In business, managers and organizations strive for consumer loyalty, regardless of the product or service being offered. In many ways, a loyal customer means someone that will not only consume their favorite brand but may also attempt to avoid consuming a competitor’s product or service. Additionally, loyal customers may use word of mouth to steer others toward a favored brand and away from a competing or rival brand. In many instances, this is a good position for managers and something that organizations celebrate. However, what if customers loyal to your product reserve strong enough animosity toward a competitor’s brand that they hold negative perceptions toward those products and services? Further, what if those loyal customers decided to participate in negative behavior, sometimes dangerous behavior, toward a rival company? These are questions that managers and organizations should ask when navigating a landscape rife with competing and rival brands.
Rivalry in business can influence different aspects of an organization or their products and services. For instance, while rivalry can encourage managers to increase organizational effort or output, it can also increase the likelihood of unethical behavior. Furthermore, as companies compete for consumers and market share, managers engage in practices that both positively promote their products and services, while attempting to disparage competitors’ products. One such example is the 2018 advertisements that portrayed Universal Studios Orlando Theme Parks as more enjoyable and suitable for adolescents than Walt Disney World Theme Parks. Additionally, Samsung’s commercials about their Galaxy Note phone attempt to elicit in consumers’ minds favorable comparisons to the Apple iPhone. Furthermore, the competing bids by Disney and Comcast in 2018 to acquire Fox properties raise the interesting question: What can business managers learn from rivalry in sport?
To better understand rivalry in the competitive business setting, many researchers have relied on the sport setting to study the phenomenon. For example, Kilduff, Elfenbein, and Staw used the collegiate basketball setting to investigate antecedents and outcomes of the rivalry phenomenon. This article discusses the rivalry phenomenon, its importance in business, and how managers can use findings from the sport setting to better understand consumer perceptions and behaviors. As organizations try to create, promote, and maintain differentiation over time, understanding how rivalry influences consumers is very important, and the sport setting provides an ideal setting for managers looking for answers.
Someone loyal to a brand, whether inside or outside the sport setting, may find that they hold some negative sentiment toward a competing, or rival, brand. For example, someone attending a sporting event where their favorite team is playing a rival may find they are more negative of the opposing team and officials during the game, more grandiose following a success by their favorite team, and more confrontational toward fans of the rival team. Likewise, an avid supporter of the Ford Mustang may find it difficult to appreciate the aesthetic or technological advancements of a new or classic Chevrolet Camaro. These feelings, and subsequent behaviors, are a product of rivalry, and research in the sport setting can provide mangers with important information and lessons about the phenomenon.
Contemporary investigation into rivalry begins from Social Identity Theory (SIT), which states that a person chooses membership in a group based on how that membership will reflect on themselves. For example, people that choose to buy the latest Apple products do so, to some extent, based on how they believe being an Apple person will make them feel personally or influence others’ perceptions of them. This can occur for a person because they may begin to take on the identity of the collective group (e.g., Apple person). An important aspect of consumer behavior is rivalry, and the way consumers perceive their favorite brands and rival brands. For example, people that purchase automobiles produced by the Ford Motor Company perceive Chevrolet automobiles—and consumers of that brand—as inferior. Similarly, Apple users reported negative attitudes toward the Microsoft brand and its users.
When people join groups, those groups inevitably will interact with competitors, or opponents. In the sport setting, these opposing groups are rival teams and supporters of those teams. Outside of sport, competing groups include supporters of rival brands (e.g., Apple vs. Android, Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi, Disney Parks vs. Universal Parks). Sport rivalry has been defined as “a fluctuating adversarial relationship existing between two teams, players, or groups of fans, gaining significance through on-field competition, on-field or off-field incidences, proximity, demographic makeup, and/or historical occurrence(s).” Furthermore, a sport rival has been defined as “a highly salient out-group that poses an acute threat to the identity of the in-group or to the in-group members’ ability to make positive comparison between their group and the out-group.”
Investigations into rivalry in sport have shed light on topics including fan reactions to competition, perceptions of out-group member behavior, likelihood of watching and attending games involving the favorite team and rival team, and willingness to pay price premiums in order to consume the sport product. The lessons managers can learn from research in the sport setting are abundant, and the next sections detail some conclusions that can be drawn from research on sport rivalry.
The competing bids for Fox put forth by the Walt Disney Company and Comcast in 2018 beg the question: What role does rivalry play in companies’ decisions? Rivalry allows organizations and people to feel unique from another group, and it addresses the inherent need to favorably compare to competitors’ influence on people’s decisions. For example, companies like Chick-fil-A, Nordstrom, and Disney pride themselves on providing customer service superior to their competitors. An interesting phenomenon that commonly occurs in sport is referred to as the “arms race.” Anecdotal evidence suggests rival teams engage in an arms race for recruiting purposes. In fact, competition for personnel is an important characteristic that defines rivalry between sport teams and fans.
