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The Psychology of Sports Fandom

Do you support your favorite team out of love, or something more random?

Sean Locke Photography
Source: Sean Locke Photography

As thousands of baseball fans descended on Cincinnati earlier this month for Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, I was struck by the confluence of various sports allegiances, their arbitrariness, and their psychological implications.

Streets in Cincinnati were filled with a rainbow of fans wearing their favorite team's uniforms, caps, and related apparel. The colors, franchise logos, and city and team names emblazoned on these items help people immediately identify Yankees fans from Red Sox fans from Dodgers fans.

Yet, why were the fans there at all? What motivates people to fly in a plane across the country to wear expensive merchandise in order to serve as walking billboards for multi-billion dollar corporations with multi-millionaire employees, and then get into heated discussions about whether the designated hitter is sacrosanct or an abomination?

Clearly there is a lot of psychology at work, and much of it involves the self.

Team associations drive self-esteem

It has been well established that people derive self-esteem benefits from simple associations with successful others. Research by Cialdini and colleagues has shown that people are more likely to wear sports-related apparel following team victories than following losses, and they are more likely to use first-person pronouns to describe victories—our offense was great today—and third-person pronouns to describe losses—they couldn't score a run if their lives depended on it.

Our need to increase our sense of self-worth leads us to seek broad connections, and this not only plays out in terms of sports team identification, but in our sense of connection to various phenomena ranging from favorite authors to nationalism. For example, chants of "U-S-A" were heard everywhere as the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team won the World Cup earlier this month, with even non-soccer fans basking in the reflected glory of the women's success on the biggest soccer stage—and extending their connection with the team to nationalism. At the same time, Greek Americans may either boast about, or downplay, their Greek identities based on whether they believe Greece's defiance toward European Union financial policies is bravado or folly.

Fanship satisfies our need to belong

For most people, the need to belong is even more powerful than the desire for self-esteem. Simply put, social connectedness is a critical human need, and one way we establish it is through symbolic affiliations with others. The need to belong can be so strong that it affects our perceptions of our interactions with others (Gardner et al., 2000).

For example, walking down the streets of Cincinnati at the All-Star Game, Yankees fans who come across others wearing a Yankees jersey or cap could feel a sense of instant connectedness with complete strangers because of their symbolic connection to a greater identity. The salience of this shared connectedness becomes even stronger in situations where other identities are present. Indeed, research on children's identities by McGuire and colleagues has demonstrated that boys and girls identify more strongly with their gender in families where they are outnumbered by children of other genders. So, Yankees fans may have felt closer to other Yankees fans in Cincinnati than they would have in the Bronx because their shared identities were more salient in a sea of different others.

The power of this connectedness need is exhibited in many ways. For example, an entire soccer stadium in Liverpool singing "You'll never walk alone" reflects a crowd of football supporters exhibiting their shared identity by singing in unison (even though few probably know, or care, that the song is from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and just associate singing this song with collectively supporting their club). Indeed, being in a collective experience with others who share a common passion is one of the greatest joys people can experience socially, whether it's attending a live concert, a political rally, or a major sporting event.

Arbitrary allegiances translate into embracing larger ideologies

One final observation worth noting is the relative arbitrariness of all of these identities. Cincinnati Reds fans are likely to be Reds fans not because of some exhaustive and deliberative process of ascertaining their allegiance, but from something as arbitrary as being born or raised near Cincinnati. These seemingly random identifications can last a lifetime and extend to justifying equally arbitrary ideologies.

For example, I was struck by a heated conversation between two fans in Cincinnati arguing about the inherent rightness of the designated hitter rule (i.e., having a designated player who bats instead of the pitcher, but does not play in the field). For the uninitiated, the National League does not use the designated hitter, while the American League does. These fans were passionately engaged in an argument about this seemingly arbitrary issue, and it was no surprise that the person opposed to the rule was wearing St. Louis Cardinals gear (a National League team) and the other, Kansas City Royals attire (an American League team). In other words, each fan was arguing for the inherent rightness of the arbitrary rules employed by the baseball leagues of their respective teams.

This example is amusing—why should anyone care about arbitrary rules in a professional sport that they never play?—similar processes certainly play out in more powerful ways as people adopt ideologies based on random factors such as where they were born. For example, a U.S. citizen who embraces the United States as the greatest country in the world, capitalism as inherently just, or Christianity as the one true faith probably does not realize that these convictions probably result more from their random placement on the planet than some truth inherent in these frameworks or systems. In short, had this person been born in India or China, their views about the "best" culture, economics, or religion would be quite different.


These observations are not intended to say that anyone's strongly-held beliefs, ranging from sports team allegiances or religious preferences, have less meaning or validity. Indeed, having self-worth, a sense of greater social connectedness, and belief systems that we hold passionately represent some of the most meaningful aspects of life. Yet at the same time, observing these processes play out in seemingly "less important" domains, like an All-Star Game, should remind us to be mindful of how these basic psychological processes operate in other domains of our lives and why we should guard against allowing our allegiances and belief systems to run amok over others.


Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Marcus, W. R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L. R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 366-375.

Gardner, W. L., Pickett, C. L., & Brewer, M. B. (2000). Social exclusion and selective memory: How the need to belong influences memory for social events. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 486-496.

McGuire, W. J., McGuire, C. V., Child, P., & Fujioka, T. (1978). Salience of ethnicity in the spontaneous self-concept as a function of one's ethnic distinctiveness in the social environment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 511-520.