When I was 22, my friend and I started to play a game: he would say a city, and I would guess the name of any sports team there. He would say the name of a sports team, and I would guess the city. As a rabid sports fan, he found me to be some type of hilarious alien. The years went on, and I would find myself in the presence of a sports game, claiming that my eyes glazed over, seeing through the TV.
I noticed myself becoming cynical, scoffing at the idea of spending a Sunday indoors watching football. I would choose to do anything else on a Sunday, and to quote an eloquent non-sports fan, “Watching paint dry sounds more fun.
Once upon a time, I was part of team sports. Once upon a time, I was competitive, and to quote my family, “The biggest sore loser ever.”
On the occasion I get into a game, for instance the last 5 minutes of the Cavs/Warriors 2016 Finals, which I turned on after an episode of Game of Thrones. I lost my mind and couldn’t go to sleep with my adrenaline off the charts. I tell myself: I can’t handle that extra, unnecessary stress of being a sports fan. So, living life blissfully unaware is way more productive.
But, I can’t neglect the facts: 2/3 of American adults watch the NFL (and 52% of those fans are women!). Over half of Americans watch MLB, and 4 in 10 people watch the NBA. I decided it was time to learn more about how the other half live. I polled over 100 people, and read existing research to tell the story of the modern sports fan.
The extreme emotions of a good game
The psychology of a sports fan is still being determined. The leading hypothesis by psychologist,Robert Cialdini is that our brains get confused about whether achievements or characteristics belong to the body it inhabits or to another person. This is a common occurrence between people who are in relationships (my successes are your successes), but watching sports brings upon the same connection. “We bask in the reflected glory because there is some point of neural contact between the team and our self esteem,” explains Brian Barth.
It’s way more than winning though, there’s also extreme emotion tied to loss, rivalry, and the general emotional roller coaster of a good game. “Schadenfreude” a German phrase, is related to the dopamine released in the pleasure of ones misfortune, and “Eustress” is a type of stress plus ecstasy combo, both considered leading factors in viewing experiences. So, for true sports fans, one game is a mental dose of some pretty intense emotions!
Knowing this still begs the question: Why?
I’ve been dribbling since I was 2, it’s just a thing I’ve always done
A common theme surrounding sports fans is the appreciation of insane athleticism. While every New Yorker expressed true schadenfreude against Boston and vice versa, it seemed at its core, a lot of fans grew up loving and playing sports, so they understand the rules, appreciate the talent, and spend each sport season bonding (or heckling) their friends pre, during and post games.
When I see a gaggle of people focused on a game, yelling at a box, what I’m really seeing is a community. It’s a way to bond and it brings not only friends together but also cities.
Nearly everyone had pride to either the teams from their hometown, where they went to school, or who their parents or partner support. A University of Wisconsin alumni said, "I love my team because they represent the values I believe in: blue collar, hard working, well spoken dudes." As for a St. Louis native, he said, "The Cardinals are all we have besides Nelly."
People are invested, if you are loyal to a team, you follow it year by year, the same way that myPhish friends follow tours and know every show set-list ever. While sports are just a game to non-sports fan, that isn’t a bad thing. As Brian, a once college basketball star says, “It’s beautiful. Winning is a tangible thing and so is losing. There are a bunch of rules and it’s you and your team versus the other team. Winning and losing create stakes and stakes are what makes accomplishments feel like accomplishments.”
In an ever complex world, sports make sense as a form of clean entertainment. Except for…
Sports in the greater context of the country
It’s no secret that the country’s biggest leagues are too often tied up in politics, controversies, health issues, drug abuse, serious crimes, and poor use of tax money. One Baltimore fan polled stopped following her team all together after the Ray Rice incident. It’s often quite clear that the advertisers and the profits surrounding the industry come first, instead of the game and athletes that sports fans support so much.
Sports as an industry is huge. From Fantasy sports, to its reach into pop culture, fashion, and more, there are mega stars that are driving economies.
