Evoking the Past: Exploring Nostalgia’S Relevance to Sport Consumption

ABSTRACT - The phenomenon of evoking the past is known in marketing research literature as nostalgia and a person who is said to be nostalgia-prone, is someone who constantly uses these earlier memories as a reference point for their enjoyment of experiences or their attitudes towards products. This research explores new ground in examining the relevance of nostalgia-proneness to sport consumption. Specifically, the research examines whether nostalgia is an important concept to sport enthusiasts and is worthy of more detailed investigation. It would appear from the depth interviews that people refer to very specific sport related activities, memories, smells, events rather than general feelings about past times. Further work is sggested to develop a sport specific nostalgia scale.


Jane Summers, Melissa Johnson, and Janet McColl-Kennedy (2001) ,"Evoking the Past: Exploring Nostalgia’S Relevance to Sport Consumption", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 108-113.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 108-113


Jane Summers, University of Southern Queensland, Australia

Melissa Johnson, Louisiana State University, U.S.A.

Janet McColl-Kennedy, University of Queensland, Australia


The phenomenon of evoking the past is known in marketing research literature as nostalgia and a person who is said to be nostalgia-prone, is someone who constantly uses these earlier memories as a reference point for their enjoyment of experiences or their attitudes towards products. This research explores new ground in examining the relevance of nostalgia-proneness to sport consumption. Specifically, the research examines whether nostalgia is an important concept to sport enthusiasts and is worthy of more detailed investigation. It would appear from the depth interviews that people refer to very specific sport related activities, memories, smells, events rather than general feelings about past times. Further work is sggested to develop a sport specific nostalgia scale.


Evoking the past, or transporting us back in time, is a skill that modern advertisers have used to repaint memories of earlier and/or fonder times in an effort to appeal to whole generations whose shared collective identity overwhelms the traditional distinctions of wealth, race, and geographic locations. This phenomenon of evoking the past is known in marketing research literature as nostalgia and a person who is said to be nostalgia-prone, is someone who constantly uses these earlier memories as a reference point for their enjoyment of experiences or their attitudes towards products.

Sport marketers readily acknowledge that they are selling "memories", either as memories that individuals have experienced personally or in a collective sense. Memories are what games are made of and encourage spectators (sport consumers) to come back (Chang and Johnson 1995; Lascu, Giese and Toolan 1995; Kahle, Kambarra & Rose 1996; Warnick 1994; Veeck 1965).

This study specifically explores the relevance of nostalgia-proneness to sport consumption and in doing so considers the relevance of Holbrook’s (1993) general nostalgia-proneness scale to sport consumption. The paper commences with a review of the literature applicable to nostalgia and nostalgia-proneness. Discussion then centres on the results of a series of depth interviews. Finally, implications for marketers and academics are discussed.


Nostalgia has been called an illness, a phenomenon, a feeling and an emotion (Hofer 1688; Davis 1979; Hirsch 1992). Across a spectrum of historical and social science disciplines, theorists have traced the origins of nostalgia as a concept and attempted to define its impact upon the human condition (Jones 1980).

The Swiss physician Johannes Hofer originally coined the word "nostalgia" in the late 17th Century. Until that time, nostalgia was not thought to be an emotion or a feeling at all, but rather was thought to be a disease with physical origins and symptoms. Jacoby (1985) provides some insight into the path from the times when nostalgia was thought to be a disease to the present. He describes nostalgia as,

'something very akin to the English homesickness and equivalent to the German Heimweh. The term comes from the Greek nostos (the return home) and algos (pain). In addition to homesickness in the narrower sense, nostalgia has come to mean a longing for what is past, a painful yearning for a time gone by’ (1985, p.5).

Research concerning nostalgia has over time, attempted to trace this transformation of thought from disease to emotion in some depth (Havlena and Holak 1991; Jacoby 1985; Hirsch 1992). In all cases, researchers refer to nostalgia as a yearning for the past. Hirsch (1992) however is careful to point out that the past is usually a sanitised and therefore an idealised place and this should caution particularly marketers in its use.

