The Emotional Life of the Sports Fan

You’ve been lucky enough to get tickets to the most important game of the year in your favorite sport. It’s great to be able to participate in the live action, even if you’re just in the nosebleed seats. As the game unfolds, you’re carried along with your fellow fans as you alternatively cheer or groan along as points (or fouls) accumulate on the scoreboard. Even though you can’t quite see the players on the actual field, you can see them on the jumbo screen if you want to get a close-up view. Alternatively, you can’t get tickets to the game, or it’s taking place in a city or country far from your home. You get together with a few friends or family, and resign yourself to having to watch the game on television. It’s not quite the same as being there, but it’s the best you can do.

As you about these two ways to watch your sports team perform, think about which is more stressful. Are your emotions more aroused when you’re there in person, or when you’re in the comfort of yours- or someone else’s- home? Does your proximity to the action make you more or less involved, and which do you prefer? A recent Tech Talk discussion of the upcoming World Cup Soccer Games describes football as “an emotional roller coaster,” and shows what happens to your body and mind when you’re getting stressed out from an important match. In a related study of the emotions associated with European football, Rui Biscaia of the Technical University of Lisbon and colleagues (2012) found that fans who have positive emotional experiences while attending a game in the stadium are more likely to be satisfied, and therefore more likely to return than fans who don’t have such a great time. Obviously, fans are happier when their team wins, but there is also an emotional zeitgeist that develops among spectators that can even override the outcome of the game. The most important of these emotions is that of joy, leading the authors to conclude that “sporting events are consumed primarily for enjoyment” (p. 236). You can be entertained, in other words, even if your team loses.

Breaking down the factors that contribute to satisfaction while attending a live game, National Chung Cheng University’s (China) Chen-Yueh Chen and colleagues (2015) conducted a series of studies on a measure of “Sports Stadium Atmosphere.” It is probably no surprise to learn that the experience of satisfaction during a sporting event is determined by a number of factors. The “entertainment” dimension is composed of what might be considered aspects of the game that have no relation to the team’s performance, and include good half-time shows, availability of giveaways, and a popular mascot. Electronic enhancements form another factor contributing to satisfaction, and include lighting, music, and acoustics. Also not relevant to the game include factors such as comfortable seats and team traditions. A fan’s satisfaction is also predicted by how well the team performs (as one might expect!), how well the referees perform their jobs, and whether the coach is positively regarded. Emotional factors also heighten the fan’s experience, and include the actions of other spectators, whether there are groups who are cheering and performing various rituals (such as a wave), the importance of the game, and then a factor called “passion.” Here’s where we get to the key emotional contributor, and the one that can make life beautiful or horrible, depending on how how much you care about the team and the game.

Watching a game at home will obviously not have these same elements as being in a stadium because the environment is one you control. If you don’t like your couch, you can move to your favorite chair. If the sound isn’t loud enough, you can turn it up. If you’re with friends who don’t like your team, you can leave and watch at home. All of these factors that you determine give you more autonomy from those who organize the event itself. Perhaps it is for these reasons that sports coverage has become increasingly “personal.” The broadcaster wants to draw you into the fan experience as much as possible, both to increase ratings, and to help develop your brand loyalty. Of course, at the same time, your emotions are manipulated as well, and the closer you feel to the game’s action, the more those emotions will ebb and flow along with the action on the screen.  If you are watching from home, though, Rochester Institute of Technology’s Yang Wu and Xiao Wang (2015) found from real-time tweets during the 2014 FIFA World Cup games that joy and despair alternated fairly predictably along with the performance of their teams.

Throughout the fan experience and underlying your emotional reactions, lies the feeling of identification with your team. As proposed by University of Quebec in Montreal’s Robert Vallerand and colleagues (2008) it’s passion that becomes the central element of the fan’s emotional experiences. The “Dualistic Model of Passion” tested in this study proposes that “enjoyable activities that are internalized in one’s identity will become a passion” (p. 1279). The passion associated with this activity, in turns, “serves to define the person” (p. 1280), and “cheering for a football team indirectly entails cheering for self” (p. 1280). The dual elements of passion in this model include, first of all, “obsessional passion,” which is an uncontrollable urge to participate in the activity. The second type of passion is “harmonious passion,” which is a love of the game that remains in “harmony” with the rest of your life.

Another well-known distinction between sports fans classifies them as “true fans” vs. “fickle fans.” The Vallerand et al. model sets that aside in favor of the two types of passion in fans. You can be a harmoniously passionate fan who is happy when the team wins and sad when they lose but still enjoy the actual game itself. If you’re an obsessive fan, you’ll make the team’s performance a central part of your entire existence, and therefore need the team to win to feel happy and fulfilled. Obsessive passion is, therefore, a less adaptive stance because your team can never win 100% of the time. Across a series of 3 studies of European football fans, the Canadian researchers examined the contributions of the two types of passion to various outcomes. Obsessive fans were more likely to experience maladaptive emotions such as hate for the opposing team, and they also mocked fans of opposing teams. Harmonious fans were more likely to have high levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction, and more likely to show their feelings in positive fan behaviors, such as celebrating their team’s victories in the streets. Not surprisingly, obsessive fans had poorer relationships with their partners than did harmonious fans, as you might imagine if you’ve seen couples where one partner ignores the other’s needs in favor of sports. 

As pointed out in the Tech Talk infographic, your brain experiences changes during a sporting event that reflects, if not influences, your feelings of happiness and satisfaction. The dualistic passion model suggests that your ups and downs will vary in far different ways if you’re an obsessive fan than if fandom is just a total part of your sense of self. Turning your passion from an all-controlling urge may be good not only for your ability to be entertained by sports, but also to help you put your fandom in sync with the rest of your life.


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