Today’s guest columnist is Ben Valenta, SVP of strategy and analytics for Fox Sports.
Five years ago, we set out on a quest to understand how sports fandom operates. What drives people to invest their time, energy and disposable income into something as seemingly trivial as sports? One word: belonging.
To be a fan is to be part of a community.
When I share this thesis, which is the focus of a new book I’ve co-written with David Sikorjak, Fans Have More Friends, most people think we are talking about the tribalism of fandom—donning a favorite player’s jersey, painting faces in team colors, jeering at opponents, and stories of parking lot altercations and barroom brawls.
But our research uncovered something far more powerful: Sports fandom operates as a social superconductor, enabling fans to make meaningful connections not only across entrenched team loyalties but across social categories such as race, class, religion, gender, generation and yes, even politics.
What does this mean for fans? For starters, fans have more friends. On average a non-fan has 21.1 friends, while dedicated sports fans average 35.6 friends. Fans also report that they “greatly value” these friendships more than non-fans do. Sports give fans more opportunities to engage with these friends, too; non-fans average 204 social interactions per month, while the most active fans average 454 interactions.
If you, dear reader, are an avid fan yourself, pause for a moment to consider how many text messages you exchange with hometown friends when your team plays. If you’re like us, nothing lights your phone up like a big game. We posit that it is this ability to generate a constant drip of consistent connection that gives sports fandom its resonance and meaning. Further, the more people invest into their fandom, the higher social dividends it pays.
Sports fans understand this—having a nuanced take on this weekend’s quarterback matchups gives you something to talk about at work. Knowing Steph Curry is about to break another record gives you easy entry into a conversation with someone wearing a Warriors jersey in the grocery store. Even the sighting of a rival fan on the street opens an opportunity for a good-natured ribbing.
What many fans—and the people who love them—don’t understand is how important these casual social connections can be. In a time when loneliness is ranked among the top public health threats, fandom brings people together. Among high-value sports fans, 61% strongly agree that they “feel close to people,” as opposed to 37% of non-fans. In fact, across five wellness markers—happiness, satisfaction, optimism, gratitude and confidence—people’s overall wellness scores rise as their involvement in fandom increases.
What is true of strangers at bus stops, longtime friends and new co-workers is true within our families as well: Fandom gives us countless opportunities to make meaningful connections and deepen existing bonds.
Asked to rank how much they value their familial relationships, bigger fans are more likely to “greatly value” their relationships with their mothers, fathers and siblings. While 50% of high-value fans say they are “very satisfied” with their family life, only 34% of non-fans make the same claim. When asked to rank the strength of their relationships with their children who live at home, 85% of non-fans ranked their connections at a 5 or 6 on a 6-point scale, versus 93% of the most active sports fans. When asked to rank the strength of their relationships with their children who do not live at home, 67% of non-fans marked 5 or 6, while 80% of active fans chose the same.
What’s up with these numbers? Think of it this way: In a family of sports fans, which text is more likely to spark an ongoing exchange: “How are you today?” or “Did you see that game-winning play last night?”
This is how fandom galvanizes family relationships—small connections, built up over time, amounting to lifelong histories, across multiple generations, of shared wins and losses, questionable calls, heartbreaking trades and legendary plays.
Football lends itself to this role: Teams play once a week, providing a regular connection point between family members, near and far. Often games are aired on weekends and holidays, when families tend to come together. Most Americans understand the basics of football and get the gist of the game. For those who want to learn more, the act of passing down fandom is a time-honored tradition—the older generation teaching the younger the subtleties of the game. At the same time, sports offer opportunities for children and adults to enjoy a common passion in a non-hierarchical way. A 13-year-old’s educated take on Aaron Rodgers will be considered as closely as a 79-year-old’s. Better yet, it can lead to ongoing conversations between the two, long after the final whistle is blown.
Time and again, through tens of thousands of questionnaires, focus groups and interviews, no matter how we cut the data, the results are undeniably clear. In a painfully divided world, fandom brings people together, in the grandstands and at home. What better time to exercise this power than Thanksgiving weekend?
Ben Valenta is the co-author, with David Sikorjak, of Fans Have More Friends (Silicon Valley Press).