The evolution of the nostalgia concept as proposed by Davis (1979) is perhaps the most insightful. He describes a transformation of the meaning of nostalgia that has been de-medicalised and has undergone a process of de-psychologisation as well. He explains this by saying;

'whatever residual connotations of aberrance or mental malfunctionBeven of a minor or transitory characterBmayhave clung to the word following its habitation of two centuries in the realm of psychiatry, these too are rapidly being dissipated through positively tinged popular and commercial usage. So clearly does it come to our tongues nowadays that it is much more likely to be classed with such familiar emotions as love, jealousy, and fear than with such 'conditions’ as melancholia, obsessive compulsion, or claustrophobia.’ (1979, p.5).

Three central themes are used repeatedly by Davis (1979). The first theme relates to the transformation of the meaning of nostalgia from a medical and psychiatric condition to a contemporary description of what is clearly an emotion or feeling. The second theme is that the contemporary feelings associated with nostalgia are positive in nature. This positive theme is similar to the sanitised and idealised past elaborated by Hirsch (1992). The third and most obvious premise is that the material of nostalgic experience is the past. He concluded by prophesising that the word nostalgia would in time, acquire connotations that extend its meaning to, 'any sort of positive feeling toward anything past, no matter how remote or historical’ (1979, p.8).

Nostalgia is widely used today. Things old or past are being revised, reused, reborn and renewed in advertisements, in the cinema and in all aspects of fashion and architecture. However, there is some theoretical debate over the legitimacy of nostalgia outside the boundaries of one’s own past experiences. Distinct boundaries for the use of nostalgia have been proposed by Havlena and Holak (1991) based on the concept of past experiences. They propose that rather than using the premise that anything past is an acceptable basis for the application of nostalgia, that one must draw from their own personal history. They suggest that individuals cannot be nostalgic for a period or event during which he or she has not lived.

The definition of nostalgia by Holbrook and Schindler (1991) on the other hand, includes of the idea of pre-birth which is in opposition to the premise that nostalgia applies only to one’s personally experienced past (Davis, 1979). Their definition of nostalgia is;

'a preference (general liking, positive attitude, or favorable affect) toward objects (people, places, or things) that were more common (popular, fashionable, or widely circulated) when one was younger (in early adulthood, in adolescence, in childhood, or even before birth)’ (1991, p.330).

The Holbrook (1993) continued to advocate this interpretation, referring to Lowenthal’s (1985) view that nostalgia reaches back historically to engulf the whole past. This interpretation includes the personally experienced past but also makes allowances for the collective memory from an historical era (Holbrook 1993; Lowenthal 1985; Jones 1980).

Despite the various definitions of nostalgia, there are some common threads in all contemporary definitions. The most obvious is that nostalgia refers to the past. Another fundamental element is the reference to nostalgia as an emotion or feeling. Holbrook calls nostalgia, 'a basic aspect of the human condition’ (1993, p.245). Jones labels nostalgia as a 'functional emotion’ (1980, p.284), while Davis says that nostalgia is, 'deeply implicated in our sense of who we are and what we are about’ (1979, p.31). This is extremely important as it defines our propensity to experience nostalgia as a facet of individual character. Holbrook (1993, p.246) calls this nostalgia proneness and classifies this as a psychographic variable in the study of consumer behavior (Holbrook and Schindler 1996). Finally, there is the modern view of nostalgia as a positive feeling (Holbrook 1993; Holbrook and Schindler 1991 and 1996; Belk 1988; Davis 1979).

Thus, the contemporary view appears to be that nosalgia is:

'The positive feelings and emotions directed towards anything (people, places, objects, experiences etc.) from the past that helps define who we are in the present.’


