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Fan Communities and Subgroups: Exploring Individuals' Supporter Group Experiences

The aggregate of a sport team’s fans may be viewed as a consumption community that surrounds the team and its brand (Devasagayam & Buff, 2008; Hickman & Ward, 2007). Beneath this larger consumption umbrella, smaller groups of consumers may exist (Dholakia, Bagozzi, & Pearo, 2004), such as specific supporter groups for a team. Individuals thus may identify with multiple layers of the consumption group simultaneously (Brodsky & Marx, 2001; Hornsey & Hogg, 2000). Although past researchers have studied supporter groups (Giulianotti, 1996, 1999a; Parry & Malcolm, 2004) and consumption communities (Kozinets, 2001; Muñiz & O’Guinn, 2001; McAlexander, Schouten, & Koenig, 2002), there has been limited research on the interaction among subgroups within the superordinate group. The current study examines the American Outlaws (AO), a supporter group for the United States men’s national soccer team (USMNT). AO members belong to local AO chapters (subgroups) as well the national (superordinate) group. This structure creates multiple levels of identification and is conducive to studying the phenomenon in question. Through employing a grounded theory methodology, data were collected via participant observation and ethnographic interviews over a two year period. The current study identifies six prominent foci of identification among AO members: the USMNT, the United States of America (national identity), the sport of soccer, AO National, AO Local, and one’s small social group. These identities are found to be mutually reinforcing and shape members’ interactions with the team, the supporter group, and social groups therein. Specifically, the regional subgroups (AO Local chapters) create opportunities for social interaction, which fosters members’ sense of community and group identification. In turn, this strengthens group cohesion at the subgroup and superordinate group levels. Further, supporter group members alter their team consumption experiences by creating places of prolonged identity salience at live games and when watching games on television. These events increase identification with the supporter group and its related identities. For practitioners, implications of this study include the understanding of supporter groups’ impact on members’ frequency and duration of brand-related consumption.
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