Peering Inside the Mind of a Football Fanatic

Of the 54,000 people who packed the Oakland Coliseum Dec. 6 to watch the Raiders play the Kansas City Chiefs, eight had an experience unlike any other.

Bri Treece, MBA 14, dons a skullcap which will monitor her brain activity during the Raider’s game.

Sitting in a suite and surrounded by a coterie of researchers— including Berkeley-Haas professors Ming Hsu and Leif Nelson, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management’s Moran Cerf and Samuel Barnett—the eight volunteers donned white skullcaps sprouting small electrodes that monitored their brain activity as they watched the football game.

The EEG tests, as they’re known, were a field trial of sorts that is pushing the boundaries of a new field of neuromarketing.

Hsu, an assistant professor of marketing, and Nelson, the Ewald T. Grether Professor in Business Administration & Marketing, are pioneering the application of neuroscience to understand how consumers think and feel about companies and their product offerings.

This study originated last summer, when Brandon Doll, MBA 14, the director of strategic projects for the Oakland Raiders, read about Hsu and Nelson’s groundbreaking research.

A good chunk of Doll’s job involves figuring out how to make the experience of attending a football game so enjoyable that existing ticket holders stay happy and novices are converted into loyal fans.

The team often relies on marketing research tools like focus groups and social media monitoring, but a lot happens during a three-hour course of a football game. The research results can sometimes be inconsistent and statistically insignificant.

“We do a lot of surveying of our season ticket members,” says Doll, “and yet, people can have such varying degrees of experiences and can struggle to describe those experiences. It can be frustrating.”

Doll reached out to Hsu and Nelson— who had been his professor at Haas—to see if their research might be able to help delve into the minds of football fans. The professors immediately recognized a whole new avenue for their research and began planning the experiment.

Of the volunteers who agreed to suit up with the skullcaps at the Raiders game, (several who happened to be Berkeley-Haas alumni), four described themselves as diehard Raiders fans, while the other four had either never been to a live NFL game or had not attended one in at least five years.

“We wanted to create a benchmark of brain activity for loyal fans and then see if we could get casual fans’ brain activity to move closer to that of the loyal fans during the game,” Doll explained. The subjects also watched a handful of videos before the game that tested various Raiders marketing messages.

Ton Chookhare, MBA 14, suits up for the experiment

Hsu and Doll agree that the study is just a first step in exploring the vast potential of these new methods.

For example, even seemingly minor issues, such as the inevitable waving or jumping up and down in excitement by fans, can stretch the limitations of existing recording equipment. But as these technological challenges get resolved, neuromarketing might one day help sports marketers understand the experiences that can turn a casual fan into a loyal one.

“This could one day allow us to reverse-engineer customer loyalty,” says Doll.

Hsu says that sporting events provide a great window into how experiences shape our preferences and behavior. “We see from our data that for casual fans, attendance resulted in long-lasting positive memories— not only of the event but also of the Raiders brand,” he said. Traditionally marketers have had very few ways to track and measure these experiences, he adds. “We are hoping to change that with these new neuroscientific tools.”