The Psychology of Being a Sports Fan

Scratch your playoff beard as you consider the following.

Warm sunshine, blooming flowers and the smell of freshly mown grass can mean only one thing: hockey playoff season has arrived at long last. Tickets to the Penguins were the only items on my Christmas wish list for the past two years. How did I get to be a hockey fan? What do I get out of the experience? And why do I embrace sports superstition and tradition?

I asked Dr. Rick Grieve of Western Kentucky University’s clinical psychology program to satisfy my curiosity about sports fandom. According to Grieve, the biggest single factor is socialization, namely exposure to a sport through family and friends. In my case, I discovered hockey in 1991, when Mario Lemieux and company brought Pittsburgh its very first Stanley Cup championship. A freshman in college, I was surrounded by the games on every television at every party. Plus, I found that my ability to hold a guy’s attention improved when I became conversant in the basics of ice hockey.

Grieve also says that fathers play a key role. Kids tend to gravitate to the sports their fathers watch or play.

“Why are my sons big hockey fans?” Grieve asks rhetorically. “Because I take them down to see the Predators on a regular basis. Why are they not baseball fans? We don’t have a baseball team to follow.”

Grieve’s point about the absence of a local baseball team ties into the other factor he cites: proximity to a team helps the socialization process along. This is why people from Boston often follow baseball, but few Berliners do.

Arguably, we don’t have a professional baseball team in Pittsburgh, either, but that’s the sort of talk that makes my friend, Dan Skantar, glower at me. Thinking of Dan and his doomed fascination with the Pittsburgh Pirates, I asked Dr. Grieve if committed fans that follow a losing team are getting something out of their “fan” identity that the “fair weather” fans aren’t. It turns out that the Pirates are doing something for Dan after all.

Dan identifies closely with the Pittsburgh Pirates, as he has followed them from boyhood. Therefore, when he sees another person wearing Pirates ball cap, he gains the perceived social support of being among other fans. Knowing he could commiserate with that other poor guy in the Pirates cap creates a psychological connection with that fan. This connection benefits Dan by increasing his psychological health: lowering his stress level, reducing his sense of loneliness and increasing his level of trust in people. However, Grieve points out, this effect only occurs with local teams.

So then how do fantasy leagues impact the fan experience? They’ve never been my cup of tea for the same reason my friend Dan has given up fantasy leagues.

“It’s about the laundry,” says Dan succinctly, referring to the team colors of his favorite team.

I agree. I suppose we are so closely identified with our favorite teams that we derive no satisfaction from following players from across a league through their statistics.

Grieve plans to study the impact of fantasy leagues, hypothesizing that highly identified fans of local teams tend not to diminish in their enthusiasm for the local team despite constructing a fantasy team. He suggests that perhaps fans that are less committed to a particular professional team are more apt to identify closely with their fantasy teams.

Talk of commitment to a particular local team brings us to the last question I had for Dr. Grieve: why do I embrace tradition and superstition for the sake of my local team, the Pittsburgh Penguins? I can’t grow a playoff beard like the barista at my neighborhood coffee shop, but I do wear my Maxime Talbot jersey. Educated person that I am, I still like to think I’m giving Max an edge by wearing it.

According to the results of a new study Grieve completed with Dan Wann from Murray State, Ryan Zapalac from Sam Houston State University, Jason Lanter at Kutztown University, Dale Pease from the University of Houston, and Christian End from Xavier University, my barista and I are in good company. They asked 1800 sports fans about their superstitions and traditions and recorded over 1300 individual superstitions (some fans had more than one). Wearing something specific was the most common superstition for all sports. Superstitious behaviors varied by which needed to be performed at the game versus those that could be performed anywhere.

Grieve and his colleagues asked the fans to rate the impact of their superstitions on the outcome of their teams’ games. Interestingly, the fans believed their superstitious behaviors influenced game outcomes regardless of where those behaviors were performed.

“Personally, I believe this has more to do with anxiety reduction…than with actual belief, but this is what people report to us,” he said. The anxiety to which Grieve is referring stems from scoring by one team or the other.

Of course, if you told any Penguin defenseman that his playoff beard is just a means to manage his anxiety, he’d probably kick your butt.

Lisa Jancarik wishes to thank Dr. Rick Grieve for his insight and Dan Skantar for his good-natured acceptance of a lot of teasing about his taste in baseball teams.

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3 comments to The Psychology of Being a Sports Fan

  • Dan Skantar

    I seriously questioned my own mental fitness for fantasy sports the day I found myself rooting for "my" fantasy wide receiver, the Eagles' Terrell Owens, against my real world favorite team, the Steelers.
    Born with a Western Pennsylvanian's innate disgust for most all things Philadelphia, I anguished all afternoon. Turns out Owens was a bust that day, and the Steelers won anyway. But a feeling of disloyalty never left me until I gave up fantasy sports.

  • Ulash

    Dan, thanks for your comments and taking part in this article. You really have educated the UMM team (and hopefully our fans) on this topic!

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    [...] as we can see in this report by Lisa Jancarik, Dr. Rick Grieve of Western Kentucky’s clinical psychology says it has a great deal to do with [...]

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