“Talk to people about themselves and they will listen for hours.” ―Benjamin Disraeli
Humans are evolutionarily inclined to gravitate toward clans. We want to belong because, deep in an ancient part of our brain, we know it is necessary for survival. We need to be surrounded by likeminded individuals, and we need to know, without a doubt, that our group is the best. Historically speaking, second best hasn’t always fared too well.
It’s why we gravitate toward sports. They serve as a sort of proxy for the battles our ancestors waged, except nowadays the loser isn’t carried home on his shield.
Interesting fact: only one team gets to call itself the best at the end of the year in each division. Furthermore, the way college sports works, it is often the same few teams that get to hoist the trophies year in and year out. That leaves quite a few fanbases feeling inferior.
This is why you have to find a rallying point outside of the win column. You have to give your fans something to be proud of and wear like a badge of honor. And what better place to start than everyone’s favorite subject: themselves.
Just look at Texas A&M and one of football’s greatest traditions, the 12th Man. Based on the story of E. King Gill, plucked from the stands mid-game to stand ready in case the Aggies needed him on the field, the 12th Man has not only been used to represent the fanbase, but also as the identity of the A&M program. That moniker became a source of pride, to the point that the Aggies boast one of the largest, loudest, and most organized student sections in the country, despite having not won a conference championship in almost two decades.
The 12th Man is an ideal situation, but the concept works on smaller levels also. The trick is to find those uniting forces within your fanbase. Are they extremely proud of the food at their tailgates? Highlight that with features and in-game displays. Is your school a leader in academics or research? Make those numbers and discoveries known during events.
The key is to acknowledge what your fanbase is proud of, and do it in a way that people can identify with, because in the end, most teams will lose, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be the best at something.
Matthew Monte is Managing Editor of College AD and formerly Co-Managing Editor of Underdog Dynasty. He is a graduate of The B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration at UL Lafayette, mostly because it didn't require a foreign language. Matt is also a recovering stand up comedian who occasionally relapses.