This article examines the uses and gratifications for watching The Last Dance, a sports documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls that premiered in 2020, and assesses their effect on brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game after having seen the show. The article further offers high level recommendations on communication objectives when conceptualising a docuseries for a sports brand. Results suggest there are significant relationships and effects between the three variables. The strongest relationships are found between uses and gratifications, brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game of viewers who mainly use Netflix to watch sports-related videos. The study further finds that brand-user imagery fit is a strong mediator between uses and gratifications and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game. Data was collected on social media from 442 respondents, mostly from Western Europe, who have watched the first six episodes of the 10-episode series entirely or partially.
Background to the research
Documentary films depict real events to entertain and inform viewers (Reiss, 2019). Over-the-top (OTT) platforms and streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, DAZN, or the NHL TV understood the perceived value that unscripted sports films can add to the main sports product (cf. Goldsmith, 2013) and started efforts to produce original sports documentary series such as All or Nothing: Manchester City (Football/Soccer), First Team: Juventus (Football/Soccer), One Night (Boxing), Behind the Glass: Philadelphia Flyers Training Camp (Ice Hockey), and many other series. The entertaining and captivating characteristics of shows based on the real life of athletes or sports teams can attract large viewing audiences, because “people pay attention to stimuli that are relevant to the satisfaction of their most basic motives”, which include curiosity, idealism, romance, social contact and status, among other motives (Reiss and Wiltz, 2004, p. 363). This underlines the business case for streaming services and other networks to invest in the production of original sports docuseries. Looking at documentary content from the perspective of sports brands or clubs, NFL Films offers an interesting example: They have proven since the 1960s how a consistent, glamorized, and well-constructed recount can be used to create a mythological aura around a story to promote a specific sports product or brand (Vogan, 2014).
The docuseries The Last Dance was chosen as case study for this research, because of its global appeal across generations of sports fans and because of its current media exposure.
Theory and conceptual framework
This study employs an adaptation of the theoretical framework suggested by Papacharissi and Mendelson (2007) to explore “the nature of audience involvement and gratification obtained from viewing [unscripted entertainment]” (p. 356). Papacharissi and Mendelson (2007) base their applied uses and gratifications model on nine reoccurring motives to watch television (TV), as identified by Rubin (1983), and adapt them to include reality entertainment, relaxation, habitual pass time, companionship, social interaction, and voyeurism. The effect that perceived uses and gratifications have on brand-user imagery fit and intentions to watch a Chicago Bulls game will be assessed through scales suggested by Lee and Watkins (2016). The relationship between brand-user imagery fit and intentions to watch a Chicago Bulls game will be examined as well. Figure 1 depicts the conceptual framework for this research.
The seven factors that constitute uses and gratifications in this research are defined as follows:
Reality entertainment is defined as the “realistic and not fictional nature of story and characters” presented in the show (Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007, p. 363). Furthermore, entertainment in general tends to refer to an experience in which viewers passively absorb what is shown in a programme and simply enjoy it because it is amusing or exciting, hence, arouses some kind of emotions (Pine and Gilmore, 1999; Schmitt, 1999). Relaxation refers to the activity of calming down while watching a TV programme or streaming a show after a possibly stressful day; an activity that Zillmann (1982, p. 53) describes as “an antidote to the rousing “fight for survival” in society”. Habitual pass time is defined as an activity that occupies a viewer’s time when there is arguably nothing better to watch or do (cf. Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007). Companionship refers to a passive use of watching or streaming a show for the benefit of not feeling lonely despite the physical absence of other people, instead of watching it for its content (Perse and Ferguson, 1993). The element of social interaction is defined as “the need to interact and socialize with others of like interests to achieve feelings that one is part of a group” (Trail, 2012, p. 4). This study considers online and offline interactions with others during or after watching the show. The term voyeurism is hereby applied in its colloquial usage, which may consider viewers watching reality-based programs “to feel connected to others, to be surprised, to gain personal insight” (Nabi et al., 2003, p. 312). For producers of reality-based programmes such as docuseries, it is relevant to assess which of these elements attract viewers most to watch the show. This leads to the first research question:
RQ1: What are salient uses and gratifications for watching the docuseries The Last Dance?
The second research question looks at the possible impact that uses and gratifications for watching The Last Dance have on brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game:
RQ2: How do uses and gratifications for watching The Last Dance affect brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game?