The concept of nostalgia has received increasing attention in consumer research over the last decade (Holbrook and Schindler 1996; Holbrook 1993; Hirsch 1992; Havlena and Holak 1991; Holbrook and Schindler 1991; Belk 1988). The role of nostalgia has been examined in three key areas. First, the role of nostalgia in socialisation, through the link between age and the development of consumer tastes over time (Holbrook and Schindler 1996; Richins 1994; Holbrook 1993; Hirsch 1992; Holbrook and Schindler 1989). Second nostalgia as an explanation for the gathering of possessions, as a means of storing the memories and feelings that attach our sense of past (Belk 1990 and 1988, Jones 1980). Finally, the existence and impact of nostalgia-proneness as a psychographic variable which can explain consumer tastes, preferences and emotions (Walker and Moses 1996; Piirto Heath 1996;Holbrook 1993; Hirsch 1992; Havlena and Holak 1991; Holbrook and Schindler 1991; Belk 1990 and 1988).

Notwithstanding this research, Havlena and Holak (1991) claim that more research is needed to measure nostalgia proneness across a wider variety of products and to examine the relationship of individual characteristics to nostalgia-proneness. Furthermore, prior research has not adequately addressed nostalgic experiences or the value of nostalgia proneness as a segmentation variable. Holbrook (1993, p.246) proposes that nostalgia proneness is a facet of ' individual characterBa psychological variable, aspect of life-style, or general customer characteristicsBthat may vary among consumers, independent of time- or age-related factors.’

Yet, some researchers (Havlena and Holak 1991; Jones 1980) believe that nostalgia tells us more about the conditions of the present than the past and more about the societal situation than the age-related vulnerability of the individual. Havlena and Holak (1991) point out the apparent tendency of individuals to feel nostalgic emotions more strongly during transitional periods in the life cycle. Jones (1980) states that;

'...(nostalgia)..is a functional emotion which, by shoring up a sagging sense of identity can help either a person or a generation cope with difficult times (p.284).. Nostalgia thrives on dislocations in the life cycle, whether in the life of an individual or the life of a generation. Since nostalgia attempts to bridge gaps in our lives, between old selves and new selves, it follows that it is most likely to break out at times when disruptions are the sharpest’. (1980 p.282).

In addition, the continual measurement of feelings and emotions towards only those products, services, objects or experiences that have nostalgic value, limits the exploration of the use of broader nostalgic appeals. The object or experience need only be memory evoking or suitable for the use of memory-evoking appeals for the application of the nostalgic concept. This places virtually no boundaries on the use of nostalgia in marketing and highlights the relevance of nostalgia-proneness as a psychographic segmentation variable. It may be the degree to which the individual and not the object is nostalgia-prone, that is most relevant. Those with positive attitudes toward the past have been found to be more open to emotional consumption experiences and more sensitive to interpersonal feelings (Holbrook and Schindler 1996).

Furthermore, Holbrook and Schindler (1996 believe that good reasons exist for marketers in the areas of entertainment and the arts to focus on bases for segmentation associated with nostalgia. They suggest that there may well be a connection between nostalgia and other aspects of personality or lifestyle, thus deserving research.


The pioneering sport marketer, Bill Veeck (1962) said that being in the sport industry means that you are in the entertainment business. Rather than selling a product you are selling the anticipation of what is going to happen and you need to give consumers memories to take away. Importantly, Veeck (1965) believed it was the memories that often kept sport fans coming back next season. Jones (1980) further claimed that the emotion evoked for baseball is one the most classic examples of nostalgia at work in contemporary society.

Early studies have suggested that both direct and indirect sport consumption tends to vary by age, sex, marital status, education, occupation, and opportunities provided by season length and type of sport (Kenyon 1996; McPherson 1972; Voigt 1971; Nielsen 1971; Lowe and Harrold 1972). More recent studies have also examined the effect of personality, attitudes and benefits sought (Chang and Johnson 1995); level of sport involvement (Lascu, Giese and Toolan 1995) and attitudinal motivation (Kahle, Kambara and Rose 1996).

It has become increasingly obvious that motivations for sport consumption are well beyond merely desires for entertainment. The emotional involvement and the connection between the team, the community, and the self are all factors that are unique to sport (Kahle, Kambara and Rose 1996). However, the consumer’s emotional involvement with the past, or the degree to which they are nostalgia-prone has not been examined to date.

