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News & Insight

Two Circles Fan Insight Series

Posted on November 8, 2023 By Charlie Wood



In the first chapter of Two Circles’ Fan Insights Series, we explore how and why fan origination will be critical to success in the sports industry and beyond in the coming years…

There are more fans than ever before, but there is also more competition.

Over the past 10 years, the global value of sports rights has risen by 50%. It has been a stratospheric period of growth, fuelled by more sports fans in the world than ever before.

Over the next decade, we expect a similar story to be told, with sports continuing to win big, forecasting 4bn sports fans by 2032, as it becomes easier to interact with sports in the digital era.

We forecast this will result in nearly 50% growth for the global value of sports rights.

However, this story of success for the next 10 years comes with one key difference – the continued rise will not be felt by everyone. More sports organisations will struggle, and the common thread between those that succeed will be their deep knowledge of their fans.


The question of “how do people become sports fans?” is critical for anyone working in sport. We all have opinions, but it’s a question that is difficult to quantify, in an emotive space where the truth is cluttered by myth and cliche.

Understanding origination journeys are vital for creating long-lasting, valuable fanbases. What causes that spark of origination?

In the digital era, this is an increasingly complex and nuanced landscape, but what we do know is that those who don’t capitalize on shifting fan behaviours risk being left behind.


data records processed by Two Circles


fans engaged with every day on social media


Stories we heard from fans and non-fans alike

To help sports navigate what will be an increasingly competitive landscape we’ve conducted a deep-dive analysis into ‘Fan Origination, leveraging our unique perspective on the sports industry. Our approach is informed by the 1bn+ data records we process on behalf of our clients annually, the 400m+ fans we speak to on a daily basis on social media and by commissioning and listening to 30k+ stories of fan origination and rejection.


These foundations have been built for now, to help sports cut through the clutter and focus on knowing fans best.

Foundation 1: Made by 14

Nearly 50% of sports fans are ‘made by 14’ and they are more passionate, engaged, valuable and active

For many of our interests, from food and travel to how you dress and what you watch,  our preferences change over the course of our lives.

However, our evidence suggests that – for many – sport bucks this trend. We find our sports fandoms young, and they stick, sometimes for the rest of our lives.

We asked when people started following (or became interested in following) a sport, discovering that nearly 50% of sports fandoms are ‘made by 14’, a finding that remains relatively consistent between markets around the world.

The UK and Switzerland originate fans particularly young, at 57% being made by 14, and India the eldest, with 35%.

When it comes to specific sports, however, the more popular the sport, the younger the origination. For example, cricket, the most popular sport in India, is much closer to the 50% mark.

What’s more, those sports fans made by 14 are significantly more valuable to the sports industry. Globally, compared with fans made later in life, they are +24% more likely to declare themselves highly passionate, +98% more likely to consume a sport daily, spend $1.88 for every $1 spent by other sports fans on following sports and +26% more likely to do 150+ minutes of exercise per week.

What does that mean for sports?

The evidence is clear. It is incumbent on everyone associated with sport to invest in originating fans young as it benefits everyone – rights holders, brands, governments and even society.

In a world vying for young people’s attention, sporadic initiatives don’t cut it. While it is true that attending sports events young makes them more likely to become a fan (+13%), discounting tickets alone isn’t the solution. This only incentivises the parent.

End-to-end strategies are needed to turn great experiences into passionate fandom, underpinned by robust business cases to sell these strategies. It’s not a simple challenge, but the rewards will be significant.

Who’s doing it well?

There are many great examples of sports rights holders innovating, testing and optimising their future fans strategies. The AELTC have been leading the way with initiatives to originate fans young.

Whether that’s Blade and Bounce, a content series created in partnership with Two Circles or their Roblox activation Wimble World. The NFL’s recent alternative match-case with Disney and ESPN “Funday Football” is another great example.

Foundation 2: Sharing Strengthens Passions

The probability of being a highly passionate sports fan doubles from 12% to 24% if that passion is shared with another person.

We form social identities to help us understand the world. If you love something, you want to tell the world. And when you share it, it deepens your identity with that subject.

Sports fandoms are no different. They have always formed and thrived in group settings, and always will. Even as the internet has changed the dynamics of communities.

If no one in your social network is a highly passionate sports fan, you are only 12% likely to be highly passionate about that sport. As the chart below demonstrates, if only one of your social groups shares that interest, the probability doubles from 12% to 24%. If you’re surrounded by a network of highly passionate sports fans, the probability leaps to nearly 80%.

What does that mean for sports?

This insight helps explain why advocacy will always be a sports best fan recruitment tool. It also explains why the big will keep getting bigger. Incremental social connections will unlock exponential growth.

Sports organisations need to focus on identifying isolated fans, or “IsoFans”, and foster communities for them. Those communities will need to be broadened and deepened where they currently exist.

Who’s doing it well?

Those that do it best will create a blend of digital and IRL experiences to help fans find communities they can share their passion with. Many football clubs have been doing this with their international fanbases for a while. We also love the work that Baller FC do in this space, bringing fans of women’s football together to share their passion.

Foundation 3: Heroes + Teams

Team sports are being more individual led, with Gen Z 74% more likely to be  drawn to  the sport by a certain individual, but individual sports are not.

“Younger people are more athlete-driven sports fans” is a hypothesis that’s frequently cited within sports. It’s a conversation often catapulted into our consciousness when big stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo move between clubs – such as his move from Real Madrid to Juventus, with many of his social following doing the same.

To the naked eye, this could be seen as evidence that younger people are more likely to be fans of individuals over institutions. To us, it’s a reflection of new mediums and imperfect measures of fandom.

