You’re a die-hard fan.
You can’t help it. Your grandpa was. Your dad was. And you’ve always been.
You support your team win or lose, no matter what.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s cold and miserable outside, people still show up for the football match and then think ‘I must be mad,’” Alan Pringle, Ph.D., a mental health nurse at the University of Nottingham who has researched soccer fandom in the United Kingdom, told Healthline.
Perhaps you’ve wondered the same about yourself or another fan.
So why do we have such deep-rooted ties to our favorite teams?
It turns out there’s more to it than winning and losing.
If we’re not able to bask in our own accomplishments, sometimes we look to piggyback on the success of others.
Edward R. Hirt, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University says this is called BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory).
“The best example of this is when parents brag about their kids’ accomplishments. But we do this with people we aren’t close to, too. Politicians, actors, athletes, who may be from our hometown or alma mater. The connection makes us look good,” Hirt told Healthline.
For instance, when people talk about the teams they’re fans of, they often do so in an associational way.
“They may use the pronoun ‘we’ when the team is doing good, even though they’re not on the team. Yet if there’s a negative connotation, often they don’t want to be connected. The ‘we’ goes away and it becomes third person,” Hirt said.
However, some fans stay fans during the bad times. Hirt chalks this up to loyalty, a big part of fanship.
“Many fans pride themselves in sticking with their team through the bad and good. It’s like a badge of honor,” he said. “When we talk to these fans they don’t like the fair-weather fans because they don’t feel like they earned the right to revel in the glory when the team’s successful.”
A Shared Language
While the world constantly changes, the essence of a sport remains consistent.
“I’d talk to people who would say, ‘When I grew up my granddad watched the football team, my dad watched the football team and I watched the football team,” said Pringle. “Very few granddads want to talk to their grandkids about the latest PS3 game and very few grandkids want to talk to their granddads about the coal mines. Football allows a shared experience to trade ideas, connect, and talk in a familiar language.”
The same goes for people of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
“You might have a lawyer, garbage man, and an unemployed person with very different backgrounds sitting together, and it doesn’t matter how much money they have or what zip code they live in. The connection becomes about being a fan,” said Pringle.
Hirt agrees, pointing out that different facets of our identity help us define who we are.
When people are asked to write down what defines them, Hirt says they will include descriptors such as gender, ethnicity, religion, and sports teams they’re fans of.
“It’s an important part of who they are for many people. We feel a commonality, closeness, and bond with other people who share the same kind of allegiance like we might for people of the same religion,” said Hirt. “The history and traditions of it all make people feel connected to others.”
Our Primal Needs
Fandom may also have evolutionary roots.
“One of the fundamental fears of humans is to be isolated, alone, and not connected to others, so anything that aligns us with others makes us feel good,” Hirt said.
This fear has always driven us to seek out others like us, adds Hirt.
“In our evolutionary history, it helped us to survive because we were around people of our own species and away from people of other groups who were potential threats to our environment. Knowing if you’re with me or against me has always been a [protective mechanism],” said Hirt.
Emotions Can Fly
Sports allow a safe space to express emotion.
“There’s so much emotion wrapped up in sports, but for many people who are fans they don’t know why it’s the case that sports make them feel something that other things really don’t,” said Hirt.
Pringle agrees, noting that this is especially true for men.
“There are few places men can actually cry. But at the stadium you have men crying over things and hugging each other and it’s totally accepted in that confine. They can scream and be anxious and do all these pretty unmanly things, but they’re socially acceptable. Yet if you were in a different environment and you tried hugging another man, you’d get pushback,” Pringle said.
He relates this to the notion that sports allow an escape from one’s daily life and an avenue to let out aggressions.
“I’ve interviewed people who were police officers and lawyers and they’d tell me that they deal with people who are rotten all week long so when they go to the stadium, they shout and scream. They’d say things like, ‘The fans on the other side can’t reach you and you can’t reach them so it’s OK to swear at them and tell them their team’s lousy,”’ said Pringle. “These people wouldn’t behave this way outside the stadium, but it’s behavior that’s almost socially sanctioned in the stadium.”
A Physical Rush
In addition to the psychological effects of being a sports fan, research has shown that there are also physiological effects.
For instance, one study reported that BIRGing causes changes in the production of endocrine hormones. In addition, testosterone levels increase in fans of winning teams and decrease in the fans of losing teams.
Other studies point to the impact that watching sports has on blood pressure.
“Often times the physiological components related to sports fans are talked about in a negative way. You often hear about stress and acts of violence, but there’s also positive effects,” said Hirt. “There is so much to consider when looking at fanship. It’s much deeper than it appears on the surface.”