There exists then an opportunity to explore further the relevance and role of nostalgia as it relates to the consumption of sport and thus, for this research to make a contribution to both theory and practice through its findings.

This study will show, through depth interviews, that nostalgia plays a role in people’s attitudes and emotions as they relate to sport. This is what we would expect given the review of the relevant literature. These results will provide a valuable contribution to the theory and set the basis for future such work in the application of nostalgia, as a psychological variable, in many other consumption settings.


In order to determine the association of nostalgic concepts, twenty depth interviews were carried out. These interviews were conducted with people recruited from two businesses, both employing a mixture of professional and semi-professional staff. Volunteers were interviewed for approximately 35-45 minutes in a semi-structured interview format. Participants included 12 males and 8 females in the following age categories:

$3 x18-21yrs

$4 x 22-25 yrs

$7 x 26-30 yrs

$4 x 31-40 yrs

$2 x 51-60 yrs

In sum, the results of the depth interviews provided support of the relevance of he concept of nostalgia-proneness to sport consumption. Three main themes emerged in relation to nostalgia. The first theme was nostalgic memories of sport and childhood, the second theme was nostalgic association of sport with better times and the third theme was nostalgic association with the experience of the sporting event itself.


Theme 1BSport and childhood

Respondents were asked a series of unstructured questions about their fondest or best memories of sport. Whilst the memories of sport from childhood were common among the subjects in general, they were more strongly expressed by the male subjects than by the females. Whilst females did have some nostalgic association with sport and childhood, it was usually not as strongly commented on compared to the males in the group.

On probing, in relation to childhood memories for these females, it would seem that they had stronger nostalgic memories of their childhood in relation to other activities like cooking with their mothers, family rituals and objects (dolls, clothes, books and so on) than they did specifically in relation to sport. For example:

'My fondest childhood memory is making apple pie with mom..we’d end up with flour everywhere and I’d eat lots of pastry..but the pies were the best’ (female)

'I always remember Christmas as being the best time when I was a kid.. all mum’s relatives would come for Christmas lunch and there’d be heaps of kidswe’d all play and eat and it was so great.. then in the evening we’d go to Dads relatives houseit was the same every year and I loved it!’ (female).

Nostalgic association with sport for these females appeared to emerge later in their lives, particularly in their university and early adulthood years (19B28 years). In comparison the males in the group appeared to have more direct nostalgic associations with childhood sport.

For those for whom positive feelings about sport were related with nostalgic memories of childhood and belonging, when probed about their fondest or best memories of sport, participants also frequently recalled childhood and family experiences. For example, the following response shows a direct association between the past and present sport consumption habits of this participant, all within a positive nostalgic framework:

'I always think of sport as a real family thing. My family was all into sports. I have two brothers and a sister and when I was in Little League everyone used to come and watch me. It was like my day, they were all cheering for me. That’s kind of a big deal when you’re a kid like you’re special or something’ (male)

'I remember running around the yard with dad, kicking the football and having fun it was I guess a bonding thing between dad and I and I always remember it being special’ (male).

It would seem that female’s nostalgic memories relate more to the social aspects of sport consumption, rather than to the participation aspects which was strongly articulated in the males in the sample. In spite of this many males also reflected on the social aspects of sporting memories. For example:

'Oh that’s an easy one (referring to the question "What are your fondest memories of sport?). Dad and Grandpa. I used to sit and watch football with them every single week-end of the season. They would argue about players and the referees. I used to sit beside Grandpa in this big overstuffed recliner. It was a man thing. Grandma used to yell at us to turn it downand we never did (laughs). Same thing every week. It was like their time to talk too you know they used to talk about the farm, rain, stuff like that. I watch football with my son and I try and get Dad to come over now. I want it to be like that for himit is like living the past again tooit smells the same. Football smells like peanuts, well I guess that’s stupid butor maybe it was that chair or something. I just hope my kids remember stuff like that.’(male)

'We had such great times watching the (university) team. Even if they lost we still celebrated, it was all a matter of degree we (my friends and I) still sit around reminiscing about those times and wondering if our kids will get up to all the hyjinks that we did’ (female).

