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A sports writer explains fan behavior

Understanding World Cup Fever

Whether their team wins or loses, fans all seem to win during World Cup

Sitting at the back of the #148 bus on my way to work earlier this week, I flipped open a copy of the RedEye, the Chicago Tribune’s commuter paper, and read a story about how many of the local bars were packed this past Monday for the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup opener against Ghana (the U.S. won 2-1 in case you haven’t heard) and how some of the management at these establishments was surprised at the early turnout.

“We didn’t think people would come out so early,” Fifty/50 general manager Justin Reicher said of fans showing up three hours or more before the match started at 5 p.m. local time. “But it seemed like people took the day off from work – especially because the first game featured two awesome teams, Germany and Portugal. And the weather was gorgeous. We could have had the entire place full by 2 p.m. As soon as we opened (the second floor and basement), they filled up within 15 minutes.”

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Bars in Chicago were filling up in 15 minutes because of soccer? I had to read that quote a few times to let in sink in. I realize that soccer isn’t as openly mocked as it was in years past, and that it’s actually gaining popularity in the city where I live–home attendance for Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire is up 21 percent from this point last season–but from my experience, soccer doesn’t usually grab the attention of casual sports fans around here.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the World Cup is different. It’s similar to the Olympics–having to wait four years for another champion to be crowned creates a level of excitement and flag waving that attracts non-soccer fans and non-sports fans that may know absolutely nothing about the teams and players they’re cheering for or even the rules of the game. I don’t follow the sport, and I won’t be joining the American Outlaws–a group of soccer-crazed fans that chartered two jets from the U.S. to watch the men’s national team in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup–anytime soon, but I’ve spent more time watching soccer and talking about it these past few days than I have since the last World Cup.

I remember in 2009 walking out of a World Cup qualifier outside of Paris and thinking how that was likely the best sporting event I’ve ever attended, either as a fan or as a sports writer. And it wasn’t because I had an emotional attachment to either side. It was because I had just spent a few hours surrounded by 80,000-plus soccer-crazed fans (it was a level of excitement I’ve never experienced while covering the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball), plus I knew my wife and I created a memory that we’d never forget.

During the World Cup final that year between Spain and the Netherlands in Johannesburg, South Africa, a study was conducted to measure how much fans watching that match from the National Stadium in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, agreed they might enjoy certain benefits of watching the game (Li-Shiue Gau, 2013).  

Using the 5-point Likert scale (1: Disagree and 5: Strongly agree), the 427 respondents gave the highest ratings to “good mood” (4.34), “exciting experience” (4.32), and “support for my favorite team” (4.29). These were followed by: 

  • · Acquire sport information (4.22)
  • · Support for my favorite player (4.18)
  • · Release stress (4.12)
  • · Appreciate the demonstration (4.08)
  • · Appreciate sportsmanship (4.08)
  • · Get together with my family and friends (4.01)
  • · Acquire ideas for sports talk (3.95)
  • · Enjoy the crowd around (3.92)
  • · Teach moral values (3.82)
  • · Observe and learn (3.81)
  • · Basking in the reflected glory (3.73)
  • · Nostalgia (3.50)
  • · Self-expression (3.42)

No wonder they’re expecting thousands of fans to come out again tonight when the U.S. men’s national team faces Portugal. The result on the pitch is far from the only benefit of watching a World Cup match.

Follow me on Twitter @Matt_Beardmore

Matt Beardmore is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger.

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