However, the arms race is not exclusive to the sport setting. Companies try to outperform a rival organization, which typically benefits the consumer. For example, the constant competition between Apple and Samsung continues to result in improved consumer products and advances in mobile phone technology. Likewise, Universal’s attempts to compete with Disney for theme park supremacy leads to advances in ride and attraction technology, which benefits consumers of the two brands and the theme park industry as a whole.
This also brings up the interesting topic of escalation of commitment, or an organization’s continued commitment to an increasingly negative course of action by investing more financial and time-consuming resources (e.g., facility building between sport organizations, price war between consumer products). Once an organization has begun a strategy of escalation of commitment, few choose to de-escalate and focus on a more positive strategy, such as a more intimate consumer product. The shared rivalry, or the competitive drive to “keep up with the Joneses,” can play a role in these decisions of trying to either outperform or undercut the opponent. In fact, rivalry has caused managers and organizations to go to great lengths to devalue an opponent. According to Andrew Clark of The Sydney Morning Herald, in 1996 British Airways found itself in a rivalry for customers with newly founded Virgin Airlines (VA) and was accused of spreading rumors that VA founder Richard Branson was suffering from a terminal, sexually transmitted disease.
Consumer Perceptions/Behavioral Intentions
Investigating rivalry in sport has provided a large amount of information regarding the in-group’s and out-group’s perceptions and their behavioral intentions to consume both favorite and rival teams. For example, fans tend to perceive the behavior of rival supporters negatively. Additionally, sport fans have reported a higher likelihood of watching or attending favorite team games against a rival team than those against a non-rival team, and those intentions extend to competitions involving primary and secondary rivals.
Beyond sport, these findings suggest that consumers may exhibit greater likelihood to support a preferred brand when a competing brand is present. For example, a loyal consumer of the Ford Mustang may want to show support for their favorite brand upon seeing a commercial about a new Chevy Camaro. The ordering of rival competitors or degree of perceived rivalry is important as well. Just as sport fans can identify different rival teams, so can supporters of consumer products. A person who likes to eat at McDonald’s may view the quality of food and service at Burger King differently from that received at a Wendy’s restaurant. Therefore, they may view Burger King as a primary rivalry to McDonald’s, whereas Wendy’s represents a secondary rival.
The Sport Rivalry Fan Perception Scale (SRFPS) offers a comprehensive view of how sport fans view their rival team. Specifically, the SRFPS asks fans (1) their likelihood to support a rival against another team, (2) their perceptions of the rival team’s prestige, (3) their perceptions of rival team supporters’ behavior, and (4) their sense of satisfaction when their favorite team beats their rival team. Variables such as how identified a person is with a team and whether the favorite team won or lost the most recent rivalry game can influence fan perceptions of rival teams.
Outside of sport, managers can expect loyal supporters to share stronger negative perceptions of rival brands than more casual consumers. For example, someone that identifies as a loyal Disney fan may reserve different perceptions and attitudes toward Universal parks than someone who identifies with both theme parks. Additionally, a consumer who feels their competitor has an advantage over a preferred brand may find ways to devalue the rival or belittle rival companies’ accomplishments, sometimes by pointing out perceived unfair practices of the rival.
Rivalry also influences an individual’s likelihood to help others in emergency situations. For example, sport fans were more likely to offer assistance to someone wearing a shirt of their favorite team that fell off their bicycle than if the person wore a shirt supporting a rival team. Furthermore, sport fans have exhibited schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in the demise of another, and Glory Out of Reflected Failure (GORFing), celebrating a rival team’s loss to someone other than the favorite team. These findings suggest that loyal supporters of consumer products may exhibit similar behavior. To see examples of schadenfreude and GORFing outside of sport, visit supporter websites and discussion boards following the release of a competing product that received poor reviews. Additionally, brand supporters tend to downplay competitor success, such as loyal fans of Star Trek vs. Star Wars or Marvel vs. DC Comics after the release of new movies, television series, or games.
Companies that choose to sponsor sport organizations or personalities also have to be cognizant of the influence rivalry has on consumer behavior. For example, fans of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) display loyalty to the sponsors of their favorite drivers and try to avoid sponsors of rival drivers. This extends to fan support of league-wide messaging (e.g., fans were more receptive of league-wide messages if the promotion featured a favorite rather than a rival team).
In addition, sport fans reported lower likelihood to consume an organization’s products or services that sponsor both their favorite and rival teams. This is particularly important, as business managers must understand how their relationship with other companies and sponsorships can influence attitudes toward and consumption of their products and services. Business managers have to understand that their association with a sport team through a sponsorship will encourage some people to consume their product while simultaneously causing others to distance or avoid their organization.
