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The Psychology of a Sports Fan

Why we live and die by our favorite teams.

Bay Area sports fans were over the moon in October when the Giants won their second World Series title in three years. But three months later that elation fizzled when the 49ers lost the Super Bowl. Fans of the Warriors and Raiders, however, have remained curiously steady despite the fact that their teams have been mediocre for years.

How to explain this intense, and sometimes peculiar, relationship between fans and their teams? For answers, we spoke to local author Eric Simons, who attended his first Cal football game at four months old and who just released The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.

SFMag: In your intro you describe a fourth-quarter play in a Cal football game that resulted in a heart-wrenching loss for your Bears. Is this what inspired you to write the book, or had you already been stewing on the idea?
ES: The latter. But that was one of the more traumatic experiences of my life. You carry it with you when something like that happens, so part of why I wrote the book was to figure out why that experience was so intensely frustrating.

SFMag: You’re a big San Jose Sharks fan. That must be fun…until the playoffs, when they always blow it. 
ES: One of the early things I told people was this book is an investigation into why I have a temper tantrum every April.

SFMag: What happens to the brain when something positive happens for your team? Like when the Giants won the World Series?
 
ES: There’s an enormous dopamine surge in your brain—that's the reward hormone. And when you're really happy, you also get a testosterone surge. This  probably looks like you took a hit of cocaine since these experiences activate the same things in your brain. 

SFMag: You mention in your book that sports fandom is a “species-level flaw.” Can you explain this?
ES: It’s Roman gladiator stuff! We’re watching 19-year-olds just destroying their bodies and probably ruining their physical health for the rest of their lives for our amusement. This is kind of sociopathic. The book is kind of a counter-argument to that, and eventually I come around to the conclusion that there’s good to this, too.

SFMag: Why do I keep coming back to my teams regardless of how terrible they are? Is it classical conditioning?
ES: Yes. It comes back to that old question: Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Just because sports can seem silly to some people, they're actually a source of love and meaning. We are evolutionarily evolved to seek meaning, and when we find it, we attach to it.

SFMag: Choose one Bay Area fan base that is the most passionate and loyal to their team. The one that most lives and dies with them, no matter what.
ES: Cal football fans. They are crazy. They are nuts. Wait, actually Warriors fans. Warriors fans are special.

SFMag: If you can give one piece of advice for each struggling fan base (Warriors fans, then heartbroken 49ers fans) what would it be?
ES: For Warriors fans? Meditation seems to help. For 49ers fans? Time heals all wounds. They’re feeling real pain, but by September of next year, they will be a Super Bowl contender again and they can go from there.

SFMag: Last question. You’re the science guy – can you please make “the wave” go away?
ES: [Laughs.] No. But the more you criticize it, the more successful you’ll be. Some individual team out there will stop the wave, but, worldwide? No, never.

You can find The Secret Lives of Sports Fans on Amazon.com or in your local bookstore.
Follow Eric Simons on Twitter @ericsimons 

 

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