Theme 2BSport and recreation of the past

The second broad theme that was identified was a nostalgic association of sport with better times. This theme is also somewhat evident in those responses already quoted, including a wish to recreate the past, the teaching and learning of life lessons and the feeling of being special and gaining attention in the past. Interestingly there did not appear to be any variation in the responses of males and females in relation to this theme. For example:

'It teaches you discipline and teamwork, skills that can be applied through your lifelike dedication and desire. God I sound like my father (laughs). Really though, it is more than just fitness. When I was a kid I used to play in all the team sports and I think it made me better at being in groups. I mixed better. Maybe that’s why my parents wanted me to play maybe that’s why I sound like my father now (laughs).’

'I remember mum and dad always telling me that it didn’t matter if I won or lost, but it was whether I tried my best(smiles) I still find it hard to loose, but I think I am a better person for it having played lots of sportmaybe it has made me more competitive too.’

The other important theme in this response is the commitment to current sport consumption due to a wish to recreate the positive interactions and feelings from the past. This gives some support to the idea that nostalgia proneness is relevant in explaining the degree of sport enthusiasm and consumption for an individual.

The following responses further support this theme. Respondents were asked if they thought that sports people today were more talented than they used to be. In general this question evoked strong emotions and opinions. Some of the notable responses were:

'No way! They get more attention today but they aren’t as talented. Athletes used to achieve much greater things with far less training and knowledge than they get now. They didn’t have all that fancy equipment and stuff either. Look at how long it has taken for some of the records to be broken too, and they only do that now 'cause of the gear.’

'People say that (that sports people today are more talented) but it is just bullshit. The games have changed and they have better equipment but they aren’t more talented. They are all overpaid drugged up superstars not athletes that’s for damn sure.’

'Well if they are more talented it isn’t because they are more dedicated. They used to know what it was all for. To win for each other and their team and thatbut now. They are just individuals with individual contracts. That’s why I would rather watch lower level competition like college or high school stuff ... the professional competition isn’t even sport to me. If you want to see real guts like it used to be you’ve gotta watch that level now. Sport comes from the insidethey learn to forget that by the time they go pro.’

'I think that many athletes have forgotten why they are there. They are so selfish now, It’s all for the money and not for the sport itself, allt of them don’t even look like they’re enjoying it! I’m note sure I want my kids being professional sportspeople!’.

'Even the sports commentators reckon that the sportspeople today are not as tough or as dedicated. They are usually ex sportsplayers themselves and they often comment on how it was when they were playing, trying to juggle jobs, family and money problems. I don’t think that this is the case for all sports though, like swimmers are still tough but then they are a pretty solitary sport..’

Theme 3BSport and the experience

The final theme related to respondents’ nostalgic references to the social or experiential aspects of sport consumption. In recounting sporting memories, many respondents also included detail of the experience which, on further questioning, added intensity to their memories. For example:

'Man, I remember one big football game, it was pouring with rain, freezing, we were soaked, and it was the best game I’ve ever been to. Not just the fact that we won, but we (the spectators) were all dirty, cold and we sort of just got down there and encouraged each other to yell and really get into it(smiles).. I’ll always remember that night.’

'Well, I often don’t remember the games, or even who plays, but I always remember who was there and the great times we have at the games I don’t much care whether the team wins or looses, though when they win we do have a better party afterwards’.

'I wouldn’t like my girlfriend to come to the games with me much. It’s a kinda guy thing you know.. we drink a bit too much, yell a lot, tell sick jokes and you know sort of just make animals of ourselves.. it’s great and almost better than the game itself’

Choosing one level of competition over another because of the nostalgic feelings about what sport is could be related to some kind of product definition or branding preferences. This concept is in line with Holbrook’s (1993) findings about consumption preferences being related to nostalgia, and also Belk’s (1990) belief that the collection of possessions plays a role in constructing and maintaining people’s sense of the past. Overall, participant’s nostalgic references of sport and relating them to better times seems to support Jones’ (1980) premise that nostalgia bridges gaps for people between old and new selves and good and bad times. Whether this is a personal or generational phenomenon, the relationship between nostalgia and sport consumption seems to deserve further attention.