Miller and Mills (2012) define brand-user imagery fit as “a consumer’s overall assessment of the compatibility or match between themselves and users of the brand” (p. 1475) and further suggest that if the image of current users of a brand fits the image of an individual consumer of the brand, it positively affects the willingness to pay (a premium) for an offered product. Hence, the third research question seeks to answer the following:
RQ3: How does brand-user imagery fit affect the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game?
Streaming services attract users according to their preferences. For example, DAZN plans to become the number one fight sports streaming service and targets users who want to watch combat sports (DAZN, 2020); Disney Plus, on the other hand, targets families with young children (Littleton, 2019), and Netflix is said not to have a typical target audience (Lobato, 2019), although research suggests that millennials are its main user group (PR Newswire, 2016). This highlights relevant demographic differences between streamers of different services (Ewing, 2019), which then may have an impact on the choice of network when a sports brand decides for a streaming service for its docuseries. This leads to the fourth and last research question:
RQ4: What are the differences in the relationships between uses and gratifications, brand-user imagery fit, and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game across users of Netflix, NBA TV, and YouTube?
The questionnaire applied in this research includes scales adapted from Papacharissi and Mendelson (2007), Trail (2012), and Nabi et al. (2003) to assess uses and gratifications. Scales adapted from Lee and Watkins (2016) were used to examine brand-user imagery fit and intention to watch a game. The question-items are listed in Figure 3. General questions on demography were posed, as well as one question asking which streaming/OTT platform respondents spend most time on watching sports-related videos. The items were assessed in a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Posts with the request to participate in the research were published on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The data was collected from Wednesday, 6 May to Friday, 8 May 2020.
442 responses were recorded and accepted. 90.3% of the participants are male and 9.7% female. The largest age-group is 35 to 44 years old (40.3%), followed by 25 to 34-year-olds (21.9%), and 45 to 54-year-olds (18.8%). This is in approximate accordance with the demographics of the population that might have seen Michael Jordan playing with the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s and could reminisce about days long past. More than 95% of the sample lives in Western Europe and is well dispersed across the area. This shows a homogenous sample representing European viewers of The Last Dance, although more gender balance would have been beneficial. Figure 2 offers a visual overview on the demography of the sample.
Figure 3 offers an overview of the question-items including their individual mean (M), the mean for each factor (M), standard deviation (STDEV), factor loading, as well as Cronbach’s Alpha (α), and composite reliability (CR) and average variance extracted (AVE) in order to assess the validity and reliability of the questionnaire.
Answering RQ1: What are salient uses and gratifications for watching the docuseries The Last Dance?
An exploratory factor analysis suggests that the six reality entertainment items are categorised into two factors: (i) items that explicitly refer to the difference between reality and fiction shows (RvF1/2) and (ii) items that solely refer to entertainment characteristics (ENT1/2/3/4). These two factors had the highest mean scores, meaning that respondents watch The Last Dance mainly for entertainment purposes (M = 4.19) and because they find reality-based shows more interesting than fiction programming (M = 4.07). Standard deviations were low to moderate explaining agreement among respondents.
Relaxation (REL1/2/3) had the third highest mean score (M = 3.64). Specifically, respondents reported that watching the show allows them to unwind, which is in line with Zillmann’s (1982) notion that watching TV is a remedy to calm down after a stressful day. A moderate standard deviation shows moderate agreement among respondents.
Voyeurism recorded a mean score close to element of relaxation (M = 3.41), making it the fourth important motive. The item ‘I watch The Last Dance, because I get to see a side of people that I wouldn’t normally get to see’ recorded one of the highest mean scores overall (M = 3.96) and a moderate standard deviation. This illustrates the motivation for viewers to watch the show, because they want to see original content portraying a different perspective to the story, or possibly, an untold side of the story.
Social interaction presented a moderate-to-low mean score (M = 2.37). This means, respondents do not necessarily feel the need to socialise, interact, or talk to others about the show during or after watching it. Nevertheless, the three items in this scale recorded among the highest standard deviation explaining that there is general disagreement in that regard. Some respondents could be motivated to interact with others, despite the low mean score.
The lowest mean scores were recorded for the motives habitual pass time (M = 1.81) and companionship (M = 1.62), both mainly with moderate standard deviation. Respondents seem to actively watch the show, not only because they may not have better things to do or watch, but because they seek to be entertained. Also, respondents do not watch or stream the show passively, but view it because of its content.
In summary, these results suggest that viewers mainly watch The Last Dance
- because of its entertainment value,
- because they find its reality-based setting more appealing than fiction programs,
- because it allows them to unwind, and
- because they get to see a side of people, i.e. the characters portrayed in the show, that they would not normally get to see.
