Sports Fandom: Why It’s More Than “Just a Game”

Three sports fans with faces painted like different country flags

Whether you’re a fair weather, “ride or die” or bandwagon fan (or your loved one is), we can all agree that sports have become somewhat of a religion in American culture. For many, it’s more than “just a game”.  So, how do we separate the fan from the “fandom”?

As we enter into the NFL season – America’s favorite sportHCA Healthcare Today again caught up with Dr. Alfredo Rivera, a psychiatrist at HealthONE’s The Medical Center of Aurora and self-professed Denver Broncos fan, to talk about the psychology of sports fandom and why some invest so much time, energy and passion into “their” sports team.

What is the definition, if any, of sports “fandom”?

Fandom relates more to the “culture” rather than just liking a team. It is more common in the world of comic books, where fans tend to not only dress the part but actually speak the language and relate to others who do the same.

What’s the difference between being a sports fan and having “fandom?”

As a sports fan, one can root for a team, love the team in spirit, yet have their own lives.  Fandom goes beyond the merchandise, game day, and parties. For example, as a fan I will wear a Broncos jersey, root for them during games, and possibly buy overpriced tickets.  If I was involved in fandom, I might be using the terms “Omaha” (a frequent call by former Broncos Quarterback Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage) or “chicken parm taste so good” (a Nationwide insurance commercial featuring the popular QB) in everyday conversation.

What behaviors are typically associated with someone who might be experiencing fandom?

Fans tend to identify with a team.  Thus, when a team wins or loses, one tends to respond as if they themselves have won or lost. So, wins make us feel successful and elated while losses make us feel angry and frustrated.

Winning can precipitate symptoms of mania as well as a loss of self-control.  That’s why you see people rioting in the streets after a win (which is counterintuitive if you think about it). And losing produces anger to the point of violence, as you see many occurrences of taunting the opponent to the point of an actual physical altercation.

Why do sports fans care so much about their team?

Through identification and projection, fans are able to personally feel a part of their team.  There is a sense of belonging, both to the team, as well as to other fans of the team.

For people who experience fandom, it’s more than just a game – why?

Remember, it’s just a game with a beginning and an end.  They cannot separate themselves from that fact, or from the team…even though they are not directly part of the team (other than in spirit).  I like to say, “Life is a game. But the game is not life,” to put things back in perspective.

What are the repercussions of fandom? 

Fandom can be taken to the extreme and to the point of obsession.

  • This can lead to isolating oneself from others – be it family, friends or coworkers.
  • Also one can spend an exorbitant amount of time and money on their obsession, leading to debt and unemployment.
  • Finally, extreme fandom can produce frequent conflicts, fights and emotional distress.

Is sports fandom like an addiction? How so?

Fandom is more like a passion, if kept in a healthy manner.  Once it becomes unhealthy and disrupting ones relationships, finances, or career, then it becomes like into an addiction. Fandom, however extreme, can still differentiate reality versus fantasy.

Can people who experience fandom help themselves?

Of course. It’s just like any passion or vice; one must keep it in the context of their overall lives.  It can be an addition to enhance one’s life or it can be an access to hinder it.

Are you healthier by identifying with a team?

Again, if you can keep it in context of one’s life, it definitely serves a purpose. Identifying with a team can give you a sense of pleasure and success, without the work or effort.

Why do some invest so much into their favorite sports team?

Usually the choice of our teams are regional (where we live or where we grew up), so we feel a personal connection to them.  With such, they can be considered almost a “part of our family”.  We wouldn’t consider a second thought when we invest in our family, right?

How does a team’s achievement relate to our own success?

Team achievement is a result of an individual member in a collective group effort.  I believe this translates well to a career, especially in the medical field, where caring for the patient is the primary objective. No one individual can do it all.

Any advice for loved ones of someone with sports fandom?

Keep it real!

Visit here for more information on behavioral health services at The Medical Center of Aurora, a hospital in the HealthONE system – a division of HCA Healthcare.

Dr. Alredo Rivera (below) is medical director for geriatric psychiatry at The Medical Center of Aurora.

Man wearing button down shirt, vest and tie

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