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The Psychology of Sports Fans

As we look at the picture to the left, the one thing that becomes abundantly clear is that there has got to be some strong psychology around being a hard-core fan of a sports team. 

We arrived at this conclusion fairly innocently. We were getting ready for a sales pitch to a video services provider, doing some laddering interviews to better understand the space. We focused on the changes that have occurred in that industry around the growing strength of online options like Hulu and Netflix. We learned a lot. It was a great run. However, there was one element that really stuck out to me and aroused my curiosity.

For the most part, the younger generations were not concerned about the idea of the classic “linear channels” like ABC, NBC, or TBS. Most of their video consumption was focused on accessing good content: on demand, with no commercials, in good quality, and when and where they liked it. But for many, there was an unforgiveable exception. An exception that caused them to have a fairly expensive paid TV subscription — even though it was for only one purpose ... Sports.

The new episode of Big Bang Theory? We’ll watch it when we’re ready. Hunger Games is now available on Netflix? We’ll watch it when we have time. A thirty-second delay on a football game involving their team? Can not and will not happen.

As a researcher, when you come across these kinds of things, it sure piques your interest, especially as I don’t have a single sports-fan gene anywhere. This whole thing is mystifying to me. 

What is the deal with sports that makes it so different from any other kind of TV watching? It was time to explore. Half-hour delay? No. 30-second delay? No. Why? Because I’ll get a text alert that will tell me the end of the game before I get there. OK.  Get that. What if you were on an island, and unable to get any electronic signals from civilization except the game. Half-hour delay OK now? No.

We did a lot of exploring since those interviews, talking to true sports fans, reading the literature. The behavior here seemed so universal and strong that the exploration started moving away from the psych literature and focusing on anthropology. This is where the greatest insights came.

According to a recent paper from Whitehouse and Lanman, “The Ties That Bind Us”, the current field of anthropologists is in general agreement that the phenomena they call “rituals” contain four elements to some extent or another:

  1. Synchronized activity — doing something at the same time (sound familiar?)
  2. Displays of commitment to the group — like, say, decorating your truck and painting your whole body
  3. Causally opaque action — doing something that doesn’t obviously connect to difference in the space most call reality (like yelling plays at the TV)
  4. Euphoric and dysphoric arousal — getting really happy and really sad

Gravy. Watching football is a ritual? Going crazy seeing the O’s lose is part of a real anthropological ritual? It seems so.

So what are the benefits of rituals? Why do we do them? Ritual leads to strong bonding and belonging — a phenomenon they refer to as “identity fusion.” We might say solidarity. 

Means-Ends Theory can tell us a great deal about sports fans and human behaviorMeans-End Theory teaches us that our decisions all connect back to earnestly desired end states. Some people call these values. We buy a car that gets good gas mileage in order to save money. We save money because it makes us feel smart, and ultimately because we want to provide for our family’s security (our value). (For an interesting overview of this theory and how it works in marketing strategy, view our recent webinar on the subject). Sports fans want to belong. They want to be part of a tight group. Groups accept and protect.

So why sports rather than movies? Couldn’t we watch movies together, and yell, and cry? It just doesn’t seem to be as powerful in its effect as sports. Whitehouse and Lanman recall a point that three other anthropologists already reported on — “Group identification can be amplified by perceptions of threat and uncertainty.” When you have another team that wants to take your guys apart — to humiliate and embarrass them — to crush them — is this not a threat? When a game is close all the way to the end (the best kind), is this not pure unadulterated uncertainty? These things amp up the fusion power being delivered — in the sports fans’ ritual.

Image Credits: Flickr