Cover Story

Sports Complex: The Science Behind Fanatic Behavior

Only one month after April 3rd’s opening day, baseball fans from Boston to Oakland are beginning to hear a familiar cry: “Yankees suck!” These words — chanted in unison, with clapping hands and stomping feet — are the mantra of many spectators who support opposing teams. Such vocal expressions of intergroup rivalry are just one facet of sports fans’ fascinating and often perplexing behavior.

Husband-and-wife team Beth and Lefty (who have asked their last name not to be disclosed) learned this firsthand after they launched the Web site, Though established for the sake of “irony and humor,” the site has many times fallen victim to crashes, threats, crude posts, and, once, hacking from a self-proclaimed Yankees fan who left an expletive-laced message in his wake.

“There’s an expression I’ve heard,” says Beth “that ‘sports don’t build character, they reveal it.’ That’s what’s happening here. If they’re angry people, this gives them an outlet. Where else in the world can you just pick an enemy and just hate them?”

Inflaming the Fan
While it may seem understandable that an athlete becomes attached to teammates and being part of a team, it is clear that sports spectators — those regulars sitting in the stands — can also become so passionate about their team that it becomes part of their identity and affects their well-being.

Research shows similarities between a fan’s identification with a sports team and how people identify with their nationality, ethnicity, even gender. Team identification “is the extent to which a fan feels a psychological connection to a team and the team’s performances are viewed as self-relevant,” says Daniel Wann, professor of psychology at Murray State University, who has spent much of his career dedicated to research about sports spectators.

In watching the action, people do indeed identify with teams, and for some, team identification is both important and powerful to their sense of self.

“People are tying up a lot of who they are in their identity as fan of X-team,” says Edward Hirt, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University- Bloomington, who has also conducted research on the psychology of sports fans. “A huge part of who they are, where they derive a lot of their positive and negative affect, is from what their team is doing.”

Perhaps the most basic question — a genuine mystery for some non-sports-fans — is why people follow sports so ardently. What is it about watching sports that possesses otherwise composed individuals to scream, obsess over statistics, and paint their faces — particularly when they know that there’s a very good chance that their team is going to lose?

Sports fan researchers emphasize this point: that sporting events are competitions in which it is guaranteed that one team must lose, which means that half the fans will be upset with the result. In other activities, those odds might not seem like a worthwhile investment of one’s time.

“It’s a voluntary activity where half of the people aren’t going to like the product when they’ve finished consuming it,” says Wann. “You wouldn’t go see a movie if you thought there was a 50/ 50 chance you wouldn’t like it.”

So being a fan can’t be all about a team’s winning performance. “Everyone is eventually going to lose,” says Hirt. “It’s clear that has to be other benefits that people are accruing.”

Perhaps no fans understand loyalty to a losing team better than followers of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have not won major league baseball’s top prize, the World Series, for nearly 100 years (that’s even without Bambino’s Curse that plagued Boston). Yet the team cultivates an overwhelming fan base and maintains a legendary bleacher-section community.

Ask a Cubs fan why he or she likes the team and, according to Wann, they won’t say because of all the championships. “They’ll say, ‘I love Wrigley Field, I love the bleachers and the community in the outfield bleachers,'” says Wann. “Identification is not just with the team — that might be the target or the focal field — but what draws with that is the identification that comes with it.”

John McDonough, senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting for the Cubs, couldn’t agree more. “We’re marketing the experience more than other teams,” he says. “Maybe they won the division or the World Series. Here, it’s really about the unique mystique of the Chicago Cubs. What resonates the loudest with the fan base is the experience.”

A Need to Belong
Although people report many reasons for following a favorite team, social connectedness is among the most frequently cited, as Wann finds in his research on college and professional sports fans.

“When we look at motivation for following a sport team, group affiliation is one of the top ones,” says Wann. “Identifying strongly with a salient local team where other fans are in the environment — that’s a benefit to social-psychological well-being.”

In a series of studies, Wann has surveyed hundreds of undergraduate fans, who vary in their fanaticism for their college teams. After measuring levels of sports team identification and psychological well-being, he found that the results are correlational but consistent: Higher identification with a team is associated with significantly lower levels of alienation, loneliness, and higher levels of collective self-esteem and positive emotion.

Seeing another person wearing the team emblem on a shirt allows for an instant connection. This shared identity might facilitate communication among individuals or just increase a feeling among fans that they have shared values.

