Why Sports Fans are Sports Fans

To commemorate the end of the annual Great American Sports Lull (the six week gap between the Superbowl and the beginning of March Madness), it’s time that we had a long-overdue discussion about one of humanity’s oddest phenomena—sports fandom.

Throughout the world, the way people feel about sports spans a wide range. Let’s start with what we know about the non-sports side of the spectrum—

To non-sports fans, caring about sports makes no sense.

If you’re a sports fan, here’s how non-sports fans view your love of your team:

A bunch of strangers in their 20s and 30s are paid to play games against each other that have no real world consequences, and you’ve decided that you care a ton about this. There are teams that must win and teams that must lose, and players that must play better than other players—and this is all critical.

Super Fan

Meanwhile, the players that must play well sometimes get traded to the teams that must lose, and now you want those players to play badly. In fact, the only thing you’re really rooting for is a certain set of jerseys, regardless of who happens to be wearing them.

Rooting for jerseys

Then there’s the fact that as you follow your team that must win, almost every season ends with them losing, leaving your face looking like this:

Letdown face

Or this:

Disgusted face

Or this:

Horrified face

Then, every 30 years or so, this team you so badly want to win actually wins! 30 years and thousands of hours of time and dedication and finally, the ultimate goal is achieved—and then what happens? Some major change in your life? No, you go stand on the street and yell things, and then people start rioting, which makes no sense because they’re happy.

Fans rioting

Then you spend a few days reading articles about the great victory, buy a t-shirt, and go on with your life. That’s it. That’s what it was all for.

Like I said, it’s an odd phenomenon.

And yet, one of the few things nearly every country in the world has in common is sports fandom. When something is both odd and universal, there’s gotta be something deeper going on.
As a big sports fan from a city full of frightening sports fan lunatics (Boston), I feel the need to take a shot at getting to the bottom of this.

Why sports fans are sports fans

Sports are entertaining, for the following reasons:

There’s high drama.

Because so many people are paying attention, and because what happens will be remembered for a long time, the stakes are actually high for the athletes you’re watching, which creates drama.

Tense putt

This is the same phenomenon that made American Idol such a big hit—it was precisely the fact that it was such a big hit that created the drama that made it entertaining.

Of course, then there are also many people who find sports genuinely entertaining to watch themselves—they enjoy watching an Arena Football game, or a minor league baseball game, or a high level pickup basketball game, because they just like watching sports, even without the stakes or drama. But I think most sports fans need the high-stakes component to feel fully engaged.

It’s fun to watch greatness. 

Humans have a fascination with freakish greatness, no matter what the skill is. Sports is a great place to watch people who are in the best .001% at something do what they’re great at, against other .001% people. Meanwhile, you—who are in like the best 73% at that thing—get to sit on your fat couch and judge them. It’s fun. Speaking of which—

It taps into our creepy side that wants to sit in the ancient Roman Coliseum and watch people fight to the death.

You can deny it all you want, but part of you wants to do this. And sitting there, on your fat couch, there’s some schadenfreude happening as you watch people sprinting around in the freezing cold or searing heat, getting smashed in the face, and possibly embarrassing themselves and destroying their dreams in front of 20,000,000 people. “Play for me—do your best,” you think, as you feed yourself a chip.

It’s aesthetically pleasing. 

This is a huge appeal of many of the Olympic sports, and it’s part of the reason it’s fun to watch a person as smooth and athletically blessed as LeBron James play. This concept can also be taken too far.

Brady 1

brady ass 2

Brady 3

Brady 4

 

Sports bonds you to other people.

On a micro level, it brings family and friends together. 

A lot of people get together with friends to watch sports in times they otherwise might not see them, and I know no fewer than eight guys whose primary talking point with their fathers is sports. Sports isn’t replacing other, more worthwhile topics of conversation between those sons and fathers, it’s just adding a level of closeness that would not be there without it.

On a macro level, it gives the greater community another thing to bond over. 

There aren’t too many times in life you can celebrate something with complete strangers and feel an emotional connection with your community as a whole. People love this feeling—that’s why Christmas songs make everyone happy. When they play in public all December, it’s like we’re all in holiday mode together.

