Sport fanship meaning and structure across two national cultures : toward a sport consumption culture theory



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Meanings when consuming sport are socially constructed, culturally patterned, and cognitively organized. In order to identify common elements and explore national differences in the meanings of sport consumption, this study used the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) to interview fans of professional basketball in the United States and China. Sixteen fans of professional basketball from each country were interviewed. Six categories of themes emerged from the interview data. They were: fanship socialization, fanship in life, the NBA/CBA interpretation, sport definition, identity orientation, and experience orientation. A model of fanship meaning and structure was then developed to represent fanship across the two national cultures. The model reveals that sport fanship can be conceptualized as mental maps with largely universal and interconnected cognitive constructs substantiated with meanings woven into fabrics using threads derived from the fans’ social and cultural contexts. Because of this social and cultural embeddedness, there is substantial cross-cultural variation in the ways that sport is interpreted. In particular, the two national groups have developed different definitions of what it means to be a fan. Americans focus on the team’s symbolic representation of their home city whereas Chinese see their connection with basketball-as-a-sport to be central to their fanship. This is a result of variation in the ways that fans were socialized into sport, the social significance of sport, and the fact that most Chinese fans follow NBA teams. The differences in fanship definition consequently exert cascading effects on the ways fans identify with basketball and experience the game. Findings of this study piece together different research streams to render a holistic conceptualization of fanship across the social, cultural, and psychological spheres. Based on the findings, a research program for a Sport Consumption Culture Theory (SCCT) was conceptualized. It is proposed that an emphasis on symbolism enabled by sport for identity construction and the characteristics of sport as consumption objectives form the core of a SCCT research program, and distinguish it from the general consumer research.