“If you take away the socialness, it would lose something for some people,” says Wann. “Part of identifying with the sport team is not just with the team, but with the fan base.”

Sports might be a particularly enticing means of fostering belongingness for several reasons.

“One reason is the way the activity lends itself to large audiences,” says Wann. The venue, he says, provides an easy way of interacting with other spectators, and the vast majority of fans, about 95 percent, attend games with friends.

In addition, highly identified fans tend to be socialized to sports early and view it not just as a game but also as a nostalgic or emotional experience. Many say that they can remember going to games as a child, or that games remind them of pleasant childhood memories.

The repetition of the sports seasons may be another thing that draws fans to the game. “There’s always the next season,” says Hirt, repeating a mantra sports fans are fond of repeating after an unsuccessful season. “Everyone has a chance in spring training. There’s always the sort of opportunity that next season it can happen.”

An Extension of Self
Team identification not only fosters a sense of social belonging, but also it impacts individual self-esteem.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in the early 1990s, Hirt and colleagues examined the effects of team allegiance on individuals’ beliefs about their own competence and self-esteem. They brought participants who reported being highly identified with their college basketball teams into the lab and showed them a tape of their teams either winning or losing. Afterwards, each participant was asked to predict how well he or she thought the team would do in the future. Participants were also asked to make seemingly unrelated estimates of their own performance on motor, mental, and social-skills tasks.

“The most powerful thing we found was that for highly allied fans, they really did view the team’s success akin to how they would view a personal success,” says Hirt.

Fans who watched their team win reported significantly higher estimates of the team’s future performance, their own task performance, and personal self-esteem than did those who watched their team lose. The boost that the winning-team group received was similar to the boost that participants received when they personally succeeded or failed at a task.

“The team is an extension of the self,” says Hirt.

Belonging Is More Important than Winning
Another facet of sports fandom is just how dedicated many fans are.

“The whole idea behind identification is that it’s really part of how we see ourselves and that doesn’t change easily,” says Robert J. Fisher, professor of marketing at The University of Western Ontario, whose research emphasizes the effects of social expectations on managerial and consumer decision making. “If you see yourself as a member of a family, that role doesn’t change. Those types of connections are very long-lasting and very strong.”

He and colleagues published a 1998 study examining how fans of winning teams versus those of losing teams explained their allegiances. Surveying fans at hockey games, they found that for a successful team, performance was cited as a main reason for identification.

But for fans of continually losing teams, that relationship didn’t exist. Instead, members of unsuccessful groups turned their attention to other aspects of their team, such as how much they liked the individual players.

“We actively choose to find people or organizations that enable us to have a certain kind of view of ourselves, to represent ourselves to others,” says Fisher.

Like our choice of spouses or friends, “we want to see ourselves as making good choices and being smart and proud of being who we are,” says Fisher. “We have to find ways to work around their failings to keep them close to us.”

The annual Cubs Convention demonstrates how teams can capitalize on fans’ desires to remain affiliated. When McDonough joined the organization in 1983, he wanted to keep the Cubs on the minds of fans year-round, so he set about making the team appear more personal to the fans.

The first of its kind in baseball, fans were invited to join players, management, and other fans for a weekend in the off season, both to celebrate the previous season and to anticipate the upcoming one. Now 22 years in the running, the convention attracts 15,000 fans in the dead of winter, and has spawned copycat events by other major-league baseball teams.

McDonough cites a breaking down of barriers as the main reason for the Convention’s success.

“Previously in sports you were never able to ask the manager of your favorite team a question, former players, or current players about their experience,” says McDonough. The Convention “humanized the game. It broke down those barriers of the players being unapproachable. Winning and losing was not an issue.”

McDonough is right on, according to the sports-marketing literature. Winning is the best marketing tool, but beyond that, “one of the big recommendations is making the team accessible,” says Ryan Zapalac, Rice University, who researches marketing to sports fans. “If you provide accessibility to the community, you make people feel as though that player is a part of the community.”

In fact, marketers over the past decade have notably targeted the sports fan psyche by using relationship-building marketing strategies, says Jeff James, associate professor of sports marketing at Florida State University. Rather than exclusively trying to attract new fans, they are attempting to build longer lasting, closer relationships with existing ones.

“It’s moving from ‘I’m a fan of the team’ to ‘I’m a part of the team,'” says James.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ new “Think Blue” credit card points system allows fans to accrue points that can redeemed for batting practice on the field, Dodger equipment used in games, and the best seats in the stadium. The motto is “Earn Rewards. Live Your Dodger Dreams!”

