Cycling's latest doping scandal yet again challenges sports fans to take action, but will they?

Mr Russell Cowley

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: March 6, 2018

The latest scandal to hit sport, which has this time drawn in athletes, teams and official from cyclist Bradley Wiggins to long-distance runner Mo Farah, comes following publication by British government report on doping. Predictably, the report has been met with widespread condemnation for those involved. However, come the next race or the sporting weekend, fans will no doubt still continue to attend, watch or talk about their heroes.

For most of us, fuelled by the media’s often voracious appetite for reporting scandal, such transgressions often induce a collective roar of disapproval. The caterwauling of an indignant public can last for weeks or months, though today’s news is often forgotten by tomorrow. The question is, why are we likely to tolerate transgression by some athletes, but then unwaveringly take the moral high-ground in other cases.

In our recently completed research, we set out to examine fan perceptions of transgression, which we have identified as being illegal or immoral acts that can have an impact either on a sporting contest or upon stakeholders with which the athlete is associated. As such, we were interested to find out how fans view and then respond to acts such as racism, violence and the like, that are perpetrated by elite athletes.

We began by conducting a series of focus groups, during which people shared detailed information about their views of transgression and how they have typically responded to it. Among people in these groups, we observed that in some cases fans were seemingly appalled by transgression, though in other instances it barely drew distain. In the light of these behavioural variations, we then took a deep-dive into the nitty-gritty of the results through a series of one-to-one interviews with fans.

Upon closer examination, we identified that three groups of key factors  appeared to influence how fans respond to transgression. We saw one group of factors as being external to an individual, which we labelled ‘contextual factors’. The other two groups we believe are internal to an individual and labelled as ‘proximal’ and ‘fanographic factors’.

The role of the media, perceptions of the athlete involved, the response of a guilty athlete and governing bodies’ interventions, are examples of what we have called contextual factors. Otherwise, fan cognition and behaviour are often driven by cultural background, levels of morality, beliefs about one’s identity, and are influenced by the people closest to us whom we seek to protect and in whom we trust – what we call proximal factors. Fanographic factors include the physical and psychological connection fans can have with a sport. Because of these connections, fans are often prepared to trust or forgive athletes, sometimes no matter what they have done. The nation from which an athlete originates is also important here, and may partly explain some of the ongoing public antagonism towards Russia.

What became evident when considering the dynamic nature of these factors was that most fans typically respond to athlete transgression in one of four ways. We have labelled them as ‘erratic ethicals’, ‘dislocators’, ‘rationalisers’ and ‘neutrals’.

Erratic ethicals tend to have a somewhat fickle approach in their responses to transgression, in some situations adopting an intensely moral position, whilst at other times taking a much more pragmatic stance. We think this is because, for such fans, sport is not an especially strong part of their self-identity. Hence, while a might fan stop attending games in the event of one transgressive episode, in another they might show complete disinterest.

Dislocators tend to have a very strong sense of self in their relationship with sport, responding to transgression as though it is a personal sleight. They may take murder, domestic abuse or consuming Class A drugs involving an athlete as being so serious that is almost like an attack on their soul. So extreme can their responses be that some dislocator fans will stop buying tickets, memorabilia or merchandise, and will simply walk away from supporting an athlete or following a sport.

Although Rationalisers can sometimes be emotional in their views of transgression, their behavioural response to it is often minimal. This means they will still attend games, still watch on television, still surf access social media to read stories, although they are likely to develop a somewhat jaded view of the athletes they were perhaps once closely engaged with. Importantly, rationalisers often have a close affinity with, or sense of self based upon, their links with an athlete. Thus, unlike a dislocator fan, they won’t walk away, although they may exhibit extreme levels of dissonance.

As for the neutrals, well…they are largely neutral in their response to transgression, though we observed that such fans often have an intense interest in several sports. Consequently, when the athlete transgression is in one of the sports they follow, they will simply alter the balance of their consumption portfolio towards an athlete or a sport where transgression isn’t taking place.

Does this matter and should we care? Of course, after all we are constantly told that fans are the lifeblood of sport. Without them, ticket sales, television audiences and commercial revenues can all suffer. A late-night indiscretion might make for titillating front-page tabloid reading, but it can adversely affect an athlete and sports organisations therefore need to have a sense of people will react to whatever misdemeanours may arise.

About Russell Cowley

Russell Cowley is a lecturer in Sport and Event Management at Coventry University. His research interests include consumer behaviour, transgression in sport and marketing in the context of sport.

About Simon Chadwick

Simon is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Manchester (UK) and owner of The Scorecard. He researches, writes, consults and teaches in the areas of sports marketing, strategy, management and geopolitics. His tweets on these subjects can be accessed via @Prof_Chadwick.