Why Do People Like Sports? – Part 1

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Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • Sports give us a way of identifying with others
  • Watching sports is a way we escape reality, which depending on our reason for watching can improve or impair our lives
  • Parts of our brain make us feel like we are the ones playing the game

Savor the Summary

“We’re going to the Super Bowl!” say many fans as their team wins the NFL’s AFC or NFC conference championship games. But why do they say “we” as if they are a part of the team and why such excitement about the victory? Getting at the heart of the question, why are people sports fans at all? The three most likely reasons have to do with identity, a need for an escape from reality, and relating to the players in the game.

We Identify with Our Favorite Teams

There are many layers to how we develop our identities, one of which is our identity within a group. Identity is the answer to the question “who am I?” and when it comes to being in a group we want to feel like we belong, so having similarities to those in the group is a necessity. Obviously being raised in a certain region we grow to define ourselves by local traditions and ways of thought, but also by the local sports teams. 

For sports fans, there is a strong likelihood that they support the team from their hometown, or if they have moved to somewhere new they somewhat support the local team but still have a special place in their heart for the hometown heroes. Being born in southern California I grew up a L.A. Lakers fan, but after living in Boston for a few years the Celtics grew on me (as blasphemous as that sounds). This is because I identified with the regions I was living in, and wanted to share the experiences of the group that was supporting the team (wearing purple and gold in a sea of green doesn’t help make friends).

If trying to be a part of a local culture, being a fan of a team is an easy identity to assume. Given how easy it is to become a fan of a team, it is no surprise that being a sports fan is one of the most common ways people identify with their local culture. Simply living in a part of the world that has a local sports team grants you access to thousands or millions of potential acquaintances. 

And although it is easy to become a fan, people identify with their sports teams much more than I would have expected. For people who are fans, “being identified with a favorite team is more important than being identified with their work and social groups, and … religion.” Meaning, some people may be active in their church, run an after school program to help develop children, but above all want to be known for loving their football team.

Although identity plays a strong part in why people choose to become sports fans, needing a little stress relief is also a contributing factor.

It Distracts from Other Worries/Responsibilities

Another reason why people are sports fans is because they need a break from the stresses and responsibilities of life. This distraction from life’s worries is also known as “escapism.” As with all things there are levels to how much people relate to a given idea, but at the base level almost everyone participates in some form of escapism. Whether it is watching TV, reading novels, or going to the opera everyone has something they do to transport their mind to another place and relax. 

Watching a story unfold that is similar enough to other games you’ve watched doesn’t require much mental energy. But, since this exact game has never been played before, it is different enough to be entertaining and provides an easy means of escape.

What I find interesting is that the motivations behind watching the sport and how someone “escapes” can tell a lot about that individual. Frode Stenseng, a Norwegian psychologist authored a paper in which he defines two separate types of escapism as self-suppression and self-expansion. Self-suppression is where someone participates in a leisure activity (such as watching sports) in order to avoid negative thoughts about themselves or their life, while self-expansion is associated with attempting to have an additional positive experience (i.e. not an effort to avoid negative feelings). The results of the studies his paper summarizes support the conclusion that self-expansion is related to positive feelings and general well-being, while self-suppression is related to negative feelings, “poor psychological adjustment, and intrapersonal conflicts regarding the resources invested in the activity.” 

What all this means is that there are different feelings people seek when choosing to watch sports, and if you are someone whose inner monologue is along the lines of “it’s been a hell of a week, my boss is a jerk, traffic has been horrible, but at least I get to watch the game on Sunday,” the game is likely only delaying feeling bad once again and it is likely worth spending that time trying to address the things complained about in the monologue. On the other hand, some people look forward to watching their favorite player slam a fat dunk in order to add to the other good things going on in their life. It’s still escaping reality, but it’s through the addition of positive feelings.

Aside from trying to identify with others or enjoy some sort of escapism, many people watch sports because they truly feel as if they are the ones playing the game.

We Feel as if We are Playing

Mirror neurons are things in our brains that make us feel like we are performing an action simply by watching someone else perform the action. In this way, we can watch someone score a touchdown or make a game winning shot, and our body will react as if we scored. Specifically, scientists who monitored spectators watching and athletes performing a certain action see the same parts of the brain activate. As a basketball player, whenever I watch the NBA and see a defender block someone off of the backboard I get pumped up and feel as if I was the defender.

Similarly, watching our favorite team win a game makes us feel some sense of accomplishment as well, as if we won the game ourselves. Depending on the level at which you identify with a team, you may feel this much more strongly or not at all. 

Conclusion

In short, there are many reasons people are drawn to sports or any type of relaxing activity for that matter, but it is usually because people seek a sense of belonging through sharing a group identity, wanting some form of escape from their current reality, or because it makes them feel as if they are the ones playing the game. Given how complex these facets of human behavior are, this article only scratches the surface so if you get an itch to dive deeper, stay tuned for the sequels! 

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Mike K

Very interesting article on the relationship between the escapism and sports watching. I see a pattern in my own behavior. It does shed some light on why I’ve been such an avid fan of sports. Thanks for sharing!