The Psychology of Fandom

Why are people sports fans?  The word "fan" is actually just a shortened version of the word "fanatic."  Even in the days of the Boston Red Sox "Royal Rooters" in the early 1900s, obnoxious supporters would taunt opponents from seats along the third base line.  Obviously Boston fans have matured in the last 100 years[1].  And by "matured," I mean gotten worse.

I interviewed four different people for this post, ones I consider great sports fans, each in their own way. A 38-year-old Mother of four who loves all things Boston, a 55-year-old Canadian who loves the L.A. Lakers, a 30 year old woman who immersed herself the 1993 Wimbledon final in order to escape from childhood trauma, or the 28 year old man (is that age considered adult? I guess on a case-by-case basis) who latched on to his city's teams only to have it develop into seething anger.

It reminds me of a joke:

A woman goes to a psychologist for help diagnosing her husband.  She says, “All he does is sit in the fetal position on the couch, doesn’t take care of himself, and randomly starts swearing and crying.  What’s wrong with him Doctor?” He answers, “I think he’s a Patriots fan.”



I wasn't raised by a family that would be considered anything more than "casual viewers" of sports.  Let us just say my family would have preferred if I rooted for the mascot “Grey Goose,” or players named Earnest and Julio Gallo.  It was 1995 that I started watching football.  My friends and their dads would talk about the game incessantly.  I immersed myself in professional football, more specifically, The New England Patriots[2].  By 1998, I could rattle off the entire New England Patriots' roster by number.  I watched games and learned the difference between “cover 2" or "man to man" defenses.  I could not realize why the Patriots stunk so badly in the late 1990s[3].

I was not surrounded by fans, they were merely casual viewers.  Not anyone fanatical, but if there were a sporting event on television, or given tickets to said event, all of a sudden are “die hards.”  These people claim to “love” a team, yet have great difficulty pronouncing the names “Youkilis,” or “Saltalamacchia.”

There are different schools of thought as to whom you can root for.  Some believe you are bound by geographical loyalties.  If you were raised in a certain area, (i.e.: Boston), you should remain loyal and root for teams from that locale.  Others believe it is up to each person to choose their own favorite team.  Some lived throughout their formative years without a professional team (i.e.: Toronto or Winnepeg, Canada), and followed another sports team (i.e.: The Los Angeles Lakers).  While I can see the arguments for this school of thought, I do believe there has to be a legitimate reason.  Someone living in Washington D.C. after 1971 would not have a Major League Baseball team to follow (The Senators became the Texas Rangers…it’s called Wikipedia people), with the exception of the Baltimore Orioles[4].  Now, the Washington Nationals have a decent team and are in the playoffs.  Can people become fans now?  Maybe not in the purest form of the word, but they can start following and being a “more-than-casual” viewer[5].

What is not acceptable, in my opinion, are those who I refer to as the “Newt Gingrich Fan.”  They had a team to root for.  Decided they weren’t worth their valuable time as a viewer, pitched them for a younger, blonde sports team, only to come crawling back once their losing streak went into remission.  For example, the flocks of people that became Red Sox or Patriots fans in the early 2000s.  All of a sudden, these people proclaimed they were true “Pats fans,” but looked like the RCA dog when you mention the name “Scott Zolak[6].”  Yet, when things go bad[7], the amount of “fans” suddenly disavowing their devotion to a team resembles rats leaving a sinking ship.

Is being a sports fan fun? “Sure, when my team is winning,” said one fan.  We endure questionable personnel moves, last-minute wins, and stomach-punch losses.  Last Sunday night, when the Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens, we tried to tell ourselves they lost because of the Replacement Refs.  No, Green Bay lost because of the Replacement Refs; the Patriots just can’t stinkin' hold a touchdown lead in the last five minutes[8].  Each sports fan I talked to could tell me at length their proudest moment (the 2004 World Series, the 2001 Super Bowl, Pete Sampras’ retirement), and yet, if I asked them their lowest moment, suddenly it was asking them to bring back moments that had been struck from memory.  Some were still in shock (the 2007 Super Bowl), some saddened (when Magic Johnson announced his retirement due to HIV), and others brought anger.  It wasn’t a championship loss, or a tragic end to a career.  One sports fan told me his lowest moment was the 2003 American League Championship Series in which the Boston Red Sox lost to the New York Yankees[9].  Some nine years later, what is his reaction?  “I could put your head through a plate glass window.”  Wow.  Is this what an “enjoyable hobby” is supposed to do to us?

I remember it was the first game of the 2003 NFL season.  The Patriots were playing the Buffalo Bills.  That year they would end up finishing the season 14-2 and winning the Super Bowl.  The Patriots lost the game to the Bills 31-0.  Two years earlier, the Patriots’ first Super Bowl had brought me to tears[10].  I cannot describe the rage this game caused in me.  Maybe it was Lawyer Milloy playing the “Fredo” to the “family” of the Patriots[11], or maybe it was Sam Adams, who weighed somewhere in the ballpark of a Toyota Camry, returning an interception for a touchdown.  Regardless, I went full “Bruce Banner” after this game.  My wife and I had to attend a wedding later that afternoon.  She made me pull over and make her drive before we even left our town.  I would be ashamed at this, but I know plenty of fans that would be driven to this level of emotion.


What is the real point of getting upset over games?  We still will watch them again, be it the next game or the next season.  It is not enough to always favor teams that win[12].  The wins that affect us deeper are those that come after years of hardship.  After all of the pain we endured watching a team, to finally see success makes it a worthwhile.  Trust me, I wish the Patriots never lost.  But, maybe all of these disappointments will make the successes that much sweeter. 

Why do we keep putting ourselves through this?  It was best summed up this way by one fan:

“Sometimes the best books are the ones that leave us in tears at the end.”


-Grumpy Boy out.


p.s.: That being said, if the Patriots lose another Super Bowl, I may punch someone in the throat.

[1] Instant idiot, just add alcohol.

[2] See: Masochistic Personality Disorder.

[3] Pete. Carroll.

[4] You can stop laughing.  Apparently there are fans of the Baltimore Orioles

[5] Should the fan and the team have that “Exclusivity talk?”

[6] To be fair, true Pat fans look like this when that name is mentioned.

[7] See the 2012 Boston Red Sox Season

[8] See Super Bowls XLII, XLVI, 9/24/12 @BAL

[9] Grady Little and Pedro carry as much blame as Aaron “This is a family blog” Boone.

[10] I’m man enough to admit it, Shut up.

[11] “Godfather” comparisons may be overused, but usually fitting.  I’m pretty sure if you look back at the tape, you can see oranges, the “Godfather” clue of impending doom, somewhere at the beginning of the game.

[12] Although I’d like to. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on