Why Do Fans Love Sports?

A Leap of Faith

As we dig into building this new company, we need to ask and answer some fundamental questions.  Following the Lean Startup stuff, one of the first things we need to do is identify our leap of faith hypothesis, and figure out ways to test it.  Our current best shot at our core hypothesis is:

The vast majority of sports fans consider watching the game alone a big enough problem that they will actively look for a solution.

Pretty much our first crack at an MVP will be to test this hypothesis.  So, the question then is, how does one test such a hypothesis?  While tooling around with this in my head, I though of a more fundamental question I should fully grok the answer to prior to working on this.

Why do fans love sports?

There are so many sport fans, and they circle every sport known to man.  Some sports are well-known, like College Football or the NBA.  Others are strange, like the Modern Pentathlon, but still have cult followings.  What attracts us to these games?  Why do we keep coming back for more?  Why do we dress up in crazy outfits, make fools of ourselves and scream at the TV?

Fans go crazy for their teams
Fans go crazy for their teams

Seriously, why?

So, got a question? Ask google!  A quick search finds lots of people asking the same question.  Either bloggers, or on your favorite question sites like Yahoo Answers or Ask Jeeves.  Very empirical, non scientific data,  but fun to look at all the same.  This post will review some of those answers.  My next post will, hopefully, focus on more scientific data.

There is something magical about sports

First let’s have a look at what a sports writer has to say about why we love sports.  Ben Miller writes a column for The Daily, the University of Washington’s newspaper.  Ben asks the same question, and provides three thoughts on the answer, at least for him.

  1. We will always come back because our teams are always there for us
  2. Anything can happen in sports
  3. Sports is a way to unite people.

It’s funny that Ben included number one.  He wrote this in Seattle in 2006.  Shortly after in 2008, the Seattle SuperSonics left to become the Oklahoma Thunder.  So perhaps they won’t always be there for you.  But I get his point.  There is always next season.  When a new season starts, the pains of the past are forgotten.  I notice this myself every August.  “It looks like Notre Dame may put it together to make a big run this year”.  I easily forget the mauling we received in the previous years weed wacker bowl.  Each season brings new hope, and as humans we need and love hope.  It is what keeps us going.

Notre Dame beats Syracuse
ND beats #1 Syracuse - Photo by Joe Raymond - AP

I like his second answer best as I think it gets closer to the core truth.  Anything can happen in sports.  His examples are George Mason making the final four, and the Seahawks getting to the Superbowl.  There are tons of stories of Cinderella fitting the glass slipper and winning big.  Everyone loves the Cinderella story because we all can easily identify with her.  We can project, and dream that someday perhaps we will win something big.  And every year, there is a chance that something like this could happen with our team.

Case in point, my Notre Dame team was picked to finish 12th, in the bottom of the bucket of the Big East.  Then they lose their best player, a preseason all-american, to a destroyed knee before he played a regular season game.  Now 12th looks more like 16th, aka dead last.  And yet, as I write this they are sitting in second place.  And they beat Syracuse, the number one team in the country.  Who knew they could pull this off?  Humans love hope, but they love happy surprises even more!

I agree that sports are something that help unite people, but I don’t know if this is a legitimate reason why people like them.  I think it is more of a side effect of a shared love.  It’s also a safe topic for small talk, similar to the weather, although with more passion behind it.  I think the shared experience aspect of it is quite compelling, so I will chat more about that below.

Why do we give so much attention to sports figures?

A similar, related question, is why do we give so much attention to sports figures?  Eric Ringham asked this question on  Minnesota Public Radio after Brett Favre toyed with his sport by playing with retirement.  A number of people provided answers to his question, while others complained that people like sports too much.

  1. Sports are a celebration of the human body and spirit.
  2. Sports are a shared experience defined by strong emotion.
  3. It includes winning and losing

I think the idea that sports are a celebration of the human body and spirit is also core to the truth.  I am constantly awed by what people at the top of their sport can do with their mind and their body.  Seriously, have you read anything about what the Tour de France does to its participants?  We treat athletes like gods because they come close to showing us what God looks like, since they are created in his image.

But there is also a dark side, which adds even more drama and attention.  Be it the competitiveness of Michael Jordan, the mental fortitude of Tiger Woods or the pure endurance of Lance Armstrong, we see the limits of human capability, while also seeing how human they are by how easily they fall.  As fans we place them on pedestals, we still hold the ability to knock them off.  And we love that.  We love to identify with greatness, dreaming for the moment that perhaps we could reach a similar pinnacle.  And when we fall short of that, we love our ability to knock the athlete down a notch as well.   Sports allows us to celebrate the best within us, as well as the darkness within us.  It’s therefore very attractive.

