The Power of Sports Subcultures for Brand–Fan Engagement

November, 2022

When you think of sports fans, it’s likely you immediately picture major league team fans – Yankees, Celtics, Raiders fans. You might also think about people who are fans of big-name individual players – Tom Brady, Lionel Messi, and Serena Williams. They’re the people in the stands throughout the season or glued to the TV for every game. For brands, reaching these fans requires deep pockets that only big brands with more awareness-based messaging can afford. 

But sports-based subcultures exist outside of the major leagues and star players, and they offer a great entry point for brands with more elasticity and a willingness to roll deep in the weeds of these niche, nuanced worlds to engage more authentically.

Subculture: Mad Hatters

The hat-collecting community is divided between fitted hat collectors and “dad hat” (adjustable) collectors. But what they share – no surprise – is an absolute obsession with collecting hats. Each sports team can have countless design variations that make it all the more exciting to rack up over time. In baseball, each team has a “home” cap worn at home games, a “road” cap for away games, and a batting practice (BP) hat. This is in addition to annual releases for holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Independence Day as well as cause-based appreciation designs like Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride Month, or Military Appreciation. And that’s just the beginning.

Many minor league baseball teams also have a “Copa” identity that players will sport for a few games each season. For the uninitiated, Copa is short for “Copa de la Diversión,” or “Fun Cup,” designed to embrace the culture and values that resonate most with participating teams’ local U.S. Hispanic/Latino communities. For example, the Copa identity for South Carolina’s Columbia Fireflies is the Chicharrones de Columbia – which departs in color and mascot from standard uniforms to embrace the pork rind dish Chicharrones, common among all Spanish-speaking countries represented in the Southern city. 

But wait! There’s more!

There are local food-based identities like the Peoria Pork Tenderloins, city-themed identities like the Peoria Orange Barrels, throwback hats with retro logos, special collections like MLB’s City Connect uniforms, and event-specific hats like the ones worn for the 2022 All-Star Game or the World Series. The All-Star and World Series hats are particularly noteworthy – since advancing to the post-season playoffs isn’t guaranteed, fans are further motivated to snag ‘em.

Instagram results from the hashtag #fitted

Aside from their fandom of a particular team or a display of local pride, collectors are motivated by the historical time capsule the objects offer. As rosters shift and teams rebrand, these hats become part of the team’s history and storytelling. And the community of hat collectors engages in social storytelling through their shared obsession. Instagram hashtags like #fitted (1.5M posts), #fittedhats (240k) or #fittedoftheday (116k) show posts that share a similar visual language. Some in the collector community have started podcasts to discuss their collections, share their experiences of sports fandom, and dig into team history. Wearing one of these hats in the wild can become a coded signal to other sports fans and is likely to start a conversation or get you a knowing nod. 

Subculture: Stadium Chasers

Stadium chasers are another cohort of obsessive sports fans. Their goal is to visit every stadium or ballpark within their particular criteria. The list will vary from wide-reaching – every MLB ballpark, every NFL stadium – to more local and niche, like every MiLB team in the Appalachian League or every sports team in the state of Illinois. Stadium chasers are focused, highly motivated, and have a “completionist” mindset. They pin maps, keep lists, create spreadsheets, and share their numbers on social media. Some even go so far as to update their counts in their social media bios – a particularly passionate subset of stadium chasers who have gone beyond pursuing an interest and are now claiming it as their identity

Instagram, via @baseballtravels

This completionist mindset may also apply to other list-like interests like visiting every national park, every state (and debating whether an airport layover counts!), or every Presidential Library. These people are focused, organized, and passionate – always looking ahead to what’s next. 

Bringing this to life

For brands looking to connect with these sports subcultures, here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • How can a brand appeal to a Stadium Chaser’s completionist mindset? A QSR brand can keep track of locations where a person has ordered in addition to their most recent or favorite order. Create a map and reward them for unlocking a new location or things like miles traveled, locations visited, and menu items tried. If they complete the criteria, offer an even bigger reward like a free meal, swaggy merch, or tickets to a game. 
  • How can a brand connect with the passionate community of hat collectors? Think local. Partner with a local streetwear brand or influencer to create a limited-edition lid. Think about how your logo would look embroidered on a hat as a way to filter ideas for design clarity. Target media around hashtags used by the community on social and showcase the products using the same aesthetics commonly used by people who are showing off a new hat. Or create a sweepstakes or contest where people submit a picture of their creative hat displays. Use the mechanics of a sports bracket-style voting to gain valuable customer feedback with A/B testing. 

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