The relationships between these salient uses and gratifications and brand-user imagery and intention to watch a sports game should be considered in the conceptualisation of a docuseries, as discussed in the next section.
Answering RQ2: How do uses and gratifications for watching The Last Dance affect brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game?
Results indicate a significant and strong effect from uses and gratifications on watching the docuseries and brand-user imagery fit (β = 0.750, p<0.001), as well as a significant, although weak effect from uses and gratifications on the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game (β = 0.117, p<0.001); see Figure 4. This means that the show may increase brand-user imagery and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game. Both notions are supported by Donovan et al. (2002), who found that advertising has a stronger effect on brand-user imagery than simple brand imagery, i.e. the packaging of a good. This would create an availability heuristic (cf. Yocco, 2016) that leads to “[consumers being] more likely to choose [brands] that come to mind when it’s time for a purchase” (Donovan et al., 2002, p. 165). Paralleled to the case at hand, The Last Dance docuseries could be considered subliminal advertising for the Chicago Bulls and the game of basketball the brand’s main product. Therefore, given that viewers find great entertainment value in the docuseries, as well as relaxation, and it fulfils their desire to see a side of people that they would not normally get to see (see Figure 3), it can be deduced that the show influences viewers by strengthening their association with viewers’ self-concept and the image of the brand, a concept supported by Sotiropoulos et al. (2011). Because of that, communication objectives of the docuseries need to be defined in accordance with the production team of the show in order to address salient uses and gratifications.
Batra and Keller (2016) offer eight communication objectives for integrated marketing communications, of which the following two objectives can be considered in the context of this study to reinforce brand-user imagery and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game:
Elicit emotions. Pine and Gilmore (1999) describe the importance of the ‘entertainment realm’ in the creation of a holistic brand experience, and highlight how entertainment is influenced by emotions. Similarly, Brakus et al. (2009) explain that brand campaigns built on feelings can have a strong influence on brand satisfaction and brand loyalty, which may bolster purchase intentions. This can be undertaken by framing messages to convey vivid and memorable stories (Yocco, 2016), as well as including nostalgia to fortify brand identification (Gladden and Funk, 2002). Consequently, the dramatic reality of these stories (as seen in The Last Dance) can be amplified through integration within marketing and communication efforts (Rein et al., 2006). Relaxation can be deemed an emotion (Shaver et al., 1987) and, hence, underlines the choice to achieve the objective to elicit emotions with the show.
Create brand imagery and personality. The questionnaire-item ‘I get to see a side of people that I wouldn’t normally get to see’ (VOY2) refers to the colloquial use of voyeurism, which is of high interest to respondents of this study (M = 3.96; STDEV = 1.129). Nabi et al. (2003) explain that viewers are attracted to reality-based shows, because they feel connected to characters that are real and because they learn things about portrayed characters, which they would not learn otherwise. Such connections can be established through the creation and communication of brand image and brand personality. Keller (1993) defines brand image as the way consumers see and think of a brand. Aaker (1997) defines brand personality as “the set of human characteristics associated with a brand” (p. 347) and includes the five dimensions sincerity, excitement, competence sophistication, and ruggedness. These need to be addressed by considering the characteristics that the brand wants to communicate and be recognised by. A possible approach is to focus on psychographics of the target audience, which includes conveying brand values, attitudes, and opinions (Pickton and Broderick, 2005). In the case at hand, the show depicts disagreements and disputes between, for example, Chicago Bulls management and its athletes, whereby involved parties voice their opinions. Viewers may share certain values and attitudes and establish a connection that strengthens––or weakens––the brand-user imagery fit. Therefore, the ‘chosen’ story should be told along values, attitudes, and opinions that form the desired bond between the image and personality of the brand and the image and personality of the target audience.
Answering RQ3: How does brand-user imagery fit affect the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game?
Respondents of this study disagreed when asked if they are “very much like the typical Chicago Bulls fan” (IMA1; M = 2.31, SD = 1.293) or if they “identify with people who prefer the Chicago Bulls to other teams” (IMA3; M = 2.31, SD = 1.302). Respondents moderately disagree when asked if they are “similar to people who like the Chicago Bulls” (IMA2; M = 2.51, SD = 1.260). However, generally high standard deviation across the three items shows disagreement among respondents, highlighting caution in the interpretation of the results.
