Fan Frenzy

What sports fans can learn from nerd culture in the age of coronavirus

"Fandom can become this personal and emotional center to the self."

All around the world, once-packed sports stadiums sit empty. Meanwhile, sports fans are sitting at home, with season tickets, foam fingers, and novelty jerseys tucked away for a future date that remains elusive.

It might feel hard to be a sports fan in a world with no actual sports to watch. But, if the science of fandom tells us anything, being a fan now is more important than ever before.

Amidst the pandemic, professional and college sports leagues have halted games, leaving fans desperate for the escape that sports provide. Christopher Gearhart, a professor of communication studies at Tarleton State University, feels the loss too — he's a Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers fan. He also studied the effects of sports on self-esteem and group identity.

Being a sports fan is a social activity, says Gearhart. It's one of many that we've lost thanks to the coronavirus.

Without sports, Gearhart says, people may be feeling "lonely, depressed, and empty."

"We seek out outlets like sports fandom to fill these desires for sensory arousal and stimulation," says Gearhart.

And partially because people miss them, and partially because leagues are hemorrhaging cash, the powers that be of sports are trying to find a way to bring sports back.

These involve elaborate schemes, like the MLB's "baseball in a bubble" proposal. This involves bringing all players, teams, and support staff to Arizona where they will play ball in empty stadiums, and cut themselves off from society. Meanwhile, Bundesliga — Germany's professional soccer league — is considering a return to the pitch in May, with games played in empty stadiums.

Both proposals have been met with some skepticism from fans and public health experts, who argue that returning to play simply puts players and support staff at too high of a risk.

If sports can safely return, people can be given an experience that they've likely been robbed of during the pandemic: the opportunity to cheer on a team.

Research shows that being a fan fills an innate human need to belong. It allows us to escape the pandemic-gripped world for just a moment. Perhaps we don't just miss sports themselves, so much as we miss being fans.

Experts tell Inverse that we can still cultivate that fan-driven sense of belonging whether or not we find a safe way to return to play. Crucially, we'll have to borrow from the world of non-sports fandom to do it.

The psychology of being a fan

Long before there was sports science, people recognized the power of being a sports fan. That power saved professional baseball from cancellation in 1942 when the United States entered World War Two.

Decades earlier, during World War One, the baseball season had been cut short to free up players for war-related jobs and service. That seemed likely to happen again two decades later as the country geared up for another war — at least it was until President Roosevelt wrote a now-famous letter acknowledging that people would be working longer, harder hours in bleak circumstances, and in turn, needed sports.

Baseball, he argued, could be a release: "...they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work more than ever before."

A section from Roosevelt's letter advocating for keeping baseball running during World War II.

Now, we know a bit more about the science behind why sports feel so important. It largely comes down to the unique psychology of being a fan.

In 2016 researchers took brain scans from 56 Portuguese soccer fans and found that watching a beloved team play activates the same reward circuitry in the brain that's linked to romantic love. The more passionate fans were, the greater activation was seen in reward regions. This led the authors to conclude that intense soccer fans actually experience life differently than less intense fans.

Gearhart explains that the specific act of watching sports can fill a hedonistic need for excitement. Big games ignited anxiety spikes and standing in a crowded stadium with a cheering crowd is ignites an exhilarating feeling of sensory overload.

More fundamentally, being a fan fills our need to belong to a larger group — the idea that humans crave group belonging has been supported in numerous studies. Relationships are also a fundamental part of psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, listed directly after food, water, rest, and safety, in terms of importance.

"Fandom fills that need because of the group identity that is formed," Gearhart says.

Paul Booth is a professor of Cinema and Media Studies at DePaul University who specializes in fandom. He adds that the bonding nature of fandom tracks across categories of fandom, ranging from sports to nerd culture.

In all cases, "fandom can become this personal and emotional center to the self," Booth tells Inverse.

That's especially important when we're going through a time of crisis. The ability to engage with a like-minded group of people who are passionate about something that you love has its benefits, even if that shared obsession may seem trivial, Booth explains. Experiencing a shared passion with someone else can help bring a sense of security.

"Just being with like-minded people and talking about something that you both love can bring a sense of normalcy to an abnormal situation," Booth says.

Why we need to become a new type of fan

Because sports make things feel more normal, fans may be tempted to entertain the reality of baseball in a bubble or the return of the Bundesliga. But regaining fandom in the traditional sense comes with a cost.

The New York Yankees have already expressed concerns about being separated from their families during the crisis, all just so we can watch baseball. The support staff would also have to isolate themselves and place themselves at-risk, without earning their own multimillion-dollar contracts.

And while fans may not bear the brunt of the risk of returning to play, the temptation to gather could prove too great. Already, research suggests that sports fans can act out in the heat of the moment: A study of Australian basketball, football, and soccer fans found that the most passionate fans feel less in-control over their behavior at games than less serious fans.

Case in point: In early March 3,000 Paris Saint-Germain fans gathered outside Parc des Princes during a match, even though the stadium was closed. Today, there's a worry that even if games are simply televised, fans might gather in public places or in apartments when they should still be social distancing.

If you build it, they might come, and that's "certainly something I'm worried about," says Gearhart.

What to learn from other fandoms

In the interim, sports fans may have to act like the devoted followers of fandoms who have seen their primary source of joy disappear as shows or book series end or get canceled. This happens all the time in media-based fandoms says Booth — and it doesn't stop fan culture.

"One of the most powerful things about fandom is how it encourages people to be creative themselves."

Fans get around these natural ending points by getting creative. They write fan fiction, make fan art, or engage with each other online.

One particularly strong fan culture that Booth has studied before are fans of the TV series Firefly. It only ran for a single season but it's spawned hundreds of pieces of fan fiction, fan art, and a devoted following.

"One of the most powerful things about fandom is how it encourages people to be creative themselves," says Booth. "Those feelings that the object generates stay with us. It’s often the community of fellow fans that keep the fandom alive for everyone."

This ability to be creative and continue to engage with other fans may be especially useful to sports fans, allow them to still be visible fans. In action, this could be discussing the inner workings of The Last Dance instead of who is an NBA playoff contender.

These efforts can suffice in the short-run. In the long run, we're still going to miss those basic, adrenaline-spiking fan experiences. As leagues search for socially responsible solutions, Gearhart says we can start to imagine what that return to normal might be like.

Likely, he says, we'll see the nature of fandom shift. We might be nervous about sitting next to a stranger. Or, it might just be nice to be a fan again, regardless of who you are rooting for.

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