Near the end of the World Conference on Sport and the Environment in Vancouver yesterday, Kim Smither of marketing firm Octagon Worldwide displayed a series of photos of screaming, face-painted sports fans.

“Imagine the power you’d have if you could harness this,” she said.

Talk of “harnessing” the passion of sports showed up everywhere at the two-day conference, but Smither moved past the cliché and made a case that athletes are in a great position to promote environmentally friendly behavior—if they understand the diversity of their fans.

She walked conference delegates, including several Olympic medalists, through Octagon’s “Passion Drivers” market research, which tries to determine exactly why sports fans are moved to scream themselves hoarse, or at least plan their weekends around televised games.

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The company found viewers are drawn to spectator sports for different reasons — team loyalty, for example, or nostalgia, or gloating rights, or admiration of individual athletes, or a sense of tribal belonging.

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Octagon’s Olympic-focused research uncovered national trends. Devotion to the national team is the most important motivator for Chinese viewers. In England, nostalgia and appreciation for history and tradition provide the strongest emotional connection to the games. Canadians are driven by an affinity for their own team, for home-grown athletes, and for the cold-weather sports they consider “theirs.” Americans are exceptionally drawn to individual athletes (hence NBC’s human-interest vignettes).

If environmental groups — and Olympians who speak on their behalf — want the attention of viewers, understanding their different motivations is invaluable, Smither said.

“If you know why people are passionate, you can really target your message,” she said. “Sports fans are not a homogenous group. Some people are going to tune it out, but if you can find a way to speak in your audience’s language, you have a much better chance of being heard.”

Most of the self-selected respondents to Octagon’s surveys said Olympic athletes could persuade them to change their environmental athletes. Interestingly, they overwhelmingly said the messages of all athletes — not just superstars — mattered to them.

“I believe they hold the key to bringing sustainability to the Olympics,” Smither said of the majority of Olympians who do not win medals.

The research also found that people considered the Olympics an appropriate venue for sustainability messages. So they aren’t necessarily demanding that competitions provide an escape from social and political problems.

Anna van der Kamp, a silver medalist in rowing and project director for Clean Air Champions, a group of Canadian Olympians that promotes environmental health, led a panel responding to Octagon’s research. I asked her whether spectator sports have an escapist nature that limits the amount of social change they can promote.

If you can identify viewers that watch sports for escapist reasons (what Octagon calls “Self indulgence” and “Me time”), you can avoid them and target messages toward other groups, van der Kamp said.

The research was new to her, but she said Clean Air Champions has found its personal-health message much more successful with those already involved in athletics.

“People who are physically active, like amateur athletes, are more likely to take on new actions related to the environment,” she said. “So we seek them out.”

Other than urging athletes to step up and start endorsing environmental stuff, the Octagon presentation was more about inspiration than strategy. But it suggested sports fans might be quicker to engage in social issues than one might assume.