Social Question

hominid's avatar

Can someone explain spectator sports?

Asked by hominid (4530 points ) 2 weeks ago

There is no real need to describe how important spectator sports are in the U.S. (and elsewhere). But what explains their appeal? Do they serve a purpose?

I’m not asking why soccer is fun to play – that’s an easy one. I’m interested in why we (humans) seem to identify with a team and enjoy watching that team play and win. Grown men walk around wearing shirts with other guys’ names on them. They seem to genuinely care whether a group of guys wearing costumes and throwing/kicking a ball wins/loses to the point of it affecting their mood the next day, or even rioting when their emotions get out of hand.

Is it just pure tribalism? Are we fulfilling a need to create an “us” and “them”? Or does sport create or foster these emotions?

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14 Answers

marinelife's avatar

It’s a love of the game rather than just the team. Each game has a unique strategy. It is also watching people play at elite levels.

hominid's avatar

@marinelife – I think some people do enjoy this aspect. But this does little to explain the devotion to (and identification with) teams. Right?

elbanditoroso's avatar

I don’t know that there is some deeper meaning here. THink back to ancient Greece and Rome. They started the Olympics in Athens and people came and watched others, presumably to admire the prowess of the players.

Rome built its huge Colosseum for pretty much the same reason. Having spectators watch sport (even if the sport was pulling apart slaves in the center ring) is thousands of years old.

CWOTUS's avatar

We’re social animals. We like to play team sports, as you have already acknowledged. We like to socialize around a team that we identify with, whether that’s because they are based in our geographical area or because they have players that come from our area, or because we personally know some of the players or their families.

Marketing of professional teams plays on the “sociability” nature that we share, to have us identify with team colors, logos, mascots and players, and from there it’s a short step to selling licensed clothing, memorabilia… and junk… that has team colors, logos, player names and team names included. As far as “walking around in jerseys with player names”, that’s a marketing dream, because players change teams so frequently and/or retire, so those jerseys have to be replaced often, too.

Pachy's avatar

As a kid I never developed (nor was encouraged to do so) an interest in sports, so watching any sports event either on the scene or especially on TV holds no interest for me whatsoever. I can understand why others love participating or viewing sports but not the violence that often comes with that.

I have a friend from Argentina who likewise couldn’t care less about sports, but we’ve both been rooting for her home country during the World Cup. That’s the closest I ever came to caring about that event.

thorninmud's avatar

I’m going with tribalism.

I see team sport as a safe way of playing out an ancient psychological impulse: band together to defeat the Other.

Humans form in- and out-group social structures at the drop of a hat, based on next to nothing. There have been interesting studies where two groups of subjects were randomly formed, and soon the two groups began acting partially, favoring their own group and behaving nastily toward the other group (there was a classic and dramatic experiment of this type known as the Robber’s Cave experiment).

As for why non-participants get so emotionally involved in the spectacle, I think it’s almost easier for the players than for the fans to maintain some degree of equanimity. The players often seem to be able to transcend the whole us/them abstraction and get to a place of mutual admiration. For die-hard fans though, from their remote point of view, the abstraction dominates.

GloPro's avatar

I watch specific players because they are impressive athletes. Others I watch because through interviews, personal interaction, and sportsmanship I feel they are good people and I want them to succeed. Some I watch because they are very physically attractive.

I picked a team because it makes my social interactions with friends more fun. The ribbing, joking, antagonizing is enjoyable. Even if “my” team isn’t playing, like in the Superbowl, I will randomly pick one team or the other, based on the above criteria and also based on any negative associations I have (like Ben Rothlisberger is a douche). Then I stand by that team for the duration of the game. Bandwagon fan, for the moment.

hominid's avatar

@thorninmud – While that explains how/why spectator sports exist (and the fervor that accompany them), is there anything to learn about the effect it has on the “participants”? In other words, does actively becoming a passionate fan encourage these ancient psychological impulses to flourish? Does the activity of identifying with a team prime someone for more “us vs. them” associations?

thorninmud's avatar

@hominid Unless you’re a Cubs fan :)

I don’t know of any research on this, but I would expect that the same dynamic that characterizes other reward-driven behaviors would apply: We repeat behaviors that have stimulated the brain’s reward system in the past. It feels great to be associated with a winning team because there’s a big neurotransmitter reward when you emerge from a threatening situation into a favorable outcome. Once you’ve felt that, then your brain remembers this as being a recipe for reward and will try to replicate that circumstance.

The us vs. them framing supplies the tension in the form of a threat. That tension itself is unpleasant, but it’s the necessary setup for the potential release that comes with disarming the threat. That same template can be reenacted in all kinds of ways. Just think of how many movies use some variant of this template to deliver a neuro-reward to the audience.

hominid's avatar

@thorninmud: “It feels great to be associated with a winning team because there’s a big neurotransmitter reward when you emerge from a threatening situation into a favorable outcome.”

I wonder if it would be possible to tap into this in a way that doesn’t require the “them” to be a group of people. We hear that a tiny nation has insulted U.S. foreign policy, and we all pump up our biceps and are ready to rumble. But faced with a real threat (environmental, economic, health), we seem to shrug our shoulders. “Meh”. Does the sports model work so well because the tribes (teams) are relatively small groups of people, and the rules of the fight are simple?

thorninmud's avatar

@hominid Excellent questions. Maybe this has to do with the way psychological projection works—we attribute to others the undesirable traits that we disown in ourselves. To create a true enemy, you have to paint him with all of the dark pigments from your own pallet. That’s easier to do with another human than with a non-human threat. I suppose that’s why, when faced with non-human threats, we find it easier to translate the battle into a political one.

flip86's avatar

Sports bore the shit outta me.

Vsauce has actually covered this subject.

JLeslie's avatar

I’m not really an avid spectator. I do love to go to my university and see a football game, but I barely watch the game. I see my friends, love to watch the band, love being back on campus. I’ve been watching the World Cup here and there. My husband is into it, so he puts it on my TV. I like guessing who might win, but if “my” team doesn’t win, or the team that might not be mine, but that I bet will win doesn’t win, it isn’t that big of a deal to me.

I really don’t understand being so engrossed with spectator sports. So emotional about it. I guess the people identify with the team and feel proud to show their loyalty. I like being a Michigan State Spartan. I like our mascot, and school was a happy time for me. Anything positive associated with my school is like eating comfort food I guess.

For my husband I think watching sports was time he spent with his dad or friends. Psychologically there are all sorts of positiive emotional associations. He likes most to watch the sports he used to play or currently plays. Makes sense. When you play the game you understand the effort and skill it takes.

longgone's avatar

@hominid ‘We hear that a tiny nation has insulted U.S. foreign policy, and we all pump up our biceps and are ready to rumble. But faced with a real threat (environmental, economic, health), we seem to shrug our shoulders. “Meh”.’

I’ve wondered about that, and I believe it may be similar to the learned helplessness animals display when exposed to an aversive stimulus several times in a row – they become apathetic because they are overwhelmed. Threats like climate change or political issues are often hard to understand. Football teams are clear-cut, and a number of supporters display a (n alarming) good guy/bad guy mentality in this part of their lives.

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