When asked if their “willingness to watch a Chicago Bulls game would be high” (INT1; M = 2.76, SD = 1.372) and ‘if the likelihood to pay for tickets or pay-per-view to watch the Chicago Bulls’ is high (INT2; M = 2.39, SD = 1.291), respondents moderately disagreed. High standard deviation for both items is reported, again, from which it can be inferred that some respondents may want to watch a Chicago Bulls game and possibly pay for it.
Although numerous respondents may not identify as or with Chicago Bulls fans and seem less interested in watching a Chicago Bulls game, a moderately strong and significant positive effect from brand-user imagery fit to the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game is found and needs to be considered (β = 0.519, p<0.001). Lee and Watkins (2016) noted similar findings in the context of YouTubers’ influence on brand perceptions and intentions; they concluded that viewers would establish stronger relationships with brands, if they would recognise brands as similar to them, and viewers would further establish or increase the intention to buy or consume a product from that brand. As mentioned in the previous section, this suggests to strategically address the target audience’s psychographics and communicate brand values, attitudes, and opinions in the show (cf. Pickton and Broderick, 2005). A possible approach for The Last Dance is to identify viewers with an inclination to liking the Chicago Bulls and highlight brand values, attitudes, and opinions offered in the show in marketing communications efforts (cf. Batra and Keller, 2016).
Answering RQ4: What are the differences in the relationships between uses and gratifications, brand-user imagery fit, and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game across users of Netflix, NBA TV, and YouTube?
A variety of streaming services are offered to different target audiences based on relevant demographic differences between users (Ewing, 2019). When asked “Which streaming/OTT platform do you spend most time on watching sports-related videos?”, the most frequent answer was Netflix (49.5%). This may not come as a surprise, since The Last Dance is officially shown on Netflix and ESPN, and since Netflix is the leading video streaming service at the time of writing of this article, if we do not include YouTube (Statista, 2020a). However, only 3.2% of the respondents mentioned ESPN+ in this case. The second-most mentioned platform is YouTube (16.7%). This, again, is not surprising. With 2 billion monthly active users (Statista, 2020b) and a plethora of free sports content available, YouTube becomes an obvious choice for users interested in sports content. In 10.4% of the responses, participants recorded ‘Other’ as their most-used streaming platform, which could refer to a country-specific platform or a dedicated app from an Internet service provider. Sky Sports were mentioned in 9.5% of the cases. The platform is widely popular for their offers of European football and select NBA and NHL games. Other platforms mentioned are NBA TV (5.2%), DAZN (2.3%), Amazon Prime (1.8%), BBC iPlayer (0.5%), Hulu (0.5%), NHL TV (0.2%), and Rakuten TV (0.2%).
Figure 5 compares the standardised regression weights (β) between the variables across users of Netflix, YouTube, and NBA TV, and the entire sample. Similar patterns regarding strengths of the relationships can be observed across the given platforms. It is noteworthy that the strongest effects can be found among Netflix users between uses and gratifications and brand-user imagery fit (β = 0.943; p<001) and between uses and gratifications and intention to watch a game (β = 0.798; p<0.001). Regression weights between the three variables are moderately to very high (β1 = 0.943, p<0.001; R2 = 0.798, p<0.001; R3 = 0.541; p<0.001). This means that the perceived uses and gratifications from watching The Last Dance have a significant and strong influence on the brand-user imagery fit and on establishing the intention to watch a Bulls game for viewers who mainly watch sports-related content on Netflix. Further dedicated marketing and communications efforts will strengthen these effects. It seems as if Netflix is the appropriate platform to place a docuseries, especially in the case of a limited promotional budget, given its large number of subscribers (Statista, 2020a). Still, it could be argued that although placing a docuseries on Netflix may provide a large reach, the audience may not be as focused as if the show were to be placed on a specific basketball or sports platform.
It is further noteworthy that the strongest significant effect between brand-user imagery fit and intention to watch a game was found on NBA TV (β = 0.547; p<0.001), although only slightly. This can be attributed to the general interest in basketball of users of NBA TV, since NBA TV provides overall access to NBA content. Following on the answer for RQ2, creating brand imagery and personality for viewers who are already interested in the game of basketball and, possibly, identify with or like the Chicago Bulls brand, may be more effective and efficient when trying to convert them from viewers of The Last Dance to viewers of a Chicago Bulls game. The strong positive effect between brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Bulls game can be attributed to the fact that NBA TV subscribers already have access to NBA games and do not need to pay additionally to watch a Bulls game. Marketing and communication efforts targeting this specific audience should be considered.
