Every four years we sit in front of the television to watch swimming, track, gymnastics, and beach volleyball. We could watch those events in-between Olympic years, but most of us don’t. Why not?
The Summer Olympics are coming. People around the world are readying for that quadrennial ritual of ever-so-briefly paying attention to sporting events that rarely draw mass attention, from diving to dressage to the 100-meter dash.
Our attention to the so-called “Olympic sports” – so engaging and entertaining during one two-week window every four years, and then so marginalized for the following 206 weeks – raises broader questions about sports fandom. Why do so many of us, when the occasion is right, spend so much time and money on watching people perform what are ultimately idiosyncratic physical tasks? Obviously, the Olympics are grand entertainment spectacles that offer inspirational glimpses at elite human performance, competitive drama, and patriotic spirit. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why we watch some of those events. For instance, it can’t really be about elite performance. Otherwise, why do millions of viewers care about who is the fastest man in the world during an Olympic year but not during your average Track & Field World Championship?
There are, of course, legions of sports marketing professionals who’d have some good answers to these questions, but as a social scientist I’ve been thinking about the basic psychology and sociology of sport fandom since the World Indoor Track & Field Championships came to town. This past March, my city of Portland, Oregon, was the first American host city for this type of championship event in 29 years. It was perhaps not quite the big deal the organizers hoped it would be, but it went reasonably well and offered some good opportunities to consider why sports at the margins of mainstream spectator sport culture do – and do not – draw our attention. In fact, the local organizer of the event, Vin Lannana, offered a sort of hypothesis about sport fandom in his introductory remarks at the opening ceremony. Standing with the head of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe, and the mayor of Portland in the middle of an impressively improvised bright green track temporarily installed between 7000 portable seats in the Portland Convention Center, Lannana told those of us assembled: “This event is about excellence and inspiration. But most of all it is about the athletes.” At least in regard to fan interest, I don’t think Lannana’s hypothesis is quite right. But I do think it’s worth considering in context.
The impression of the local press was that the event came to Portland largely due to the efforts of Lannana – a University of Oregon associate athletic director and well-connected Nike consultant who made his name as a coach and administrator but now seems more commonly identified simply as a “track impresario” (though he will also be the titular head coach of the US Olympic Track & Field Team in Rio). Lannana, presumably with significant help from our local sports apparel behemoth, has reinvigorated the claim of Eugene, Oregon (home of the University of Oregon), to be “Track Town, USA” and has led bids for a series of major track events in the region, ranging from the NCAA Championships to Olympic Qualifiers to the 2021 World Championships. The World Indoor Championships was the first significant move from Eugene into the nearby but larger Portland market, and was part of a general effort to make track and field into more of a spectator sport in the US.
Lannana has been creative and entrepreneurial in his efforts to make Americans track fans. At the local level he organized a series of warm-up events, with local track stars competing on weekend nights in a temporarily converted downtown warehouse. His organizing group also reached out to other local sports fans, including giving away blocks of tickets to the well-organized local soccer supporters group, the Timbers Army. At the production level, the event broke with staid track and field tradition by including pumping dance music as a constant background (I particularly enjoyed the dance re-mix of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” during the pole vault), and introduced athletes for some marquee events by having them emerge one by one from a dark tunnel with smoke and flashing lights guiding their way. At least one of the shot putters visibly leapt back in surprise when a smoke cannon exploded. It looked to be the first time she was ever introduced like a rock star.
The entertainment value of it all was impressive, and raw entertainment is indeed part of why we watch sports. But if we just wanted entertainment, we’d probably be better off saving for a trip to Las Vegas or even renting the latest Tom Cruise movie. Most of us watch sports because it offers something more. The most prolific researcher of sport fandom, psychologist Daniel Wann, has laid out what he identifies as the eight most common motives for sports fans: the desire for entertainment is one, but it is complemented by group affiliation, family bonding, aesthetic appreciation, self-esteem, economic interests such as gambling, eustress in the form of competitive excitement, and escape. This list offers a useful overview, particularly for mainstream spectator sports, but I think it too misses some of the nuance of why we watch.
Take, for example, some of the fans I sat with at the Indoor Track Championships. A Canadian family sat near me the first night, talking fondly about their trip to Haile Gabriel Selassie’s high-altitude training camp in Ethiopia to learn the secrets of the great East African distance runners. On another night, local high school coaches sat near me and nailed predictions for heat times in the women’s 60-meter dash down to the hundredth of a second. In contrast, the Timbers Army group during Portland Timbers soccer games engages their fandom in a constant miasma of songs, chants, and energetic sociality. How to explain the difference?
Here I find the sociologists of sport more useful than the psychologists in explaining our varying types of fandom. In one influential analysis of European soccer supporters, for example, Richard Giulianotti categorized contemporary fandom by degrees of investment in a team – ranging from “traditional” local and cultural identification to “consumer” market-centered relationships – and degrees of personal investment – ranging from “hot” feelings of emotional solidarity to “cool” feelings of instrumentality and passive stimulation. Giuliannatti proposed putting these dimensions onto two axes to create four categories: supporters, fans, followers, and flâneurs. At the World Indoor Track Championships the people I saw as most engaged would likely fit as “followers”: people who were deeply invested in track and field through personal experience or longtime fandom, but who watched the events mostly with a cool technical appreciation for the athletes.
The athletes themselves tried to turn us into what Giulianotti might call “fans” – newbies without deep connections to the sport who got emotionally involved through constant encouragement towards rhythmic clapping and through exultant fist pumps. But there are only so many times one can join in mass rhythmic clapping during a high jump approach run before it starts to feel cool and derivative. The promoters were probably ok with that; with the blaring club music and laser-show introductions, they treated the spectators more as “flâneurs,” happy enough with a consumer pleasure that felt vaguely cosmopolitan. But few among us in the convention center rose to the level of the true “supporter”: the deeply grounded, highly identified, and emotionally engaged type of fan. Something like that probably does come for track and field during an event like the Olympics, when rituals, history, and nationalism mix into something that feels deeper and more emotionally resonant than the decontextualized action of flinging a body over a bar or running in circles. But the individual, technical, and strategic foci of an ongoing track and field season don’t offer fans much in the way of personal meaning.
And personal meanings are, ultimately, why I think we watch. For all the sports marketing, psychological motivations, and sociological categories, most sports fandom is based on the many ways we find some meaningful personal connection to sports. We appreciate the skills of great athletes when they are ones we once tried to develop ourselves. We enjoy the emotional energy of an engaged crowd when it gives us a chance to feel connected to our friends or our community. We admire athletes and teams when they symbolically seem to represent values we hold dear. We consume team or sport merchandise when it gives us an identity with which we feel proud. We feel the thrill of victory when the objects of our fandom succeed in a way that validate our own selves. No one of these, nor any one of the many other idiosyncratic meanings we find in sports, explain the phenomenon by themselves. But their shared property – the implicit feeling of something personal – seems to me the best explanation for the power of sports fandom.
As such, this may also explain why I didn’t end up staying at the Indoor Track & Field Championships to find out who won the pole vault or the finals of the 60 meter hurdles. It was a fun, entertaining atmosphere. There were great athletes performing impressive feats of physical ability. The competition was intense. But I just didn’t personally care.
Andrew Guest teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Portland and is the author of numerous articles on sports psychology and youth development in both North America and Africa. He has written for pitchinvasion.net and writes about sport and the social sciences at Sports & Ideas. Andrew is on Twitter at @.