Team Loyalty In Sports

Despite never being much of a sports fan as a child, as a young adult I became a huge fan of the NFL, particularly of The Atlanta Falcons.

Doing so later in life, and as someone with an over-analytical tendency, has resulted in my viewing the experience as an experiment of sorts. One in which I observe and reflect on patterns even as I participate in them.

One of the strangest aspects and one I am deeply affected by is that of team loyalty.

Loyalty Snobery

Sports has within it, the strangest of snobberies – one that centers around team loyalty.

Watch some time as a team rises from the ranks towards a championship and their fans seem to multiply. You will see new hats and jerseys on the street and every day there will be new converts. But many of them will be chastised as fair weather fans. Their fandom somehow less than that of others that watched the team faithfully even when they were not good.

Worse yet, the bandwagon fans. Those people that rooted for another team and changed their mind when the present team started to look better. Those fans are slime and true fans will make sure to tell you that.

But why does it matter?

Why We Watch Sports

We watch people throw (or kick, or bounce) a ball (or puck or frisbee) because we enjoy it. We chose to invest some of our time in observing an event with unpredictable outcomes because we like the experience of it.

If what we enjoyed was watching a winner win – consider that the optimal way to do so is to watch games on a delay. Or perhaps whole seasons – I sure hope the Broncos pull it off this (last) year!

Sure, some people might enjoy watching good plays – but highlight reels can provide that much more effectively than following a team. Judging by T.V. schedules, live sports are much more popular than reruns.

We watch sports for the excitement caused by the unknown. We like the highs and lows that we experience by investing ourselves in the outcome. We love those that root for our team and we despise those that root for our rivals.

So why should there be a bias in terms of length or timing of fandom? Why should we care about fair weather or bandwagon fans?

Investing In An Outcome

As I said above, we invest a little bit of ourselves in the outcome of the game when we root for a team. Having been through a few big wins and losses (more of the latter) I can say that intensity is magnified with investment.

When the Falcons lost the 2012 NFC Championships to the 49ers, I walked home from a San Francisco bar where I had been the lone black jersey. It was a close game that the Falcons had led from the start, only to come 10 yards short (on a clear bad no-call). The disappointment had me paralyzed. I got home only to collapse on the couch and wallow. It took me a day to get out of it.

All of that and I had only been a fan for a few years. I have seen much worse in friends that are more intense fans -those that spend thousands of dollars on season tickets – those who have made the team a part of their core identity.

What I have noticed is that the intensity of feelings do not seem to magnify equally on either size of the outcome. Losses are felt much worse by those that have invested more, where as wins seem to be shared by all with near equality.

I think this is why loyalty snobbery exists. The loyal fans understand that if their team wins, everyone will celebrate joyously, but if their team loses, the fans that have invested little, will move on quickly, while they are left themselves to wallow in defeat.

When the team gets bad and the loyal fans still go to the games and cheer, knowing their chances of success are low, they think about the future in which they will win and invest emotion in it. That hope carries them through defeats. Of course they are bitter that there are people that are out there not watching, only to swoop in near the finish line and celebrate alongside them. They feel that their hard work rooting for the team during the bad seasons entitles them to something else.

It doesn’t.

Diversifying Our Investment

Fair weather fandom seems to be the best way to maximize enjoyment. Pick a bunch of teams you like in various sports – perhaps your home town teams, your college, where you live now – and root for whichever ones do well on any given year. Maybe it is your home town NFL team one year and your college swim team the next.

You could pick based on pre-season projections – or just wait until the post season to pay attention at all. If you root for teams only when their chance of success has increased from 1/32 to 1/12 and you have nearly tripled your chances of success.

If sports fandom centers around investing emotion in hopes of returns of highs when the team wins – why don’t we treat it like other investments. A diversified portfolio is a no-brainer when investing money – so why should it be any different when investing in the outcome of sports matches?

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