Fan empathy as a response to athlete transgressions

Sport has the capacity to intimately engage fans, deliver intensely emotional experiences, and create attachments to athletes and teams. This connection can be threatened by a number of actions or incidents, including scandals, and fans may engage in a range of behaviors to protect their identification. The purpose of this study is to explore and explicate the concept of fan empathy and illuminate the processes that fans engage in that lead to an empathetic response. Using data from online discussion forums and in-depth interviews, the authors examined empathy in the context of athlete misbehavior and indiscretions. Results provide evidence for the concept of fan empathy as both a cognitive and emotionally focused response, extending the current knowledge of fan behavior. Further, the findings reveal five sensemaking processes that facilitate an empathetic response in the context of inappropriate athlete behavior. This research has implications for sport managers seeking to manage and maintain relationships with fans, including in the face of actions or behavior that might threaten fan identification and association with the sport entity.