The deranged psychology of sports fans has been a mystery for centuries. In ancient Rome, chariot racing was the most popular sport, with fans supporting one of four rival “factions”: the Reds, Blues, Greens, or Whites. What one ancient commentator said of nutty Roman racing fans applies just as well to Green Bay cheeseheads and Cameron Crazies: they seem to be “under the influence of some maniacal drug.” High on fandom, some Roman men hung around team stables to finger and sniff the droppings (making sure the horses were fed properly), others threw themselves on the funeral pyres of their favorite drivers or joined savage battles between fan gangs.
Not much has changed since ancient times.During football season, tens of millions of us sit through games where we see an average of 11 minutes of actual football action, and approximately 30 hours of commercials for Bud Light, Doritos, and Viagra. Many of us watch those 11 minutes of action dancing around our living rooms and pleading with the screen as though the game really, really mattered. Why do people invest so much money and time, so much energy and emotion, in watching other people play?
For a clue, you could have tuned in yesterday (April 1st) to watch two wrestlers/movie stars—the Rock and John Cena—headline the WWE’s annual WrestleMania spectacular. Pro wrestling is not a sport, but it boils sport’s appeal down to its essence. Pro wrestling is a sexy and violent form of ham theater. The spectacle, all choreographed in advance, gives us elaborate storylines with heroes to love and heels to hate: the pompous magnate, the All-American boy, the evil communist, the effeminate narcissist. Pro wrestling gives us all the grandiose pomp and scale, all the fearless bellowing and overacting, of opera. In pro wrestling, the fights are never portrayed as mere sporting contests. They are climaxes to tales of rivalry and treachery. The fake violence of pro wrestling is exciting. But every atomic drop and Mongolian chop also advances the plot of a slapstick melodrama about who slept with whose wife, who betrayed whom, who really loves America, and who only pretends to. Vince McMahon, the sleazy genius behind WWE, describes a season of pro wrestling as a serial novel, whose storylines culminate in the annual WrestleMania extravaganza. When asked to describe WWE’s product, McMahon answers, “we make movies.”
Pro wrestling is pure fiction, but it only exaggerates what we find in legitimate sports broadcasting, where an announcer, a gifted narrative shaper, tries to elevate games to the level of high drama. Sport is a story factory, with suspenseful action leading up to a decisive, and hopefully cathartic, climax. And a whole industry of sports journalists and 24-hour pundits exists to draw the storylines, tout the rivalries, and define the heroes and the villains. What David Goldblatt says of the dramatic appeal of soccer in his 2008 book The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, is just as true of other spectator sports, “the game is not just an art, it’s drama too. It has great metropolitan and minor provincial theater, with free-spending and penny-pinching impresarios and their megalomaniac obsessive directors. It has legions of critics and a fantastical rotating casts of angels and devils, geniuses and journeymen, fallen giants and rising stars... It has staged tragedy and comedy, epic and pantomime… It does imperious triumph, lucky escapes, impossible comebacks and stubborn stalemates. It captures the brilliance of unpredictability, the uncertainty of the human heart and human skill, of improvisation and chance.”
Why do we love sports? Largely, because we love stories.
Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human