The best example of community bonding euphoria is an end-of-war celebration:

War Celebration

But since six-year collective struggles that finally end in sweet victory don’t happen very often, sports gives us another way to do this.

Sports Celebration

The key is that sports creates an “us versus them” structure, which allows people to be part of a collective “us,” where the us can triumph or fail all together. In tribal times, the concept of “us versus them” was highly pronounced in a tangible way—today, especially in huge countries, it’s not. Sports is an artificial way to bring some more collective “us” into our lives…

…which is the only reason that my list of life experiences includes the time I cuddled with a big, scary, mean man I never spoke to before or since.

hug 1

hug 2

hug 3

hug 4

hug 5

hug 6

hug 7

hug 8

hug 9

Try coming up with another circumstance under which that man and I would squeeze each other tenderly and blissfully in a moment of pure innocent joy—good luck.

Sports can give two people who would otherwise be horribly awkward together something to talk about.

Awkward conversation 1

Awkward conversation 2

Awkward conversation 3

Awkward conversation 4

Awkward conversation 5

The sports world includes a lot of gossip.

Sports fans have a morbid fascination with the off-field drama of famous athletes in the same way people are captivated by the lives of movie stars.

Sports gossip
Sports provides an escape from life.

Life is a self-centered thing, and sports is often a nice place to focus when you’re sick of your own issues. Especially on days when your life sucks.

Escape to sports

It’s a perfect tool for your crippling procrastination tendencies.

IGM Sports 1

IGM Sports 2

IGM Sports 3

IGM Sports 4

Sometimes I think we might even use sports as a way to attach ourselves to something immortal.

Sports fan immortality

And in the end…

In a time when heroic triumphs aren’t part of most people’s lives, sports allows us to capture a little sliver of the feeling of glory.

Glory

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  • Anonymous

    Love reading these explanation posts they are so entertaining and always provide deep insight into an issue I can never really understand why but oddly agree with. Keep ‘em coming! =D

  • André

    I’m not from the US, but most of these apply perfectly in other countries. I spent half a year in the US and could not believe all the mania around college sports. It seemed to be as important as professional sports! That surprised me.

    Hilarious and thought-provoking post.

  • Paul

    Entertaining, insightful, and tinged with humor throughout – it’s another great post from WBW. Thanks again dude! (What an ass!)

  • Vicki

    Did you spend all Monday in the dark playground?? Good post.

  • Runesocesius with Red Socks

    Sport clubs are pagan gods. Eternal and yet dependent on the actions of mortals. Their followers are a group bonded together by this eternality, which demands and expects glorious deeds of them. When they deliver, for a while, they can feel the eternal in their mortal lives, the blessing of their god.

    • Used to love AC Milan before Berlusconi became president

      Fine comment, but actual pagan gods were not as much interested in being worshipped as some of the modern over-jealous gods, I swear.

  • Ryan

    Runesocesius, I’m pretty sure that falls into the “Buddha” type of insufferable post. ;) jk

  • Conor

    I would say the only thing missed out – mentioned indirectly with the death thing – is sports fandom as a substitute for religion. Every society has created its own religion and sports fills that gap for a lot of people.

  • Justin P

    I think there’s also the fact that, because sports is essentially meaningless, we can attach greater (even political) meaning. Think of Jesse Owens or the black power salute at the Olympics, or Iraq fielding 24 Olympic athletes in 2004.

    That’s all sports journalism is: creating narratives and stories based on the prompts provided to them by the games.

