A case for irrational sports fandom

June 02, 2019

Liverpool FC won the Champion’s League last night. After 14 years. After losing their previous 3 European finals. After proving over 90 minutes, that Jose Mourinho was right when he said, “Finals are not for playing, they are for winning.”

The Reds played a stinker. But no one cares, because this game was only about the result. To say that I’m over the moon, would be an understatement. Multiple times last night I tried to stop myself from pacing back and forth across my room. Multiple times I failed. There were wild fits of fist pumping and chest thumping. Finally, once I was buggered from all the celebrating, I sat back down and basked in the satisfaction of the moment. But as always, this satisfaction was tinged with a niggling “why?”

I’ve never met anyone from Liverpool FC, never lived in or even visited the city they play in, and definitely never had a direct role in any of their successes. And so, it has always been a bit strange for me to have my mood so inextricably tied to a group of lads halfway around the world, kicking a ball around. This has lead to numerous attempts at trying to understand if there’s any scientific rationalisation to being a sports fan.

But science quite unequivocally says no. Being a sports fan has very little basis in rationality. Especially over the long-term. This paper (with some reasonable assumptions) highlights how, over a long enough time-frame, the aggregated emotional impact of football matches on fans of the involved clubs is most likely to be “overwhelmingly negative”. A finding which is also articulated by the following quote:

“The natural state of a football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.” ― Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

So, what about sports spurs this masochism on such a massive scale? According to behavioural science, it’s a combination of psychological processes and cognitive biases:

  • Self-classification: the tendency of people to place themselves into social categories. Eg. Liverpool FC supporter, Indian, etc.
  • Rosy retrospection bias: a cognitive bias that causes people to judge pleasant experiences from their past more favourably than they were experienced.
  • Social comparison: the tendency of people to associate positive attributes to the social categories they identify with, and thereby also associate those attributes to themselves. This is a powerful agent in enhancing their self-esteem.
  • Positive outcome bias: a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes eg. winning a trophy, an underdog victory, etc.

So, we usually start supporting sports teams due to our inherent need to identify with social groups. These allegiances are fortified by positive experiences in the early days, which we retrospectively judge more positively than they actually were. We also associatively apply these positive perceptions to ourselves, thereby improving our own self-esteem. We then attribute an unreasonably high likelihood to the recurrence of these positive events, and this allows us to indulge in the romanticism of sports fandom despite all the inevitable gloom and disappointment it’s going to bring our way.

All of this makes sense. It all adds up. And as someone who believes himself to be something of a rationalist, I can understand why there’s every reason to be circumspect when diving into the rabbit-hole that is sports fandom.

And yet, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I was heartbroken for weeks when LFC lost the Champion’s League final last year. I was reduced to a soppy mess of happy tears, 4 weeks ago when they staged the most unlikely of comebacks against Barcelona. I was distraught 4 days later when they missed out on winning the Premier League by a point. And I was shaking with emotion last night as I witnessed Jurgen Klopp and his magnificent Reds banish the demons of seasons past and lift the most sought-after trophy in club football. But somehow this roller-coaster of emotions, no matter its inclination to tend towards the lows, feels like the argument for rather than against supporting your team.

On an episode of RadioLab, Stephen Dubner (author of Freakonomics) spoke about the “immeasurable value” of sports fandom because of how it is representative of all our emotions, hopes and desires in life. It seems to carry all of the urgency of real-world conflict, without any of the consequences, and as such serves as a proxy to real-life, only better.

I’m aware that the case made above suffers from the “appeal to emotion” fallacy, but then again, the premise of this post is about reconciling oneself to the inherent irrationaity of supporting a sports team, not refuting it. I’ll conclude with another quote from Fever Pitch, that Dubner’s description overlaps quite nicely with:

“…So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.” ― Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

Akaash Patnaik

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