Other strategies for increasing fans’ connections to the team include player autographs and birthday announcements on scoreboards.

“Why do we allow people to make marriage proposals at the ballpark?” poses James. “That couple is coming back. It’s now their anniversary.”

Loyalty Benefits the Loyal
Apart from strategies that teams use to draw fans, fans themselves utilize psychological strategies to justify and maintain their passion — even when a team’s performance is otherwise disappointing.

“Sports fans have perfected methods of coping,” says Wann. “If they weren’t able to cope, there wouldn’t be any sports fans.”

They may boost their self-esteem when the team wins by basking in reflected glory, wearing a team-logo shirt the next day, or talking about the game with coworkers at the office.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Social Psychology, Wann and Rick Grieve, professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University, surveyed 148 fans from both teams as they were leaving a sporting event and asked them to rate their agreement with statements that their team’s fans has exhibited good behavior and sportsmanship. They were then asked to evaluate the opposing team’s fans. The results showed that fans — particularly those of the winning team — were more likely to say that the opposing team’s fans displayed worse behavior than their own team’s fans, a clear case of in-group bias.

“It almost seems to me that they were using the denigration of other fans as a way to enhance self-esteem,” says Grieve. “‘Not only is my team better, but man, your fans stink, too.'”

When their team does poorly, however, they may also show biased perceptions against other people, such as the referees, the other team’s players, or fans of the other team. Their recollection of events may also be inaccurate.

“The good times are always better than what they really were,” says Grieve.

Those who are highly identified with their teams are particularly motivated to use these coping strategies when their teams perform poorly. Because the team is part of their identity, they cannot deny themselves the team’s importance.

“Rather than distancing from teams,” says Grieve, “They may shift expectations. They shift to cope.”

Fans may choose to follow another favorite team in a different sport for a while, or reflect on past glory years, or dream of future success, according to Wann.

Emphasizing loyalty to a team is another way fans can soothe themselves.

When their sports team fails, the highly identified fan might say to him- or herself, “‘I’m not like other people, I’m loyal in the face of all they’ve gone through,'” says Fisher. “‘When they are finally successful, everyone will see that I’m really smart.'”

Alternatively, fans might use hindsight bias, according to Grieve. I knew they were going to lose, but I was so loyal I cheered for them anyway.

Superstition as a Way to Cope
Superstitions are an integral part of sports, and they may also be yet another way fans cope with their team’s performance.

In ongoing research, Wann and his colleagues are exploring the role of fan superstition. Over half of his 1,000 participants can readily define a superstition or ritual they believe in. Moreover, some are truly convinced that their participation in ritual superstition impacts the outcome, says Wann. The more highly identified with a team the fans are, the more likely they are to believe that superstitions matter.

“It’s a real struggle that sports fans experience,” says Wann. “They so much care about the outcome of the event they have absolutely zilch control over. How do we gain control? We may develop superstitions.”

strategies to develop and maintain their allegiance with teams. And they may have to strategize even more as it becomes increasingly rare for players to play for just one team in their careers.

“Now you can’t go hating those guys too much because they might be on your team next year,” says Baumeister. “All these illusory relationships become much more fleeting. That makes it harder to have that illusion.”

Yet despite that illusion, team losses, bad seasons, and so on, the fans remain ardent.

“Sports fans,” says Wann, “are so resilient because they can hope.”


  • Fisher, R.J. & Wakefield, K. (1998). Factors leading to group identification: A field study of winners and losers. Psychology & Marketing, 15, 23-40.
  • Hirt, E.R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G.A., & Kennedy, C. (1992). Costs and benefits of allegiance: Changes in fans’ selfascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 724-738.
  • Lindstrom, W.A., & Lease, A.M. (2005). The role of athlete as contributor to peer status in school-age and adolescent females in the United States: From pre-title IX to 2000 and beyond. Social Psychology of Education, 8, 223-244.
  • Wann, D.L. (2006). Examining the potential causal relationship between sport team identification and psychological wellbeing. Journal of Sport Behavior, 29, 79-95.
  • Wann, D.L., & Grieve, F.G. (2005). Biased Evaluations of In-Group and Out-Group Spectator Behavior at Sporting Events: The Importance of Team Identification and Threats to Social Identity. Journal of Social Psychology, 145, 531-545.



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