Free agency a waste? Sports fans prefer teams that succeed with homegrown talent over offseason signings

LAWRENCE, Kan. — If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably heard the term “hometown hero” during a game. Although big-money sports franchises usually bring in big-time free agents to help them win, a new study finds their fans would rather root for the local kid. Researchers at the University of Kansas find sports fans tend to prefer homegrown champions to titles which feel “bought.”

When it comes to building a championship-caliber pro sports team, there’s two main schools of thought. Many organizations opt for the homegrown approach of drafting and developing their own players. The clubs then go into a “rebuilding” phasing, starting the process all over again once those players inevitably become too expensive to keep.

Other franchises are much more aggressive with their money, forking over tens of millions of dollars for the hottest stars. In many cases, it’s the high-spending teams that win more championships. The New York Yankees, Miami Heat, and Golden State Warriors immediately come to mind.

“People reliably preferred the ‘built’ teams and slighted the ‘bought’ teams,” says lead author Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at KU, in a university release. “This was true of sports teams — even if they didn’t know them, such as New Zealand rugby teams — and work teams such as a squad of lawyers.”

Does teamwork and chemistry trump talent?

Researchers surveyed over 1,500 Americans for this project. Questionnaires asked each respondent if they prefer teams that win via purchasing excellence or teams that win by cultivating and building it in-house. Across the board, people want to root for teams built from the ground up over teams constructed entirely through free agency and deep pockets.

“Fans appreciate the effort and commitment required to build a team from the ground up,” adds study co-author Christian Crandall, professor of psychology at KU. “Hard work is a central American value, and it certainly applies to work and sports — everyone loves a winner, but even more so when the backstory is based on perspiration and determination.”

Study participants told researchers they believe a home grown team almost always has better chemistry among players, stronger camaraderie, and more team cohesion. Notably, though, most respondents say they appreciate the hard work of building a championship team from scratch above cohesion or chemistry.

“This explains part of the appeal of winning teams and part of the appeal of faithful fans of teams that work, struggle and manage to eke out just a few wins each season,” Gillath concludes. “It could also help explain people’s endorsement of Cinderella teams in competitions like March Madness. People love to see ‘unknown’ teams who work hard beat highly ranked teams with top one-and-done recruits.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

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