  • Fabian

    Well written and nice message. What about FIFA World Cup? It should be worth the mention :)

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  • Yourmom

    Decent attempt, but misses the mark, in my humble opinion. First of all, who cares what non-sports fans think? Pro-sports–namely American football–are rife with subtleties. There are regulations of biblical proportions, there are compelling backstories to every single athlete, there are mind-boggling strategies employed by both offense and defense, and most importantly, there is the triumph of the human spirit. I see this complexity every time I watch a football game. I would guess (based on actual comments from them) non-sports fans probably just see a bunch of neanderthals running around after a ball for the sole purpose winning. Furthermore, I (and many other fans I know) have mixed feelings about a lot of the guys on our favorite team(s). Some of them we grow attached to because of their skill, their character, etc. and continue to follow even when they get traded (i.e. Alex Smith, former 49er, now KC Chief), and others on our team who happen to be seemingly terrible people and lackluster players, we can’t wait to trade. And it happens every Sunday–a day when tons of stuff is closed anyway. There is no excuse NOT to love sports. In my opinion.

    • Nat

      Uh, not to be rude, but didn’t you just outline the above blog post? The point was to show why we love sports, not to hate on sports fans. (This is me speaking as a tennis player and an American football fan, by the way) So in what way does this article miss the mark?

      • Yourmomagain

        No, I didn’t. I was stating my disagreement with certain aspects of the simplistic and caricaturesque portrayal of sports fans presented above.

  • Heathen

    Great post, as per usual, but one question remains unanswered: Why am I not a sports fan? Am I not bored enough? Do I have other things to connect over with my friends and family? Well, at least I get to vouch for the accuracy of the non-sports fan’s view. Good job!

  • Nonie

    The paper towels…………..Are they Bounty? I only use Bounty. And please, NOT the
    Select-a-Size.

  • Non sports fan

    Good article! I agree, I am no sports fan at all it’s bc it does not affect my life in any way. They win, cool. They lose, I move on. Maybe if I were more into sports I would have a different opinion. But I do love non sport related competitions…… kinda confuses things…

  • DonR

    Today I learned that the world|s #3 ranked male tennis player is called Stanislas Warinka. Who’da thought? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislas_Wawrinka

  • notimetonamemyself

    Sports just a bunch o dudes kicking/throwing a ball around. i dont get the apeal. we live on earth. theres literaly a zillion things to talk about i.e global warming or hot people (hahaha). so yeah. so….

  • Erik

    This post reminded me of this:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/walking-sports-database-scorns-walking-scifi-datab,1442/

    As a non-sports fan I’ve never shown disdain for sports fans. I get the attraction; it’s just never really held me. That’s probably because as an adolescent my family didn’t really watch sports and I usually had stuff going on (e.g., on Sundays) and so by the time I was in HS / college / young adult I was too far behind in my “sports studies” to keep up with the serious fans. I’ve always known the rules, but it’s the players and the politics that are ever-changing that I never really followed. I’d watch a game with fanatic friends but never “talk shop” b/c I knew I was in the dark comparatively. It’s a cycle of non-fandom.

    One reason why I never crammed for sports and caught-up in my knowledge for a team and its players is because, as you pointed out, such fandom seemed to create sadness and disappointment the majority of the time broken only by VERY intermittent euphoria. (The major exception, having grown up in NY, was the late-90s Yankee dynasty, but those fans became intolerable ass hats, further turning me off.)

    To jump in at such a late date with a big investment just never appealed to me when I really didn’t have the emotional investment, and where the payoff seemed so low in a “net present value” sort of way.

  • Jen

    The only time I care about sports is if the team from my city is about to win the Stanley Cup. Or if we’re about to kick American ass in Olympic gold hockey. Then, my inner sports fan kicks in somehow, and I will stomp around downtown with a Canadian flag hanging from my shoulders. But I go years between these moments. In between times, I have no concept of sports. Sports become like ads for Jaguars or men’s Depends…products that don’t factor into my daily experience, so any mention of them sails right past me.

    (Obvs, cos I’m Canadian, by “sports”, I mean “hockey”. I don’t really grok these other “sports” you people refer to…)

  • Voracious Reader

    Great post! I’m not much of a sports fan, mainly what I hear on the radio news, but I go to a live game (basketball, football, soccer) every now and then. TV sports watching is dull, too many commercials . I’d rather be reading or doing something outdoors. I just don’t understand the deification of athletes .

  • Jennifer

    I still don’t get it. I am still baffled how/why sports are a thing. It makes as much sense to me as when that ‘N Sync member’s toast was on sale at eBay for thousands of dollars.

