Very few pitiable persons who don’t follow any sports often question the sports fan’s enthusiasm saying, “It’s just a game. What’s the big deal about it?” The fan often ignores the whimsical query, acknowledging his blissful ignorance, nodding in approval and just moving on.
But many psychologists actually wondered, “What’s the big deal?” and have conducted in-depth studies on the psychology of sports fans to learn more about the integral ties between the fans and their team.
The studies came up with surprising results and revealed why it’s not “just a game” for the fans.
Fans tend to identify themselves with the teams/athletes they root for and consider themselves a part of the team/athlete’s journey.
''Our sports heroes are our warriors,'' Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State, said about sports fans. ''This is not some light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent grace and harmony. The self is centrally involved in the outcome of the event.”
“Whoever you root for, represents you.''
When their team/athlete wins, the fans tend to believe it’s their success too, bask in reflected glory (“we won”) and with defeats, they mourn equally (“we lost”).
This newfound identity of the fan not only inspires them, but also instills a sense of loyalty and respect in them.
The self-esteem of fans also rises and falls with a game's outcome, with losses affecting their optimism about everything from getting a date to winning at darts, one study showed.
Dr. Daniel Wann, a psychologist at Murray State University in Kentucky, has done several studies showing that an intense interest in a team can buffer people from depression and foster feelings of self-worth.
Edward Hirt of Indiana University has demonstrated that men and women who were diehard fans were much more optimistic about their sex appeal after a victory. They were also more sanguine about their ability to perform well at mental and physical tests, like darts and word games, Dr. Hirt found. When the team lost, that optimism evaporated.
Sports allow fans to escape their normal daily life, as well as social inhibitions and express themselves freely by cheering from their teams/athletes, as well as lashing out at rivals.
One theory traces the roots of fan psychology to a primitive time when human beings lived in small tribes, and warriors fighting to protect tribes were true genetic representatives of their people, psychologists claim.
In a modern society, athletes play a similar role for a city in the stylized war on a playing field—as the theory goes. The athlete’s exploits helps reconnect the fans with those intense emotions that tribal warfare did for their ancestors, which the modern society codes and conduct doesn’t allow them.
John Herde, a 65-year-old accountant in Manhattan, has been attending Rangers games since he was a teenager and owns season tickets.
''It's a release,'' he said. ''You can yell and scream and do whatever you like. It's like therapy.''
Even among non-avid supporters, sport manages to bring about physiological changes, which induce various emotions like euphoria, dejection, and stress.
A study in Georgia has shown, for instance, that testosterone levels in male fans rise markedly after a victory and drop just as sharply after a defeat.
The same pattern has been documented in male animals that fight over a mate: Biologists theorize that mammals may have evolved this way to ensure quick resolutions to conflicts.
Some researchers also believe that eustress is a “severely dangerous” form of addiction.
Sense Of Belonging
Psychologists add that some fans find a sense of belonging and acceptance in the sports that they haven’t been able to find in their life.
“So many of the traditional institutions are beginning to break down, religion and family,” Dr. Wann said. ''The human psyche is the same and something has to take the place of that. Sports fill an important void.''
Michelle Musler, one of the most visible Knicks fans in New York, acknowledges that her 27-year love affair with the team may have had its genesis in loneliness.
“My ex-husband ran away with the lady next door, and I didn't seem to fit into suburbia anymore,'' she said. ''The Knicks gave me a purpose, something to do, a place to go. As a fan, I guess, there is a sense of belonging. That you are a part of something.''
While non-sports fans watch sports for mere entertainment and finer nuances of the technicalities of the sport, for the fans, it is a much more complex experience which the others find it hard to relate to.
It isn’t just a game—but I guess some people will never get it.