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The Science of Sports Fandom

Why all the excitement about the World Cup?

Why all the excitement about the World Cup?

I don't get the World Cup. Granted, I am handicapped by not being much of a sports fan. But it's hard not to be drawn in when I walk into my local deli and the Mexican staff are cheering their team while they make my sandwich and ring up my order, or I hear total strangers on the street, in the bus or in the subway strike up excited conversations about the most recent results.

Although sports aren't completely alien to me, they're not usually part of the conversations that take place in my office - unless a child is involved, a spouse is preoccupied, or an important experience takes place at an event. But last week was different. Clients who had never before expressed any interest in what the international community calls football talked about the competition as though they had always been avid fans.

Janelle* is a perfect example. Born in France, she moved to New York as an adult. The only time I could remember her even mentioning a sport before was when she talked about figure skating during the Olympics. But the other day she started a session with an angry, "Did you see that match?" I quickly reviewed the possible meanings of the question. Had something happened at the French Tennis Open, I wondered. I vaguely remembered seeing something about Serena (Williams) and the Queen of England at Wimbledon, but I could not imagine that this would have been distressing to Janelle. "Those rotters," she said, clarifying the strange cause of her rage, "they stole the match from France!"

As has happened for many of my clients, Janelle's social life has suddenly coalesced around these games. Reading of peaks in internet and television viewing (according to some reports the number of viewers is larger than the earth's human population) and seeing evidence in the bars and restaurants around my office - many of them flying brightly colored jerseys from their awnings with large signs proclaiming that they have 24/7 viewings - I couldn't help but wonder about the psychological meaning of the fascination with this event. So I began asking people how they understood it. Clients, friends, relatives, anyone who talked to me about the World Cup was fair game for my informal survey.

Here's some of what I learned:

• This is one sport that is neither dominated by nor particularly significant to the United States. It is a place where many other countries shine, and which has great significance to people all over the world. There is a sense of camaraderie that goes with this experience. "Oh yes, I grew up playing football (not the American kind); I know what this is."

• On the other hand, the U.S. is playing well enough to be a genuine competitor this year. "There is, for once, a kind of genuine humility and good sportsmanship in an American team. They are really being great competitors!" said one of my respondents.

• Everyone around the world knows the rules, and everyone has to play by them.

• There is a sense of fairness about this sport. The playing field is, so to speak, level.

• South Africa did not clean up and try to present a false picture of the country to the world, as China did for the Olympics. This reflects the gritty reality of this game. (When I asked these respondents about the spewing of hatred resulting in riots, injuries and deaths in the crowds at some soccer games, they said that during the World Cup that gang mentality was transformed into support and national team spirit.)

• There is a feeling that everyone has a chance. Even the smallest, poorest countries have an opportunity to show off here.

• There is a bonding, a connection, that feels like it is running across the planet. Everybody's excited to be in this together - and many people who have not had much of a chance to feel proud of their countries are excited at the way they are being represented in front of all of the world.

As Bill Littlefield says, "It's only a game." But there is a theme here, and what it has to say about human nature, and in this case, what we are capable of doing together, is powerful. Competition, all of my respondents seem to be saying, can be both satisfying and unifying when it's fair and equitable. This is not a feel-good, everyone wins kind of idea. There are definite winners and losers, and that's part of what makes it so exciting. But everyone needs to feel that they have a reasonable chance to put their best foot forward (so to speak). And what seems to be part of the excitement about these games is that many of the losers feel that they also won by getting so far and showing themselves as well as they have.

Is that what sports are really about?

I still don't know that I understand. But whatever it is, wouldn't it be nice if we could build on it? Wouldn't the world be better if we could?

*Names and identifying information are changed to protect individuals and families.


Go Team!