There are few kinds of loyalty as fierce or as unwavering as that of a professional sports fan to their favorite team. Whether it’s football, basketball, baseball or hockey, pro sports teams in America enjoy their own particular brand of hero worship. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why these fans remain so loyal, year after year, these ten points might clear up a bit of the mystery for you.
- Geography – Even if they’re on a ten-season losing streak, there’s nothing like a hometown pro team to build loyalty. Professional athletes who play for particular team aren’t just wearing the right colors on game day; they’re part of the community. Individual players and even coaching staff may come and go, but local teams will always hold a special place in sports fans’ hearts.
- Brain Chemistry – Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical produced by the reward system of your brain, and its presence isn’t tied exclusively to a win. Psychology professors at Tufts learned that dopamine production in rats was higher even in defeat than after a win. At the end of a game, even if your team loses, you still get a boost in brain chemicals.
- Tribe Mentality – The way fans identify with their favorite team, players and even fellow fans is similar to the way they identify with their ethnicity, nationality and even their gender. At a very basic psychological level, being a fan of a particular team means being part of a tribe. Over years of conditioning, fans find much of their own identities tied up in being part of this particular tribe.
- Social Connectivity – People feel a need to belong, to be part of a whole which is larger than themselves. This can be one of the driving factors behind fandom and team loyalty, especially if they’re socially connected to others who share their enthusiasm. Seeing a stranger wearing the logo of your favorite team creates and instantaneous connection, and allows you to feel like part of a much larger network.
- Nostalgia – Children gain the mental capacity to choose a favorite team of their own between seven and nine years of age, but it’s not uncommon for team fandom to be multi-generational. If some of your fondest memories of your parents, for instance, are times spent watching a particular team play, the sense of nostalgia can be a driving factor in fan loyalty decades later.
- There’s Always Next Year – Few ventures allow you to walk away from abject failure with the comfort of knowing there’s a clean slate and a brand new chance just around the corner. Even though the statistical probability of your favorite team winning big is slim, you know they have the opportunity to do so next year. As a motivating factor, hope is one of the more powerful for sports fans.
- Your Team is An Extension of Yourself – For many dedicated fans, a favorite sports team serves as an extension of self. This means, for die-hard followers of a specific team, a win feels much like a personal success. Because of this perception of the team as extension of self, long-term loyalty becomes part of the package.
- Loyalty is Expected – One of the worst insults one fan can hurl at another is the accusation of being a “bandwagon fan.” This holds especially true when the team in question is on a long win streak or has been performing exceptionally well for a long period of time. Loyalty through losses, poor performance and difficult times is expected and conditioned.
- Superstition – One of the strangest yet most widespread aspects of sports fan loyalty is the tendency for normally rational and practical people to become superstitious regarding wins and losses. Every sports fan knows at least one person who only wears a certain pair of socks on game day, won’t eat certain foods or has some other bizarre ritual they’re convinced is integral to success or instrumental in failure for their team. By holding to these rituals with an almost religious fervor, fandom and loyalty become even more deeply entrenched.
- Retaining a Sense of Identity – The role of geography in establishing fan loyalty is documented, but what about local sports fans who move to another city? Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that most fans will continue to root for their hometown team, rather than switching to the colors of their new city’s mascots. The reason? Researchers theorized that fans retain these connections in an attempt to also retain their sense of identity after making such a lifestyle change.
The good news for sports fanatics is that there’s also a documented connection between loyalty in a general sense and personal well-being. Staying with the same partner, working for the same employer and fostering other long-term emotional relationships is also associated with greater levels of happiness, a more intense sense of life satisfaction and even better physical health. Cheer on, sports fans!