In summary, the depth interviews lead us to conclude that nostalgic concepts appear to play an important role in sport consumer’s emotions and attitudes toward sport on a number of levels. Whether serving as a mechanism for childhood reflection, learning of life lessons or as a social situation, sport has many complex meanings and memories for consumers.


The results of this study and the review of the literature relating to nostalgia would suggest that nostalgia proneness should be a relevant variable in the segmentation of sport consumers. Veeck’s (1962) statement that sport marketers should focus on selling a the anticipation of what is going to happen and that to be successful they need to give consumers memories to take away as it is these memories that often kept sport fans coming back next season is strongly supported by these research findings. That this area of application appears to be untested reflects the relative infancy of this area of consumer research.

Whether the sport consumer is nostalgic about sportparticipation or about their sporting experiences, it would seem that sport consumers would be sensitive to memory evoking appeals as suggested by Holbrook and Schnider (1996). Similarly the use of nostalgia proneness as a psychographic segmentation variable would also appear to have some merit. Certainly the evidence from this preliminary research would support the premise that there is a connection between nostalgia and other aspects of personality or lifestyle in relation to sport consumption (Holbrook and Schindler 1996).

One method of measuring nostalgia proneness is by using Holbrook’s (1993) Nostalgia Proneness scale. It contains 20 statements, designed to represent the phenomenon of nostalgia proneness. These statements are ordered randomly with 10 worded as high and 10 as low in nostalgia (Holbrook 1993, p.247). Unfortunately this scale does not use items that would be relevant when applied to sport consumption setting. The transcripts from the depth interviews supports this view.

Whilst it would seem that nostalgia appears to be a common and relevant theme in these discussions about sport, the actual nostalgic comments are very sport specific. For instance in the interview with the person who spoke about his dad and Grandpa, he spoke about ' it is like being in the past again it smells the same. Football smell I just hope my kids remember stuff like that..’ By contrast, Holbrook’s (1993) general nostalgia proneness scale refers to products rather than services in its statements. For example, 'They don’t make 'em like they used to’ and 'Products are getting shoddier’. Furthermore, general nostalgia proneness and sport nostalgia proneness appear to be two different constructs. Thus, it would in order to measure 'sport-specific nostalgia’ a new scale will need to be developed and tested.


This paper has implications both for academics and for sport marketers. Firstly in terms of academics, this paper suggests that nostalgia is an important concept to sport enthusiasts and is worthy of more detailed investigation. Specifically, those interviewed spoke passionately about memories of games and wanted to continue to have these great memories of games and for others to enjoy these sorts of memories. It appears from the depth interviews that people refer to very specific sport related activities, memories, smells, events rather than general feelings about past times. Further work is justified to develop a sport specific nostalgia scale.

Second, in terms of sport marketing practitioners, this paper suggests that sport enthusiasts certainly do think in terms of past times, memories of great sporting events and games. They think very specifically about the excitement, how they felt, what people said, who they were with, parents, grandparents or other significant people in their lives. Even how things smelt brought back wonderful memories. Clearly these have important implications for sport marketers.

Being able to bring back the great times and encourage people to attend or watch games could well be encouraged through the depicting of great times with "Dad and Grandpa" all sitting around the television, sitting in a comfortable reclining chair watching a great game, and the wonderful sight and smell of peanuts (or other relevant food/drink). Similarly, close and happy times could be depicted showing variants of this theme for instance, rather than showing Dad and Grandpa the image could be centred around friends being together watching a game and eating and drinking and all having a good time together. Again showing food and drink associated with the memories and people commenting on the smells associated with the past could be used to great effect.


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Jane Summers, University of Southern Queensland, Australia
Melissa Johnson, Louisiana State University, U.S.A.
Janet McColl-Kennedy, University of Queensland, Australia


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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E8. Perceptions of Out-Group Members: The Effects of Language Abstraction

Afra Koulaei, University of South-Eastern Norway
Daniela Cristian, City University of London, UK

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