We all know of that “fan” in the stadium. Donned in body paint and wearing franchise merchandise from head to toe, they cheer on their team as if their very life depended on it.

This kind of fan identification is a powerful force for sports teams, and companies interested in tapping into that loyal consumer base are often willing to pay top dollar to align with the team as a sponsor. But sports marketing expert Vassilis Dalakas, professor of business at California State University San Marcos, warns that high fan identification comes at a price, and that the dark side of fandom could prove to be costly because of the effect known as schadenfreude.

A German word gaining popularity in the U.S., schadenfreude describes the pleasure that one party experiences at the misfortunes of another. In the context of sports, it can be  seen  when fans experience the same level of enjoyment when a disliked competitor loses, as they would when their favorite team wins.

This effect proved true for fans of the San Diego Chargers this last season. After the team lost a pivotal game against the New England Patriots and thus dashing any hope of making it to the playoffs, fans overwhelmingly cheered for the Patriots to lose the coveted Super Bowl.

“When bad things happen to a rival, like a championship loss, public scandal or even a serious injury of an opposing player, fans find joy in their competitor’s pain, whether it is perceived deserved or not,” said Dalakas.

Most prevalent among avid sports fans, schadenfreude transcends the playing field and can place a target on team sponsors. Just as a fan is more likely to have a favorable impression toward their team’s sponsors and are thus more likely to purchase those products, highly allegiant fans will feel disdain for and celebrate the missteps of their rivals’ sponsors.

Seeking to better gauge the correlation between high fan identification and schadenfreude, Dalakas and Professor Joanna Phillips-Melancon of Western Kentucky University developed a new measuring index, called IWIN (for Importance of Winning), after surveying college students about their most loved and most hated professional and collegiate sports teams. Their study quantified that when a fan is emotionally invested in their team’s success they experience stronger feelings of schadenfreude toward their perceived rival, and are therefore more likely to engage in negative behavior.

Where do company sponsors fit in this mix?

Dalakas advises that companies should be mindful of the presence and impact schadenfreude could have on their bottom line. In an attempt to increase brand loyalty by sponsoring a sports team, corporations could be alienating potential consumers that have a high fan identification with the rival team.

“Schadenfreude has the potential to isolate customers,” Dalakas said. “Companies need to be aware that while sponsorships can capitalize on the loyalty of one fan base, it can inherently alienate another. Schadenfreude limits a company’s potential market and creates a hostile push-back environment where rival fans celebrate the sponsor’s misfortune.”

Extreme fan identification, or brand identification, is not limited to sports, he added. Dalakas and Phillips-Melancon are currently studying the prevalence of schadenfreude among consumers of Apple and Microsoft products -- notably one of the strongest rivalries in the world of technology.

To limit the effects of schadenfreude but still preserve brand loyalty, Dalakas recommends that sports organizations and sponsors promote socially responsible behavior among their fans and avoid team-sponsored activities that attack opponents, which only further fuels bad behavior.

“Thankfully, sports violence is not as prevalent in the US as it is in Europe,” said Dalakas.  “However, incidents like what happened with the Giants fan at Dodger Stadium show that we are not immune to such unreasonable tragedies happening here too and have to be careful about glorifying ‘passionate’ fans who exhibit the win-at-all-cost mentality and denigrate opponents.”

A German word gaining popularity in the U.S., schadenfreude describes the pleasure that one party experiences at the misfortunes of another. In the context of sports, it can be  seen  when fans experience the same level of enjoyment when a disliked competitor loses, as they would when their favorite team wins.