PULLMAN, Wash. – Catering to fans’ sense of nostalgia could help boost attendance at college football games, research from WSU indicates.

By offering experiences around game weekends that fans want to re-visit, universities can use nostalgia as a tool for increasing ticket sales and strengthening their brands, according to the study, which was published in Tourism Management Perspectives.

“If you can help spectators create those beautiful memories, nostalgia will prompt them to come back to visit again and again,” said Christina Chi, a professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management at WSU’s Carson College of Business and a coauthor of the study.

In the study, nostalgia was defined as positive feelings about the past. To help trigger those feelings in college football fans, researchers recommended providing out-of-town alumni with opportunities to socialize with others in their graduating class on game day – through designated tailgating sites or other events.

Other suggestions for cultivating fan nostalgia included spreading stories of past football teams and players, offering activities before and after the game and creating opportunities for fans to interact directly with current coaches and players.

A Quantitative Approach

Chi worked with researchers from Texas A&M University and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore on the study. Their work is among the first of its kind to use a quantitative approach to measuring nostalgia in sports tourism, according to Chi.

“Nostalgia hasn’t been studied much in the context of sports tourism. It’s still kind of a new concept, and people have wrestled with how to measure it,” Chi said. Some of her previous work has focused on nostalgia in tourism marketing at heritage sites, including how to keep people returning to a familiar destination.

The current research tested levels of nostalgia in college football fans by spectator type, age and past experience. Because the other two researchers did graduate work at Clemson University in South Carolina, Clemson Tigers fans were used for the survey.

College football and nostalgia

College football is a natural place to study nostalgia in sports tourism, according to Chi.

“No other sport has the same level of pre-game activities,” she said, or the same type of prospective fan affinity. Since people typically invest four to five years in a college education, being able to say “I’m a WSU Cougar” or “I’m a Clemson Tiger” has layers of meaning, she said.

Researchers found the highest levels of nostalgia among Clemson Tigers fans who had attended seven or more games in the past two years. Surprisingly, however, they found no correlation between age and nostalgia.

“It was more about the quality of the fans’ experience than their age,” Chi said.

Based on data limitations, the researchers couldn’t determine whether spectators’ feelings of nostalgia were affected by the team’s winning or losing streaks, Chi said.

But the researchers did note that Clemson University students had lower nostalgia scores than local residents or people who traveled to watch the Clemson Tigers play. Chi said the finding highlights additional marketing opportunities for university athletic departments.

Stemming declines in game attendance

Over the past decade, the National Collegiate Academic Association has documented declines in average attendance at football games across all divisions. While the reasons behind the lower attendance are likely complex, cultivating student spectators could help stem the trend, Chi said

In the study, the researchers recommended keeping ticket prices affordable for students, surveying them about what types of pre- and post-game activities they enjoyed most and tailoring activities based on their preferences.

“The millennial generation – now the largest consumer group in the U.S. – values experiences more than material things,” Chi said. “If you provide the type of experience they’re looking for, you can groom them for your future fan base.”

Media contacts:

  • Christina Chi, professor of hospitality business management, WSU Carson College of Business, 509-335-5828, christina.chi@wsu.edu
  • Becky Kramer, communications manager, WSU Carson College of Business, 509-335-3977, becky.kramer@wsu.edu