and fast food watches on.

On the other side of the equation are the purists, those who lament for the old days, when amateur athletes were held in higher esteem than their professional counterparts, when the ethos of sport was not yet interminably shifted by the constant pressure of commercialization. Something like the era of James Figg, a time before franchises were corporately owned promotional platforms, but those days are long past, buried beneath the mounds of money that make sports possible in their current form.

The way sports are mediated is evolving, wearable technology placing viewers in the middle of the action. The ways in which we consume sport, and the advertising that surrounds it, are not static. If it is possible to determine patterns in our cognitive responses—and neuromarketers insist that it is—it has transformative potential for the future of market research and the advertising industry as a whole. Critics argue that neuromarketing is pseudoscience and unsupported by empirical evidence, but, despite those claims, the field is a growing, competitive space, and efforts to mine brain data, where the secrets of fandom lie, are already underway.

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On a Saturday night in downtown Toronto, 30 people are gathered in the basement of a bar, sitting in a small room lit only by the white glow of a large projection television screen. They are brain data volunteers, here to watch Game 5 of the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning playoff game, just as they would anywhere else, though there are a few notable differences.

Mainly, they are each wearing a headset, a soft blue light flickering forward from the top of their skulls, sensors stuck to their left frontal lobes.. The headsets are tracking their brainwave activity through electroencephalography and the data is then piped, via Bluetooth, to a “brain base” owned by a Toronto-based research firm called Brainsights.

“We’re looking at how people’s brains respond to sports content,” says company co-founder Kevin Keane. “We want to see how sports are different. We know that it’s a live viewing environment but is it the players, is it the action, is it the broadcast talent around the sport? What stories work? How do we attract more people to the game and to sports in general?”

It’s the fifth event the company has hosted, with each gathering bringing in between 20 and 80 participants, their collective data archived and stored in the ever-growing brain base. There are other companies undertaking similar exercises, Keane says, but none at this scale.

There are three things Brainsights is primarily interested in: connection, attention, and encoding at the non-conscious level. Attention is, as one would assume, determining if the viewers are focused and where and to what degree. Connection is assessing if on-screen stimuli are driving a deeper, emotional response from the viewer, if they are linking it to history or personal context; if they are, is it resonating enough for the viewer to then encode it to memory?

Those three factors underpin the “A” score, which looks at the data in two ways: the “stickiness” of the content and the persuasiveness of the message.

“At the end of the day, sports is emotions,” Keane says. “This gets at the physiological and neurological response. What people are actually feeling. Humans don't have a great way to articulate emotions, or to articulate the reasons why they do what they do. A lot of our behavior, a lot of our emotions, are happening at a non-conscious level and that’s what we’re measuring.”

According to Eric Simons, author of "The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession," our attraction to sport can be explained by mirror neurons. If you’re a soccer fan for example, whether you kick a soccer ball, or a see a soccer ball get kicked, or just hear the word kick, the mirror neurons in your brain will fire, Simons explains, making the viewing experience more relatable and personal, and the more familiar one is with a sport, the stronger that connection.

“Sports fans are so invested in athletes because they are mirroring them the entire time,” Simons writes, “running active simulations as if it were the fan out there on the field.”

If it is possible to determine patterns in our cognitive responses—and neuromarketers insist that it is—it has transformative potential for the future of market research and the advertising industry as a whole.

What marketers gain from this research, Keane says, is data that reveals more than the often vague answers or poorly articulated self insight that comes with traditional consumer research. Neuromarketing, Keane says, “cuts through the bullshit.”

“Think about how many different filters you put between what you feel and what you say you feel, or what you’ve done and what you say you’ve done,” Keane says. “A lot of those filters aren’t even consciously accessible to you, the ones that are, though, you’ll say something based on what other people want to hear or based on your social group or peer group, based on who's actually listening.”

“Everyone does it, but is that helpful? And should we take that as absolute truth? We’ve found that you shouldn’t,” Keane continues. “You should actually get under the surface and figure out what’s happening there because at the end of the day that’s the stuff that’s going to make for very sticky content and persuasive message. The stuff that hits here and here,” he says, motioning to his head and then placing a hand over his heart.

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In the summer of 2013, Nike launched its "Possibilities" campaign. As with most every other Nike commercial, the production values were high, the one-minute spot treated like a short film. The message was a simple and oft-repeated one, encouraging viewers to set goals and work to their limits.

“If you can run a mile, run a race, run a marathon, outrun a movie star,” says actor Bradley Cooper, the narrator. Different challenges and scenarios emerge as the commercial unfolds, different characters moving through each scene with increasing intensity, commanding viewers to push themselves. The athlete cameos include LeBron James, Serena Williams, Gerard Pique, and Andre Ward.

Keane cites this as a good campaign, especially among the Millennial cohort. “We’ve seen that time and time again the language around hustling, around working hard, around achieving goals, we’ve seen that work out really, really well with a Millennial audience,” he says, “which is a bit counterintuitive based on what you hear about Millennials in the popular press—about being lazy and entitled and all the rest of that kind of stuff.”

The potential of this technology, Keane says, goes beyond sports, and into other live viewing experiences, like award shows, where large audiences are guaranteed to be tuned in.

“You know you’re going to get tons of eyeballs on the content and you’re also going to pay for that. Think about how much a Super Bowl spot costs,” Keane says. “That’s because you know you’re going to hit that audience. You’re going to want to know how that compares to other types of viewing experiences, because at the end of the day you have a limited budget and you need to hit a certain audience and you need to persuade that audience in a particular way.”

For now, Keane would not reveal any partners Brainsights is working with, saying only “this has massive implications for any advertisers that play in the live content realm.”

Back upstairs, on the main floor of the bar, patrons sway through the open space, their eyes drifting between their drinks, the television screens, and the pool table; their attention captured by the tense moments on screen. They’re drinking up the environment in the same manner they sip their drinks. In that moment, they’re enjoying the social experience that, for now, still overtakes the commercial one.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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