Selling the Supernatural to Sports Fans

A recent survey conducted by a group called the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that 50 percent of Americans believe “supernatural” forces are at play during sporting events. That is to say that they have prayed to God to help their team, believed that their team was cursed,  have personal rituals or good luck charms that they think affect the outcome of games, and so forth.

That news may come as a surprise to non-sports fans, but it probably won’t shock anyone who has ever watched a big game in a sports bar or with a large group of friends. It certainly won’t surprise Anheuser-Busch who, since 2012, has been running an ad campaign for Bud Light centered on quirky sports fan superstitions. Here is one of the first commercials in the campaign…

…and here is a more recent iteration…

Those spots and others in the series do a good job of walking the line between celebrating and spoofing fans’ wacky beliefs that they can influence what happens on the field based on things like the timing of their beer runs.

Of course, for some fans, their belief in the supernatural influencing sports goes beyond good luck totems and rituals and is actually a matter of religious faith. According to the survey findings, 62% of white evangelicals and 65% of minority protestants believe that “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.” This goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of born-again Christian quarterback Tim Tebow and the fact that his jersey was consistently at or near the top of the sales list during his playing career despite the fact that Tebow was, objectively speaking, horrible at pro football.

Over one-quarter (26%) of respondents in the survey have believed that their favorite team might be cursed. Some alleged sports curses are well known, such as The Curse of the Billy Goat, which some believe has hindered the success of the Chicago Cubs since 1945, and The Curse of the Bambino, that some believe afflicted the Boston Red Sox from 1918 until they finally won a World Series in 2004. The Curse of the Bambino was such a part of Red Sox lore that Poland Spring incorporated it into a post-2004 marketing message on their delivery trucks in New England:

Another widely-believed curse is the so-called “Madden Curse” in which many of the the football players who have appeared on the cover of EA Sports’ popular annual Madden NFL  video games have suffered an off-year and/or an injury in the season after the cover came out.

Despite the dramatic statistical drop-off, The Madden Curse turned out to be the least of Michael Vick’s problems, in the long run.

The Madden Curse is of particular interest to this blog because it is supposedly the result of a player’s participation in a marketing activity. It’s also worth noting that despite EA Sports’ consistent assertion that they don’t believe in the curse, the company actually announced plans at one point to produce a movie comedy based upon it. Like Bud Light, Poland Spring and the makers of all those #15 Tebow jerseys, EA Sports seems to have realized that as long as fans are going to believe in supernatural influence over sports, marketers might as well figure out ways to cash in on the phenomenon.

And while it’s unlikely that there will ever be consensus among fans about the role of rituals, curses or divine intervention in determining the outcome of sporting events, all reasonable observers of American professional sports should be able to agree upon one empirical fact: God hates the Buffalo Bills.

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