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The phrase “sports fan” may evoke a variety of different images or ideas. Some may think of a sporting event with thousands of cheering fans, or specific individuals who paint their faces and/or bodies with the colors of a favorite team, or people who dress in a team’s uniform to demonstrate their allegiance. Others may conjure images of individuals who engage in violence and destructive behavior when their favorite team wins or loses (Berkowitz 1982, Mann 1989).
Who Is a Loyal Fan?
The difference between a loyal fan and others who merely follow sports, a spectator, is the strong personal connection to or relationship with a sports team that an individual feels. Funk and James (2001) describe in their Psychological Continuum Model (PCM) four different relationships that individuals may have with a sports team: Awareness, Attraction, Attachment, or Allegiance. Knowledge of sports teams with no distinct preference is representative of Awareness; an individual knows that sports teams exist but she or he is not interested in following a particular team. An individual’s relationship with a sports team is characterized as Attraction when she or he acknowledges an interest in watching or following a particular team. This interest is based on social situational features or hedonic motives (e.g., star player, team success, nostalgia) (Baade and Tiehen 1990; Funk, Ridinger, and Moorman 2003;Trail and James 2001). A relationship characterized by Attachment involves forming a meaningful psychological connection with a sports team. The team becomes personally important to an individual, leading to identification (Wann and Branscombe 1993), internalization (James and Ross 2002), and a close link to core values (Kahle, Duncan, Dalakas, and Aiken 2001). Allegiance (or loyalty) represents the strongest relationship with a sports team; it is characterized by durability, persistent thoughts about a team and resistance to counter persuasive attempts, and it impacts biases in cognitive thoughts about a team and consistent behavior.
The place of fan loyalty in sport is open to debate. Some believe that following sports is absurd (cf. Beisser 1967, Howard 1912, Meier 1989) and that “no human being on this Earth either has to or needs to attend” sporting events (Reese 1994, 12A). Others have a more positive view of fan loyalty. Roosa (1898, 642) described football crowds as “an orderly, welldressed, even cultivated and intellectual mass of humanity; and numerous social scientists consider fan loyalty to be positive (Guttman 1986; Melnick 1993; Zillman, Bryant, and Sapolsky 1989). Criticisms of loyal fans from an individual (psychological) level seem to focus on four points: (1) fans are lazy, (2) fans are aggressive, (3) fans adopt negative values (e.g., violence is okay) and maladaptive behaviors (e.g., alcohol and tobacco consumption), and (4) fans have poor interpersonal relationships. In response to the criticisms Wann, Melnick, Russell, and Pease (2001) reviewed a number of different writings and research studies. They concluded that the criticisms of loyal fans can be supported anecdotally. Some loyal fans do consume large amounts of alcohol (maladaptive behavior), and some do become violent when watching their favorite teams. The data currently available, however, suggest that the problems are the exception and not the rule. Loyal fans by and large do not have drinking problems, marital strife, or violent tendencies. Going further, Wann et al. report that being a loyal fan may enhance personal and collective self-esteem and contribute to psychological health by providing an outlet for expressing one’s emotions (e.g., yelling and cheering for a favorite team).
Fan Loyalty-Good or Bad?
Another approach to discussing the place of fan loyalty in sport is to consider the topic from a societal level. Critics may raise a variety of arguments as to why fan loyalty is bad for society. One suggestion is that sports maintain the interests of the power elite in society (Danielson 1997). The idea here is that the elite in society encourage fan loyalty because of the belief that loyal fans are more interested in following their favorite team than participating in other civic activities. Research has shown, however, that loyal fans have broader general interests and more active lifestyles than nonfans (Lieberman 1991). Another critic may argue that fan loyalty perpetuates gender discrimination (Bryson 1987) and suppresses the rights of women. Given the large numbers of loyal fans who are females and the opportunities for women to participate in sports, this argument becomes less and less viable. An elitist critique would argue that loyal fans lack taste and refinement (Wann et al. 2001), that they lack intellectual challenge and stimulation. Considering that loyal fans are cognitively engaged—they analyze team and individual performances, mull over game strategies, and critique decisions by coaches—it would seem more likely that loyal fans express creative and critical thinking skills.
The place of fan loyalty in sport may be debated from different perspectives. What seems to bear out, however, is that fan loyalty provides an expression of both individual (psychological) and societal health. A strong personal relationship with a sports team provides a means of enhancing personal and collective self-esteem. A loyal fan shares the excitement and euphoria of a team win and must deal with the disappointment of a frustrating loss. While episodes of individual and collective violence occur, the frequency of such incidents relative to the thousands of sporting events that take place suggests that loyal fans are well adjusted psychologically and socially. Far from being a negative influence, fan loyalty gives people opportunities to escape from their daily routine, to enjoy the excitement of competition, and to appreciate the skills of athletes, and it offers an outlet for individual and group identiication that many in society seek.
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