Following sport: what’s the point?

With the Rugby World Cup, Premier League and Champions League now in full swing, it’s easy to question how the ardent sports fan gets any enjoyment out of following their chosen sport. The ruthless nature of ‘banter’, the back and forth in the office, the sharp comments that sometimes cross boundaries that otherwise would never be crossed. Even our client Paddy Power has a cult following from their ‘Fan Denial’ video that appears every Monday, demonstrating the conflict of emotions associated with supporting a team.


So why do we bother?

There are evolutionary theories behind why people back their team week in week out. For example, people identify with their team in the way that they identify with their nationality or culture through a sense of tribal belonging, with warriors (the players) representing the tribe (your team) going toe-to-toe with rival warriors (the opposite team) in order to defend honour (win 3 points in the league).

Physiologically, the body simply reacts differently which also drives the intensity behind why certain people care so much. Studies have shown that testosterone levels rise in male sports fans rise after a win, and drop sharply after a defeat – mirroring that of the athletes even without even kicking or throwing a ball.

Sport also changes the way we dress and talk. Cialdini et al wrote a 1976 paper called ‘Basking in Reflected Glory: Three (Football) Field Studies (BIRG) which identified that students were more likely to wear school identifying apparel after their team had been victorious than when they lost. Being a firm All Blacks supporter, I’ve got a range of apparel at home that is exclusively saved for World Cups or Autumn Internationals – but they’re just as quickly hidden when the AB’s lose (I seem to have misplaced my 2007 jersey). Cialdini also identified that supporters also change the way they talk about their team to project success – it’s always ‘we’re number one’ not ‘they’re number one’ despite having absolute zip to do with the outcome of an event.

For every high there is a low, and psychological impacts have been linked (correlation not causation) to underperforming sports teams. Major sporting losses (often unexpected moments, in World Cups of any sport) are linked to rises in domestic violence, reduction in economic outputs and general depression. An example of this is again in New Zealand (where the collective psyche of a nation is so hardwired into the All Blacks succeeding) that a leading online media publication has taken to posting a ‘RWC Mood-o-meter’ to identify how the country is feeling at any one time throughout the tournament, using images from previous campaigns.

So again I ask, why do we bother?

We are drawn to sporting drama like moths to a flame. The unpredictability of sport and the lack of control of outcome bring people back week after week, tournament after tournament, seeking the natural high that comes from riding on the coat-tails of success, but so often tasting that bitterness of defeat. You certainly wouldn’t find Homo Economicus backing certain teams in the Premier League each season (I’ve avoided mentioning club names on purpose).

Regardless, it’s a world that provides a fascinating set of psychological and physiological reactions to study, and I’m not entirely convinced we’ve covered all bases (certainly looking at women’s sport here).

However, you could argue that sports fans also need to be reminded of the power of what they’re watching and ‘participating’ in, if only to remind them it’s only a game. Taking the almost impossible objective view is certainly one way to appreciate sport in a different way, simply for whatever skill is being demonstrated. Maybe doctors can prescribe the most hardcore of fans to ‘take a break’ to balance their emotional wellbeing. Perhaps broadcasting in and around events can prime people to prepare for events ahead – treating it almost like a health warning. Better yet, how about finding a way to encourage people to view the match or outcome from the opposition’s perspective for a more balanced experience.

However, where’s the fun in that?

“[INSERT NAME OF YOUR TEAM] are cheats. They get away with murder!”

“[INSERT NAME OF YOUR TEAM] have no chance. They’ve not won since [INSERT RANDOM POINT IN TIME]”