#2 ND beats #1 Florida State
#2 ND beats #1 Florida State in the Game of the Century

There are few moments people remember more than those associated with strong emotion.  Be it the highest highs, or the lowest lows, we remember.  For those my age, I’m sure you remember where you were and what you were doing with the Space Shuttle blew up.  You also, I’m sure, remember where you were and every detail of your first kiss.  Well, sports can also provide those highs and lows.  When your team wins the championship, or even that big game, you live it vicariously.  It remains with you.

I remember so many details of the “Game of the Century”when #2 Notre Dame played #1 Florida State in 1993.  And my memory stinks, just ask anyone who knows me.  I also have very clear memories of the game immediately following, when ND lost to an unranked Boston College team ( to this day I can’t stand BC ).   The highs are euphoric, practically intoxicating.  They are religious experiences.  The lows become shared experiences, things that tie us closer together with our fellow fans.  War stories we can discuss for years and years to come.  By providing such highs and lows, sports make us feel more alive.  They help us reach our edges, where the good juice lives.  Their emotional peaks and valleys are addictive, and we love them.

Another commenter discusses the fact that sports include winning and losing, and that makes it attractive.  I agree, but would like to expand on that by saying that sports allow us to enjoy the richness of competition within a simple environment where there is an obvious winner and loser.  I think what is attractive from this sense about sport is that the game, in general, is clean.  People who cheat are ostracized by the sport and by its fans (just read about all the doping scandals in cycling).  So, even though the rules of the particular sport may be complex (I still don’t get cricket), the rules are basically black and white.  Anywhere this isn’t clear, such as the human elements of the ref etc. we put in place mechanisms to control the variance, such as video replay.

I think the purity of sport is attractive because it is so different from the real world, a world full of grey and half truth.  The purity of the sport allows us to escape our own lives for its duration.  The sport can be understood, and its repeatable rules applied.  They are like computer programs that a sporting community can compile and run.  Clean, pure, simple, focused, we love them for all of it.

 Where does that leave us?

So, after reviewing other people’s answers, and throwing my own thoughts in as well, I propose the following as an unscientific, gut feel answer.

We love watching sports because they make us feel like we are closer to the Divine.

We just discussed that each new season brings us hope, and how our team is always there for us.  Isn’t this similar to the role the Divine plays in our lives?  Do not most religions espouse hope?  Do not most religions provide an avatar of that which we can depend upon?  We all have this hole in us that we wish to fill with hope and communion.  Sports give us a taste of what we need.

We also discussed how we identify with the athletes, especially the Cinderella ones, and we place them on pedestals for worship, as if they were gods.  Why are they treated this way?  For what purpose?  Again I would say it is to fill a need we have to believe in something bigger than ourselves.  These athletes show us the capabilities of the human spirit, pushing the bounds of body and mind.   It is no wonder that, as the world becomes more secular, the salaries athletes can demand grow astronomically higher.  We need to fill that hole, and the athletes become willing accomplices in our worship.

We discussed how the euphoric high of the big win was like a religious experience, almost like touching God.  Watching your team win the championship has been likened to great sex, also a spiritual endeavor.  Our spirits call out for these strong emotional experiences, as they make us feel more alive.

Finally, we discussed how sports are clean, pure, simple and focused.  We might say God like.  They define a world that is more controlled and easier to understand, as we wish a clear moral code would do for our world.  Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and we strongly desire it’s simplicity.

So, I believe I can say that sports give us experiences and icons that show us what being close to God would be like.  And by living vicariously in them or through them, we attempt to sate our desire to get closer to the Divine. Sports stretch us emotionally, physically and mentally, even as spectators.  They unite people in shared experience, touching the communal necessity of the human spirit.

Next I will strive to see what science has to say about this question.  In the meantime, what is your answer?  Let me know in the comments below.

About Paul

Startup founder, father of 3 girls, Notre Dame alumnus, agile practitioner and tech enthusiast. I love building great companies to solve cool problems.
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One Response to Why Do Fans Love Sports?

  1. henry says:

    Sports as religion? Sure, I can buy that. Sometimes fans can get so carried away in the moment that things go bad. I grew up with soccer hooliganism in the UK in the 80s… it was definitely religious fervor for some of these guys.

    These days it’s somewhat more restrained.

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