Lower effects are recorded from viewers that mentioned YouTube as their most-used platform to watch sports-related content (β1 = 0.102, p<0.001; β2 = 0.058, p<0.001; β3 = 0.461; p<0.001). Especially β2 are considerably lower when compared to NBA TV, Netflix, and to the entire sample. This may be due to YouTube’s vast amount of free content (Statista, 2020c) and to the fact that YouTube mainly attracts a younger audience, i.e. 18- to 34-year olds (YouTube, 2020), of which 53% of the respondents in this user-group belong to the 18-35 age group. It can be inferred that placing original sports docuseries on YouTube may be beneficial when seeking to reach a wider audience to create awareness for the product (cf. Batra and Keller, 2016), but may not be beneficial in regard to strengthening brand-user imagery fit and establishing the intention to convert viewers to consume or purchase a further product. An example is offered by the NHL with their 4-episode docuseries Behind the Glass: Philadelphia Flyers Training Camp. The show was uploaded on YouTube in weekly instalments from 27 September to 16 October 2019, around the same time when the NHL season started. The 4 videos include a call to action that leads viewers to sign up for NHL TV, the company’s subscription-based platform that offers live NHL content. Based on the results of this study, it is doubtful that the NHL’s efforts were successful. However, it cannot be assessed due to lack of necessary statistics. Nevertheless, with more than 700,000 views in aggregate for the series and 7,300 thumbs-up versus 125 thumbs-down in a timespan of approximately 8 months (see Ep. 1, 2, 3, 4; accessed 16 May 2020), it can be noted that positive brand awareness may have been established.
This article examined the uses and gratifications for watching The Last Dance and assessed their effect on brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game. Results in RQ1 suggest that viewers mainly watch The Last Dance because of the show’s high entertainment value, appealing reality-based setting, the possibility to unwind, and because they get to see a side of Michael Jordan and the other characters that they would not normally get to see. These factors should be taken into consideration in the production of sports docuseries for a similar target audience.
Findings in RQ2 reveal significant and strong positive influence from uses and gratifications of watching the docuseries on brand-user imagery fit and significant although weak positive influence from uses and gratifications of watching the show on the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game. Messages in and about The Last Dance should be framed to convey memorable stories and include nostalgia. This would elicit emotions and reinforce brand-user imagery and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game. Furthermore, creating brand imagery and personality could be achieved by telling a dedicated story along values, attitudes, and opinions that connect the brand and the target audience.
Findings in RQ3 found significant and moderately strong positive effects between brand-user imagery fit and the intention to watch a Chicago Bulls game. Identifying viewers with an inclination to liking the Chicago Bulls and strategically addressing brand values, attitudes, and opinions offered in the show in marketing communications efforts is recommended to establish or strengthen the intention to watch a game or pay to watch it.
Lastly, RQ4 found the strongest effects between the three variables of this research in the sub-sample that uses Netflix the most to watch sports-related videos. Especially, the impact of uses and gratifications on the intention to watch a Bulls game should be considered by marketer given its importance on converting interested viewers into customers. Also, the impact that brand-user imagery fit has on the intention to watch a Bulls game, in the NBA TV sample, needs consideration. This may be attributed to the high interest for basketball of the user group, which leads to the conclusion that marketing and communications efforts targeting this audience are likely to be more effective than for other audiences.
The sample is predominantly male (90.3%), which may influence the perceived uses and gratifications for watching a sports docuseries. Furthermore, most respondents of the questionnaire live in Western Europe (more than 95%), which reflects a solely European observation of this research. For example, given that the Chicago Bulls are an American sports brand and may be more appealing to American audiences, respondents from the brand’s home country could perceive uses and gratifications of watching The Last Dance differently. Moreover, the scale for the ‘entertainment’ factor (ENT1/2/3/4) recorded a value of 0.635 and is slightly below the expected value of 0.7; its reliability may therefore be contested (Saunders et al., 2007). Nevertheless, its CR value of 0.764 is above the suggested 0.6 and implies reliability (Fornell and Larcker, 1981). The sample to assess the effects in regard to NBA TV users in RQ4 is noticeably smaller than the other samples used in the study. Therefore, the findings are to be considered with caution. Future research that examines the uses and gratifications in relation to brand-user imagery fit and intention to watch certain teams play, specifically in the context of NBA TV, would be greatly beneficial to create a stronger case for the placement of original documentary content on dedicated streaming services such as NBA TV, NHL TV, DAZN, Sky Sports and the likes.
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