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The Powerful Influence of Fanship

March 18, 2009

I tried to keep Superbowl 2009 at arms length. I was born in Pittsburgh, and have always been partial to the Steelers. So, while I wanted to climb on the bandwagon, I did not want to experience the downside of a sports fans’ dashed dreams. Besides, my school, University of Richmond, had already won the Division 1 National Championship in football. And my alma mater, University of Florida, had already won the Division 1-A National Championship. How greedy can I be?

Greedy. As my coy refusal to connect up with the Steelers dissolved with the last play of the first half–James Harrison’s 100 yard interception and score–I was hooked. I became a gibbering, screaming, hollerin’, 100% diehard fan, risking the post-game depression of a loss for the thrill of savoring a victory.

I usually practice safe fanship, for while having a favorite in the game increases the excitement of the event, the emotional aftermath is usually not worth it. I’ve the makings of a die-hard fan, if I let my dedication get away from me. Not just a fan, but a fanatic: One who engages in extreme, unreasonable devotion to an idea, philosophy, or practice. The die-hard sports fan displays great devotion to a team, with emotions rising and falling with the team’s accomplishments. Fans may not be members of the teams they support, but they are often seem to be very closely connected psychologically to their teams. They are happy when their team wins, but after a loss, fans experience a range of negative emotions: anger, depression, sadness, hopelessness, and confusion.

Say who? Well, Ed Hirt and his colleagues at Indiana University examined this question by asking fans of a men’s college basketball team to watch a live broadcast of a game in the lab. They discovered fans were more depressed after a loss than happy after a win. Compared to the winners, those who watched their team lose had darker moods, they were more pessimistic when rating their mental ability; and they predicted that an attractive person would be more likely to reject them.

Sports fans identify with their team and so experience the team’s outcomes as their own. When the team wins, they can share in that victory. They experience a range of positive emotions, including pride, emotion, happiness, and even joy, and they can gloat over the failure of their rivals. They can, when interacting with other people, bask in reflected glory, by stressing their association with the successful group, even though they have contributed little to that success. They also experience a host of positive interpersonal benefits from supporting a specific team—particularly a local one (Wann, 2006). Fans who support the same team may spend considerable time in enjoyable shared activities and gain from that group experience social support, a sense of belonging, and enhanced overall well-being.

But what if their team should lose? Casual fans can just downplay the loss by switching their allegiance to some other team: cutting off reflected failure. Dedicated fans, whose homes are decorated with team insignia, who wear the team’s colors, and who have based much of their sense of self on their loyalty to the team, cannot avoid failure. Their team’s loss will be their loss, as Warren St. John describes so vividly in his analysis of the fans of Alabama (St. John, 2004). But these die-hard fans can and do rely on a variety of psychological and social tactics to ease the pain of the loss. They may blame their failure on external factors, such as field conditions or the referee. They may spend time talking about past successes, and convince one another that better times lie ahead. They can take solace in their failure collectively, and mourn over their group’s loss together. They may also take pride in other aspects of their team, such as its sportsmanship or esprit de corps (Wann, 2006). But mostly, they suffer.

They may also see that others share their suffering, as well. Fans often vent their frustration by acting violently; fans have been known to even attack the supporters of other teams, with fatal outcomes. The irrationality of excessive fanship is not restricted to self-injury. Sports fans do not only harm themselves; they sometimes attack the police and the supporters of other teams with fatal outcomes. In many cases after important contests fans, often intoxicated, spill into the streets around the stadiums, fighting among themselves and with fans who support the opposing team. Hooliganism is generally associated with other countries; particularly Britain which is famous for the commitment of its sports fans to the national pastime of soccer. But at colleges and universities across the U.S., sports events can spark violence. As one former president of large university remarked “When you win a game, you riot. When you lose a game, you riot.”

Fanship, then, comes with a risk—identifying with a group whose outcomes one cannot control means that one will encounter the joy of victory, but also the agony of a share defeat. That despair can be profound: Suicide rates tend to track the rise and fall with the success of the local college sports team—at least in some college-towns known for strong fan allegiance (Joiner, Hollar, & Van Orden, 2006). However, victory can bring great elation. When the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team beat the Russian national team on February 22,1980, fewer people committed suicide on that daty than had on that date from 1972 to 1989.

Did I mention ALL my teams won their champions? A Football trifecta!

For more information:

The study of basketball fans is reported in: Hirt, E. R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G. A., & Kennedy, C. (1992). Costs and benefits of allegiance: Changes in fans’ self-ascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 724-738.

Dan Wann summaries work that find a positive, benificial effect of fanship in: Wann, D. L. (2006). Understanding the positive social psychological benefits of sport team identification: The team identification-social psychological health model. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 10(4), 272-296.

Thomas Joiner and his colleagues report on the ill-effects of fanship in: Joiner Jr., Thomas E., Hollar, D., & Van Orden, K. (2006). On buckeyes, gators, super bowl sunday, and the miracle on ice: “pulling together” is associated with lower suicide rates. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 25(2), 179-195.

Warren St. John’s analysis of fan mania is a delight: St. John, W. (2004). Rammer jammer yellow hammer: A journey into the heart of fan mania. New York: Crown.

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