Rich Luker at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month. Dr. Luker is the founder of the sports polling company Luker on Trends and created the ESPN Sports Poll.
Photo Credit: Eve Edelheit for The New York Times
Rich Luker in Ann Arbor, Mich., around 1964.
In the mid-1960s, he played drums in a band called the Squires.
What Makes Someone a Fan?
It’s more than just ticket sales. Rich Luker, a social psychologist, studies fandom and why, for example, someone might get a tattoo of their favorite team.
This article is part of a new series on Visionaries. The New York Times selected people from all over the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sports. The sports world is filled with people whose job is to sell tickets, advertisements, sponsorships, luxury boxes and all manner of game-day experiences. The more, the better. Any fan will do. Rich Luker has tried to get those managers, supervisors and executives to look for something more profound, something he calls “lifetime value.” To Dr. Luker, the most concrete iteration of that concept is the idea that passionate fans would get a tattoo of their favorite team’s logo to show that it is part of their core identity.
This is just one of the discoveries he has made over the past 25 years as the founder of Luker On Trends, a sports polling company that works with many professional sports leagues and teams. Market researchers increasingly rely on online surveys and other digital tools to track fan behavior. Dr. Luker is less concerned with outcomes — that a fan spent $25 on a ticket — and more focused on the stories that fans tell about why they follow a team. Those fans, he said, are the ones that team executives ought to target in the increasingly complicated battle to get consumers to spend their time and money at a ballpark or arena.
“I get most of the inspiration from when I identify the things that are closest to the heart.”
Dr. Luker’s approach stems from his academic background. With a doctorate in communications and psychology from the University of Michigan and a membership in the American Psychological Association, he has studied the influence of the media on child development. That led to questions about how and why adults use their free time, which led to sports. Like the movie industry and other leisure pursuits, sports has had its business model upended by the internet, particularly by the smartphone, which has given consumers even more choices and distractions. Dr. Luker recently merged his company with Social Science Research Solutions, also known as SSRS, a survey research firm that will give him an even bigger platform to ask questions.
He spoke from his home in Michigan, where he grew up rooting for the Detroit Tigers, about why sports executives are too focused on technology, not motivations. The following conversation has been edited and condensed. “We’ll always be social in our orientation, and in fact, that’s the core of what’s true about American sports.”
You study human behavior for a living. The internet is changing that behavior. How do you study it?
In my mind, we’re now at a time where the options for what to do with your free time are infinite, so how do you control for anything? Anyone doing research is trying to isolate something, but things move so quickly, they morphed into something else. The environment we’re in with free time is constantly in flux. I may be uniquely positioned because of my training to gather information on that which is stable. The human condition doesn’t change. Physical development will always progress the same, financial development will develop the same way. Our emotions will not change. We’ll laugh when we’re happy, we’ll cry when we’re sad. And we’ll never live in pods, we’ll always be social in our orientation, and in fact, that’s the core of what’s true about American sports.
Time has become an increasingly valuable commodity. Sports executives seem focused on the speed of games and worrying about fans with short attention spaces. Do they have it right? I do all I can to encourage sports to continue to be sports in the same way classic rock is classic rock. It was something that was part of the definition of the times, and it stood the test of time regardless of how things have changed. Sports in America, particularly the traditional sports, should be the same. Be the classic sports and provide the social context that is being lost on the internet.
“I do all I can to encourage sports to continue to be sports in the same way classic rock is classic rock.”
It’s only natural that executives try to use the latest technology.
All sports are aware of how much the internet is changing. But then around 2010, the smartphone takes the internet off the desk and then you’ve got a million options about what to do with your free time, and all sports and other forms of leisure were losing time.
The people who run the sports are business people. They love their sports. But they are looking at what’s going on and see people developing new technologies that surpassed things in their own sports, so the logical temptation is instead of trying to beat them to join them. If they dedicated 5 percent of their time, energy, effort and resources to the heart of their games, as well as doing the technology, they’d be just fine. My fear is that somewhere in the last three years, we’ve crossed the transom from being a sports industry to being a media industry. They are focusing more on the technology and the media than the sport itself.
What obstacles do you face in your field?
It’s something every social scientist faces. Some people are in research in sports who are only collecting behaviors and they do that using machines — Nielsen boxes and clicks on web pages and so on. There’s no interaction with human beings, they’re only collecting outcomes without knowing why. The biggest obstacle we face is that the research I do has always been about why you do what you do, it’s never been just what you do. It’s about understanding the motivations and your fulfillment and what detracts from your fulfillment.
When I began in the 1980s, people were still hungry to be heard. We didn’t have social networking, we didn’t have platforms where we could give our point of view. So the biggest challenge we face is that all people feel like they have a platform to say something, that they want to say something, and they’re so overwhelmed with everybody trying to say stuff to them that they don’t want to hear, that it’s become increasingly difficult to understand why people do what they do.
“My fear is that somewhere in the last three years, we’ve crossed the transom from being a sports industry to being a media industry.”
How do you define success?
Among my greatest successes was discovering tattoos. When you can find something tangible in the human condition that was not driven by predictive analytics or some marketing strategy but comes from where people are at heart, and then take that story to tell how much people love that underlying thing. A lot has to do with collecting stories and not getting answers to four option questions.
Where do you find sources of creativity?
One is journaling. I’ve kept a journal since I was a junior in high school, it’s more than 1,000 pages and since 1982, it’s been electronic and searchable, and I always put in key words so I can go back and see how I dealt with things. Whatever the dynamic is. Loss. Happiness. How that’s changed over the years.
I get most of the inspiration from when I identify the things that are closest to the heart. What can I do to make that happen for more people more often?
Ken Belson covers the N.F.L. He joined the Sports section in 2009 after stints in Metro and Business. From 2001 to 2004, he wrote about Japan in the Tokyo bureau.
Dr. Luker playing softball with the St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Club in St. Petersburg. Photo Credit: Eve Edelheit for The New York Times