Shout out to the NBA: 17 out of 30 NBA teams have seen improvements in their local markets. As the fastest growing sport internationally with a young demographic, they appear to be the league to emulate. “It’s a league that’s political, but it’s not defined by politics. Its stars can be controversial, but they’re not defined by controversy. It’s a league that’s learned to put the main thing — the game — front and center while respecting its players’ convictions and individuality,” explains National Review’s David French.
Athletes are celebrities just as much as actors and musicians, "Going to a game is just like going to theater but with yelling," said actress, Rachel. And athletes are under scrutiny all the same. There’s no way to simplify the impact sports has. Considering that over half of America is invested in games, I truly hope the way the NBA is trending reigns superior over the NFL crap.
All time favorite moments in sports
When asked how long are you affected by the outcome of a game, the range was from “none to forever.” It was challenging to find a median there, but safe to say that sports fans clearly hold on to their eustress and schadenfreude, because when asked to talk about their favorite moments, there was over 20 years of highlights to recount:
- "Patriots Super Bowl win against the Seahawks where Malcolm Butlet intercepted the ball on the end line in the last play of the game." - Ben from Massachusetts
- "E.A.G.L.E.S Eagles Super bowl champs!" - Asya from Pennsylania
- "Tom Brady’s first year, replacing Drew Bledsoe and winning the Super Bowl." - Jason from Massachusetts
- "Does Sandy Kofax count?" - Briana from NY
- "When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, we used our fake IDs to get into a bar near the reflecting pool in Boston. When they won we went buck wild and people jumped into the pool in a celebratory blur." - Dave from Massachusetts
- "Giants beating the Patriots in Super Bowl 42. They beat the undefeated Patriots. David Tyree catch." - Eric from NY
- "2001 World Series game 5, Yankees versus Diamondbacks." - Brian from NY
- "US Women’s National Soccer team won in 1999 in a shootout with Brandi Chastain, that was really significant to my entire childhood and into adulthood." - Pearl from Massachusetts
- "Sam Dekker’s step back 3 against Kentucky in NCAA semi final in 2015." - Dan from California
- "Cardinals playoffs world series 2011, David Freese came in clutch in extra innings, I was in NYC at a Cardinals only bar, packed shoulder to shoulder with my closest friends from high school and a bunch of strangers from STL all hugging each other." - Dave from Missouri
- "Larry Johnson’s four point play." - Dearon from NY
- "Pats greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in the 2017 Super Bowl, 2016 season, it seriously gets me fired up when I think about today." - Pearl from Massachusetts
Are we convinced?
To all my non-sports fan friends, those who would “rather be doing anything” such as taking out the trash, and being outside, or the friends who attend the games but just eat the chips and drink the drinks, what do we make of all this?
I personally can understand and appreciate it.
But, as a woman, it’s more socially acceptable to not like sports, and historically, it was a male only activity. It was only after Title IX passed in 1972 that females were allowed to participate in sports. In 2014, a survey of 37 countries was done and found that in every one, men were likelier to play some kind of sport than women. From a professional standpoint, it's not a secret that mens leagues are more popular and are paid more than women. The most convincing argument as of recent, in regards to the benefit of sports was Abby Wambach’s Barnard College 2018 Commencement Speech, in which she encourages women to ask for equality and respect.
And that, I cannot argue with, whether those values are learned from team sports or not.
From a male perspective, one poller went so far to say “Just because I don’t like sports, doesn’t mean I’m gay.” And another said, “Sports fans are cavemen who are probably fat, so they can't play sports anymore. Also the world should be your tribe, not your team or city.” Just Google “Guys who don’t like sports” and the first few articles are intense, with titles like: Is it okay to not watch sports as a straight man?
Do I want to watch sports now? No. Can you watch your sports in peace? Yes. But, will I ever want to rewatch the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history for a third time in my apartment? Never.
PS: I like tennis.