We set out five years ago on a quest to understand sports fandom. What drives people to invest their time, energy and disposable income into something as seemingly trivial as sports? One word: belonging.
To be a fan is to be part of a community.
When we share this thesis, most people think we’re talking about fandom’s tribalism — donning your favorite player’s jersey, painting your face in team colors and jeering at your opponents. The stories of parking-lot altercations and barroom brawls.
But our research uncovered something far more powerful: Sports fandom is a social superconductor, enabling fans to make meaningful connections not only across entrenched team loyalties but across social categories such as race, class, religion, gender, generation and, yes, even politics.
What does this mean? For starters, fans have more friends. On average a non-fan has 21.1 friends, while dedicated sports fans average 35.6 friends. Fans also report they “greatly value” these friendships more than non-fans do. Sports give fans more opportunities to engage with these friends, too: Non-fans average 204 social interactions per month; the most active fans average 454.
If you, dear reader, are an avid fan yourself, pause for a moment to consider how many text messages you exchange with hometown friends when your team plays. If you’re like us, nothing lights your phone up like the big game. We posit it’s this ability to generate constant, consistent connection that gives sports fandom its resonance and meaning. And the more people invest into their fandom, the higher the social dividends.
Sports fans understand this — having a nuanced take on this weekend’s quarterback matchups gives you something to talk about at work; knowing Steph Curry is about to break another record gives you easy entry into a conversation with someone wearing a Warriors jersey in the grocery store; even the sighting of a rival fan on the street opens an opportunity for good-natured ribbing.
Many people don’t realize how important these casual social connections can be. At a time loneliness ranks among the top public-health threats, fandom brings people together. Among more engaged sports fans, 61% strongly agree they “feel close to people,” as opposed to 37% of non-fans. In fact, across five wellness markers — happiness, satisfaction, optimism, gratitude and confidence — people’s overall scores rise as their fandom involvement increases.
What is true of strangers at bus stops, longtime friends and new co-workers is true within families as well: Fandom gives us countless opportunities to make meaningful connections and deepen existing bonds.
Bigger fans are more likely to “greatly value” their relationships with their mothers, fathers and siblings. While 50% of more dedicated fans say they’re “very satisfied” with their family life, only 34% of non-fans do. Asked to rank the strength of their relationships with their children who live at home, 85% of non-fans ranked their connections at 5 or 6 on a 6-point scale versus 93% of the most active sports fans. Asked to rank the strength of their relationships with their children not living at home, 67% of non-fans marked 5 or 6, while 80% of active fans did.
What’s up with these numbers? Think of it this way: In a family of sports fans, which text is more likely to spark an ongoing exchange: “How are you today?” or “Did you see that game-winning play last night?”
That’s how fandom galvanizes family relationships: small connections, built up over time, amounting to lifelong histories, across multiple generations, of shared wins and losses, questionable calls, heartbreaking trades and legendary plays.
Football particularly lends itself to this role: Teams play once a week, providing a regular connection point between family members near and far. Often games air on weekends and holidays — when families come together. Most Americans understand the basics and get the gist of the game. For those who want to learn more, the act of passing down fandom is a time-honored tradition — the older generation teaching the younger the subtleties of the game.
And sports offer opportunities for children and adults to enjoy a common passion in a non-hierarchical way. A 13-year-old’s educated take on Aaron Rodgers will be considered as closely as a 79-year-old’s. Better yet, it can lead to ongoing conversations between the two, long after the final whistle blows.
That’s why we encourage you to bring more fun, inclusivity and connection to your holiday weekend by leveraging sports’ social nature. If you’re already a fan, invite more people into the mix: Create a football squares game, send a text to that friend you haven’t spoken to in years, ask a stranger who will win, ask people to share their fandom’s greatest triumphs and upsets.
If you’re not a fan, consider this: When you tune into sports, you tune into people. Instead of seeing the game as an invader into your family space or white noise in the background, think of it as a host, a conversation-starter, a relationship facilitator.
If you can’t generate any interest in the game itself, that’s OK: Pay attention to the fans in the room. Ask them when their fandom started and what it means to them. Odds are they’ll talk less about team records and player statistics and more about a long history of connecting with people they love.
Time and again, through tens of thousands of questionnaires, focus groups and interviews, no matter how we cut the data, the results are undeniably clear: In a painfully divided world, fandom brings people together, in the grandstands and at home. What better time to exercise this power than Thanksgiving weekend?
Ben Valenta and David Sikorjak are the authors of “Fans Have More Friends.”