In truth, people have always idolized, identified with, and indeed followed athletes. Demand remains the same, but supply has diversified. We now have new ways to tell athlete stories. Whether through improved media production, social media or new types of shoulder content, such as behind-the-scenes vertical video or docuseries like Drive To Survive.

We are now seeing a convergence. Team sports are becoming more individual-led. Individual sports are not.

The above chart shows this in practice, illustrating the percentage of fans for team and individual sports who say they were “most drawn to the sport through a certain individual”. Between generations there is a convergence between the two lines.

What does that mean for sports?

The good news is it is not a zero-sum game. It’s not individuals or institutions. It’s both! Despite the headlines, globally younger generations declare their allegiances to teams in consistently equal numbers to the past. Meanwhile, team-based fandom has the same impact on behaviour, with Gen Z fans three times more likely to watch live sport each week if they support a team.

They might come for the athlete, but they stay for the community.

Need further evidence? The Chicago Bulls remain the third-most followed team on social media, 25 years on from MJ’s last dance, and their last title.

If people are buying broader sporting narratives than ever before, then sport also needs to sell broader narratives.

Who’s doing it well?

Those that most effectively build on the ‘Heroes + Teams’ foundation will find ways to work with – and not independent of – their athletes.

That might be through providing guidance and training for athletes to grow their profiles, helping them gain new personal endorsements or aligning incentives through shared equity – like the PTO have done with their triathletes, MLS with Lionel Messi or Nike many years ago with Air Jordan.

Foundation 4: New Origination Plays, Same Retention Tricks

Despite immersive media like gaming and docuseries being three times more likely to originate fans later in life, live and on-demand media will remain key to passionate fandom.

The Made by 14 foundation tells us that nearly 50% of sports fandoms are created young, but what about the other 50%? As the chart in foundation one told us, if you’re not made by 14 there is a good chance you will be made by 30, with 86% of sports fans created by that age.

Many sports have depended on participation and live events to create fans, and the chances they spark our interest in a sport decline as we move into adulthood.

The chart below shows fans who aren’t made by 14 and their primary origination factor. The blue bar is fans originated in the 80’s and 90’s and the orange bar is fans originated since 2000.

While the role of participation remains consistent, we can see the pressure on live media as a primary origination factor for this group is diminishing. And it’s being augmented by new origination plays like docuseries and Fantasy sports. In fact, made after 14 fans are three times more likely to cite these factors than they were before.

What does that mean for sports?

Immersive media is great, but it’s not a silver bullet. Used alone it risks being a fleeting peak in engagement. One that passes as soon as the series has been binged or the gamer gets bored.

To ensure new plays are potent originators of fandom, sports needs to build around them. Live and on-demand media will remain the most effective content format for deepening fandom and driving customer lifetime value.

If we just look at Drive To Survive viewers, those that watch F1 live or on-demand at least monthly are +26% more passionate than those that don’t, and the same holds true in football and gaming, with an increase of 34% for those who watch live and on-demand versus those that don’t.

Who’s doing it well?

F1 would be a great example. Not because Drive To Survive has been so well executed, but for everything they’ve done around it.

They have been targeted with the audiences they want to grow and worked to understand fan demand and respond to it. Whether through innovating their racing product with the sprint race, placing Grands Prix in key markets or taking a bolder editorial approach on social media.

Foundation 5: Understand. Care. Belong

People don’t just “not like” a sport. They need to understand, care and belong.

Just as there are infinite journeys to sports fandom, there are an infinite combination of barriers as well. However, through our analysis we’ve distilled this down to three primary barriers.

Understand: does a potential fan understand the basics of the sport, enough to take their first steps

Care: does the sport – its teams, athletes, competitions, stories – make them feel anything? Are they excited by it? Nervous? Empathetic? Do they care what happens next?

Belong: does the sport represent them? What about their role models or other fans? Do they view the sport as inclusive?

If the answer to any of these questions is no for a particular audience, then one or more of them are acting as barriers.

What does that mean for sports?

As you would expect, the weight of the barriers varies by sport, by market and by audience group. The key for sports is to identify the biggest barriers and find ways to break them down – and keep them there.

If understanding is the issue, how can you remove complexity? If it’s care, how can you inject excitement? If it’s belong, how can you serve and engage the audience you want, not just the one you have now?

Who’s doing it well?

There are plenty of examples within sport of rights holders knowing their barriers. In cricket across the UK, non-fans are 1.5 times more likely to say they don’t understand vs the UK major sport average – a challenge the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has sought to address through The Hundred.

In baseball in the US, non-fans are 1.5 times more likely to say they don’t find the sport exciting vs other major US sports. This is a barrier that MLB has sought to address with changes and updates such as the ‘Pitch Clock’.

Or within certain specific audiences where – despite major progress in recent years – female fans who aren’t fans of football are 1.4x more likely than their male equivalents to say the sport doesn’t represent them. Something we’re optimistic will improve in the near future.


The Two Circles Fan Origination Analysis uses our unique perspective on the sports industry as well as our experience in processing over one billion data records, speaking with 500m+ fans on social media every day, and enriching with 30k+ stories from sports fans around the world, to equip sports rightsholders with a better understanding of fans’ journeys into sport. The analysis is a deep dive that fuses a combination of data sets unique to Two Circles, and complements those by national representative surveys in UK, USA, France, Switzerland, Germany, India and Australia.

While these five foundations broadly hold true across sports, markets and audiences, we’ve structured our data and conducted our analysis in a way that allows us to zoom in on specific sports and audiences.

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