I’ve never been a “sports person.” When I was younger I participated in team sports the way all kids do. Partly because they were fun and they gave me the chance to see my friends on weeknights, partly because my parents suggested that I might like them. But, truth be told, I would rather have been at home reading a good book. I am still this way.
I don’t see anything particularly wrong with sports. I don’t hate them, really, I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I am unenthusiastic about them, bottom line. Sometimes I even find them sad. Every year these teams of talented athletes compete with each other to prove they are the best at what they do. They put everything they’ve got into this competition, they live for it. And someone wins and someone loses. And the losers dust themselves off and try again next year. And we call ourselves fans, and sit in front of our TVs, and put our faith in these people who we have never met. And sometimes they let us down, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, year after year, we humans define ourselves by these groups of people who have nothing to do with us, and it is this fandom that disturbs me.
I should be clear that I am talking about national sports here. I am talking about the kinds of sports that can be found on television at any given hour of the day. The kinds of sports that cause real people with real jobs to take off their clothes, paint their bodies in the designated colors of the sports team they follow, and proceed to become highly inebriated in public multiple times every year. I am not talking about, say, Little League or high school volleyball. I am also not talking about golf, cycling or pingpong. Although I’m sure these alternative sports also have an enthusiastic following, their fans seem to refrain from the public displays of hard-core loyalty that have come to define the culture of football, baseball, basketball, rugby, hockey, and soccer in America.
Now let me say, I see every positive reason for children and teens, and also adults, to be involved in both individual and group sports. This kind of involvement can encourage confidence, physical and mental health, and socializing skills. What I would like to understand is where that involvement becomes the emotional connection to a national sports team that creates the fan-culture we have today. So this week I paid attention. I watched some games on television (both football and basketball), I clicked around on some sports websites, I even read a few chapters of Football for Dummies (yep, true story).
I learned, first of all, that I had picked up more than I knew over the years. Although I didn’t recognize many names, the workings of the games were not a mystery to me, and they were easy enough to follow. However, while attempting to watch a football game with my friend Nicole last monday night, I learned that I was entirely naive about the locations and distributions of organized teams, even ones I thought I was familiar with.
As a girl raised in large states on the west coast, I had always thought every state had at least one team of its own, this is not so. Nicole gave me a look like I had been living under rock, but she explained it to me very patiently. I discovered that the New England Patriots were exactly what they claimed to be, a team representing the states that make up New England—in other words, the teams is shared by several states. The Carolina Panthers, similarly, are shared, and generally supported, by both North and South Carolina. It was through this (rather obvious) discovery that I finally began to see the bigger picture: the unifying effect that these teams had for their fans.
I found a study, published in the Sport Marketing Quarterly in 2008, that helped to sum up the idea for me. The study presented two terms that relate the effects of dedicated fandom, BIRGing (basking in reflected glory) and CORFing (cutting off reflected failure). Each of these terms represents the idea that fans feel extreme vicarious achievement through support of their favorite teams. It is this concept that illustrates the “rush” that sports fans get from watching their teams compete. “It seems to be critical for sport teams to develop a high level of identification in their spectators,” the study said, “Therefore, marketers and managers need to increase team identification in their spectators by various means.” The teams are meant to be followed, to become a significant part of the lives of the fans. This relationship is symbiotic; the fans need the rush, the teams need the fans.
Although I am not running out to buy body paint quite yet, my foray into sport-fandom has left me with a new perspective on my own culture. In such a fast-paced and individualized society, it is no wonder that there is a craving for belonging. When sports are literally created and marketed to be consumed like any other product, how can I blame people for taking that product and using it for its intended purpose? So, sports fans, do what you do, I wont judge you. One day I may even join you, and we can blow off steam together. Just please don’t pee on my car.