Group Member Behavior and Deviance
A very important lesson that managers can learn from the sport setting involves supporter and group member behavior toward out-group members or rival supporters. Highly identified sport fans have reported a higher likelihood to consider anonymous acts of aggression toward rival participants and supporters than fans with lower levels of identification. Furthermore, when a new opponent is introduced, much as was the case following the most recent conference realignment in college athletics, fans showed more negativity and greater likelihood to consider anonymous aggression toward the former rival than the anticipated and new rival.  
The issue of fans behaving negatively toward rivals extends into the online setting as well, as exhibited when some fans of the Cleveland Browns displayed pleasure following the death of Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell. Similarly, loyal automobile fans were highly negative in online chatrooms toward rival brands and supporters.
It is also important to note that rivalry within and outside of sport can be a healthy and effective way to reach consumers. For instance, the presence of a rival allows corporations and group members to experience feelings of uniqueness, and rivalry can make group members feel a stronger bond with one another. It is important for organizations, both sport and non-sport, to identify rival groups because it can help increase effort and output along with consumer interest in the product.
The lesson for business managers regarding group member behavior is to develop competitive rivalries that increase interest in the product while avoiding tactics that may increase feelings of animosity. As Yale behavioral researcher Lee asserted, rivalries have the ability to foster negative sentiments and deviant behavior if not properly monitored. Likewise, other researchers have called for caution with the way rivalries are promoted to help control potential negative fan behavior. It is imperative that business managers understand the need to responsibly use rivalry to increase consumer engagement. If managers do not responsibly promote rivalry among competitors, negative consumer behavior could lead to situations and incidences that can hurt organizations in both the public eye and the financial bottom line.
Recently, experimental research has shed light regarding how marketing and promotional messages can influence group perceptions and behavior. In sport, especially in international football, many managers search for ways to decrease the feelings of rivalry instead of leveraging the phenomenon to increase interest as is commonly the case in the United States. One study found that acknowledging rivalry and tensions between teams rather than ignoring or downplaying rivalry actually helped to decrease fan derogation and deviance. In the United States, the types of messages and titles used to promote rivalries influenced group member perceptions. Specifically, sport fans that saw a promotional title using the word hate reported stronger negative perceptions of rival fan behavior than those who saw a message using the word rivalry. Furthermore, fans exposed to the word rivalry were less likely to support the rival against another team than people exposed to the word hate. These findings asserted that using a negative word such as hate to promote a rival actually lead to increased animosity while decreased feelings of rivalry.
An important takeaway for business managers is the knowledge that promoting a rivalry in a healthy and competitive nature (e.g., using the word rivalry), can help remind people of the rivalry, which can positively impact their product. However, trying to devalue the rival may lead to animosity between group members, which, if not monitored, may lead to group deviance.
A study on the influence of mediated stories surrounding rivalry games found that negative stories about an upcoming rivalry game (e.g., a fight between rival fans) not only hurt group members’ perceptions of the rival brand, but it also resulted in decreased attitudes toward the favorite brand, compared to people who read a positive story (e.g., a joint-blood drive). So, if deviant supporter behavior occurs, managers can expect that both the rival and favorite brands will be hurt in consumers’ minds. An approach to help control this is for managers to encourage cooperation between brands, as this may help elicit positive emotions in consumers and create a sense of a larger in-group within the rivalry setting.
Rivals in sport commonly show cooperation in the recovery period following a man-made or natural disaster, and rival brands outside of sport can do the same, thus working to mitigate any negative effects that can spawn from rivalry. Managers want to ensure that consumers are pleased with their products in a way that does not foster overly negative feelings toward a rival brand because group member deviance can have significant negative impact on consumer opinions and consumption intentions. For example, if group members cross a line and become deviant, managers run the risk of consumers holding negative perceptions and attitudes of their brand, ceasing to consume their brand, and even suffering legal and financial losses.
There are many lessons managers in general business and consumer products and services can learn from the study of rivalry within the sport setting. From (1) what constitutes rivalry, to (2) how consumers view rivals and allow the rivalry phenomenon to influence their behavioral intentions, to (3) how rivalry can lead to hostility and deviance among consumers, this article addressed several areas where rivalry influences loyal fans and brand supporters. Additionally, this article discussed responsible marketing of rivalry to provide managers with examples of appropriate ways to promote rivalry to increase consumption and decrease negative behavior among fans and supporters.
The article opened with two questions: “What can business managers learn from rivalry in sport?” and “What role does rivalry play in companies’ decisions?” The research on rivalry in the sport setting can guide managers in better understanding consumer behavior and can provide important lessons on promoting and maintaining healthy and beneficial rivalries. Moving forward, managers should be cognizant of what rivalry is and how it can influence their customers, in both positive and negative ways. This commentary provides insight regarding what sport can teach business about rivalry and how managers can responsibly utilize the phenomenon to help engage consumers.