  • non sports fan

    i finally get it
    love the pictures

  • Wendy!

    Ok, I just don’t get the March Madness Pool. You gave us the group password but what is the group email (username)?
    I hope it isn’t really obvious and I look really stupid.

    I love your website.

  • Charlie

    “Sports is an artificial way to bring some more collective “us” into our lives.”

    Not always sports are often a very necessary and very genuine way to bring a community together. They provide an opportunity to show others the customs and values of your community.

    An example of this is Germany. Germans lived in utter shame for most of the 20th century because of what occurred during the second world war. This culture of guilt existed for almost 60 years amongst people who had nothing to do with the atrocities that occurred. It was never socially acceptable to wave a German flag (the red, yellow, and black one), no one ever sang their national anthem, and it was absolutely NOT acceptable to say that you are proud to be German.

    But then in 2006 the worlds eye were on Germany during the World Cup of Soccer and Germany as a country nailed when it came to the organisation of this event. People from all over the world came to Germany spoke about how hospitable, open, and friendly the Germans were. A major cultural shift occurred over the course of a month. Suddenly, it was o.k. to be proud to be German and to wave the German flag that stands for freedom and equality. A mere soccer tournament facilitated a tremendous amount of healing across an entire country, and allowed a community to abscond itself from feelings of guilt for a crime that most of them had nothing to do with.

    So in this case the feeling of “us” and the healing that occurred was anything but artificial.

    Sports and the feelings that surround them are one of our greatest societal achievements.

    • Charlie

      … and I regret not proof-reading that before clicking post.

  • Jennifer

    Charlie,

    Oh. Okay, now I am getting it.

    • Charlie

      I can’t tell if you are being facetious or not.

      • Jennifer

        I am not.

  • darla

    Had no idea you were a Bostonian!! I’m laughing now because you realize how crazy sports fans get here. Love the post as usual!!

  • Jennifer

    Charlie,

    I assure you I am not! Promise. I really found your comment moving. I can’t stand sports but via reading your comment I was able to relate. It’s a human thing. Not my human thing, but nonetheless, when you put it like that it has value.

    Thank you for your comment and you are a fabulous writer. Forgive me, I’m sorry if it came off like that; I am a bit socially wonky.

    Good day to you :)

  • rush

    sports are the greatest reality TV show of all time

  • Toooooooom Bradyyyyyy

    Huge sports fan here. I’ve gotten into this discussion with many elitist non-sports fans, and although I agree with all of your points, I think there’s a great one you didn’t touch on.

    We (Americans) live in a society where almost all of the entertainment is scripted. Turn on the TV, “reality” shows rule the airwaves. Even an old favorite, the History Channel, never has cool WWII videos that fascinated me as a kid, but instead, some jabroni and his antique-hunting company, or car-towing, or cutting trees, or whatever else. But all of these “reality” shows are COMPLETELY SCRIPTED. Some are flat out rehearsed, and even the most earnest and authentic of these programs are guided with a heavy hand (you helped open my eyes to this with your musings from your experience on The Apprentice). Other shows are written and acted. Movies “based on true stories” are always fluffed up.

    Sports, to me, represent one of the last, truly live and authentic kinds of entertainment. Watching a football game, or college basketball, I can rest assured knowing that the outcome is completely up in the air, that truly, any team can win on any given day, and there is no one behind the scenes pulling the strings or writing the script (besides maybe the NBA).

    Plenty of other things make me love sports. But the fact that its the last of the (dying) “real” things out there may be number 1

  • Wait But Why

    Great point.

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  • ATK

    1) Way excellent site, so glad I found it.
    2) I argued with a die hard sports fan (specifically a Red Sox fan) 14 years ago that baseball (and other sports) were ultimately about fashion (to your jersey comment at the beginning) but he wasn’t having it.
    3) But I was – and am – right.
    4) Seriously, love your site. When I am less broke – so possibly never or at least not until my parents die (which I look on as very sad so am in no rush there) – I will donate money or buy something.
    5) That is all.

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