The Science of Being a Sports Fan

What does it mean to be “addicted” to your favorite team?

La Salle fans during March Madness. (Associated Press)

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I think that I am a passionate sports fan. I love my teams very much. I think that I am also a little bit of a lonely sports fan. I don’t necessarily follow sports as much to connect with a group or because I like to feel part of a group. For me, I know that I have this very important connection with my favorite sports teams, but I don’t quite feel like it is tribalism. I kind of wanted to understand that connection.

Daniel Wann, a sports fan researcher at Murray State University, came up with the “Sport Spectator Identification Scale” 20 years ago. In just seven questions, the test determines how much a sports fan cares about his or her team. How do you fare?

How much do you feel like part of the group? I don’t score very high on that.

How often do you wear team stuff? I really don’t ever wear team stuff. 

But, how important is it to you that they win? And, how much do you identify as a fan of the team? Those sorts of things are pretty high.

In his terminology, for both the Sharks and the Cal football team I am a “highly invested” fan. I score somewhere in the 40s. It is out of 56. It is seven questions on an eight-point scale. I am 43 on one team, Cal football, and 42 on the other, the Sharks.

We have all experienced an obnoxious sports fan—someone who seems to get a little too fired up over a game or whose mood seems overly affected by a game’s outcome. How much of this is beyond his or her control?

I would argue, actually, very little. One of the lessons for me of this book was that self-control is really quite powerful. Look at something like hooliganism in England. The country has really made progress in dealing with this, and it is not like people’s fundamental biological nature has changed in 20 years. If you make a cultural change, where hooliganism is not expected or tolerated, you can really reduce it. If you set people up to have an expectation that they will exert their self-control, they usually will.

It is the people who can’t [exert self control]—for whatever reason their prefrontal cortex isn’t strong enough to tell the rest of the brain to shut up and be quiet—that actually have a problem. Very few of us are actually like that. Most sports fan do it just fine. The people who are acting out you almost have to treat individually. Is this person a low self-control person? Is this person just a jerk to begin with? Is this person just really drunk, in which case the alcohol is inhibiting his or her self control?

So we don’t need to cut these folks some slack?


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