My name is Tracy. I'm from Wisconsin. And I'm a Green Bay Packers fan. I should add the word "still." I'm still a Green Bay Packers fan. You see, I've been living in Boston the last 11 years with basic cable and few opportunities to watch the Packers play. But in that time, I have not switched sides nor traded my Packers hat for a Patriots one. No siree.
The fact that I'm still a fan after all of these years of sporadic attention became abundantly clear to me on January 23, when the Packers beat the Bears 21-14 for the NFC Championship title. During the game, I felt all of those old feelings again: joy, jubilation, confusion and anger. I shouted at the defense, screamed at the offense, yelled at the refs, cheered the special teams.
I hadn't behaved that way in years. I was the type of fan who watched games by myself in my apartment, shouting at the television. I didn't like going to football parties because there was too much talking. I didn't like going to sports bars, either, because they were always too loud with too many distractions. When I would go to a game at the stadium, I would listen to the play-by-play on the radio with a headset, so I could understand what was going on.
So, why were all of these emotions rushing back? I decided to call up a couple of experts in fan psychology to find out. One of them was Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., who has been studying sports fan behavior for more than 25 years. He says there are three main ways to think about being a sports fan:
We ran down the list.
"For a whole bunch of crazy reasons," said Wann. Obviously, if you're from the area and your family and friends follow a team, you'll likely follow them, too.
"We’re also socialized into it," said the other expert I talked to, Christian End, who is an associate professor of psychology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. And guess where he's from? Wisconsin.
“Might as well get our biases on the table,” End told me.
But there may be other, more trivial reasons, such as liking the uniforms or the mascot. Wann is personally rooting for the Packers because he went to college with the team's coach, Mike McCarthy. And, apparently most of the town of Murray, Ky., is rooting for the Packers because the punter, Tim Masthay, went to Murray High School.
"That’s all it takes for a town of 25,000 to root for a team that’s a nine- or ten-hour drive away," he said.
According to Wann, there has to be something in the activity that the fan finds attractive, is drawn to. It has to do with your so-called "motivational profile."
If you have an aesthetic motivation, you may be drawn to sports such as figure skating, diving or gymnastics. Others may have an escape motivation. They just want to get away from it all. Some may be in it simply because for the entertainment value. Who doesn't love those Super Bowl commercials? Still others may be sports fans because it boosts their self esteem.
In psychology, a theory called social identity theory says that part of our notions of self are determined by the groups we belong to. In short, if you're associated with a winning group, you experience positive self esteem. Groups aren't always sports teams. They could be professional affiliations — like what you do for a living (lawyer) or who you work for (Google) — religions, or recreational groups.
But, said End, in some domains, it can be a bit ambiguous whether your group is considered favorable or not.
"But in sports, it’s salient," End said. "Everybody knows who’s the winner and who's the loser."
And in sports, even if your team is on a losing streak, you can feel good about being loyal.
And that brings us to the psychological connection. Here's where things get a little crazy and irrational. Watching a sporting event is a completely voluntary activity, one that most people do because they find enjoyment. Yet, at the end of any given game, half of the people — the losing half — are going to be completely dissatisfied with the product. You wouldn't continue ordering pizzas from the same restaurant if six times out of 12, the pizza was delivered late, cold and tasteless, Wann pointed out. And yet, that's exactly what sports fan do.
"The loyalty is incredibly intense," he said.
One study assessed a person's loyalty to certain brands, including clothing brands, food brands, beer brands, car brands and sports brands. They found that the loyalty that people felt toward a sports brand outshone their loyalty to any other thing. (I've owned two Chevys a Pontiac and a Nissan, but have only followed one football team.)
Even if your team isn't having a championship season, being a sports fan can improve your psychological health. Wann has found that when people identify strongly with a local sports team, they tend to have lower levels of loneliness, lower feelings of alienation and higher satisfaction in life.
Imagine walking through the streets of Pittsburgh or Green Bay wearing a jersey of the local team. Suddenly you'll have hundreds of friends, people calling out to you or making a remark.
"You feel attached to society," said Wann. And that makes you feel less lonely.
Being a sports fan can be good for the economy, too, said End. He and economist Michael Davis, of the Missouri Institute of Science and Tech in Rolla, published a study last year in Economic Inquiry indicating that as an NFL team is more successful over the course of the season, it tends to have positive economic benefits for the people who live in that city. Past research has shown that when fans identify with a winning team, they perceive themselves to be more competent at a task.
"The argument is that if that’s going on a city-wide level, maybe people are more competent at their jobs," said End. Happiness is often correlated with spending, too, said End. "People in a good mood would be more likely to put money into the economy."
My takeaway from all of this is that I was socialized to be a Packers fan. I love the entertainment aspects of the game and I do think that watching the team win genuinely makes me feel good about myself. I might even spend a couple of bucks while I'm at it. I'm also a loyal person by nature and so it would follow that I would be loyal to this team no matter what. I'm not fanatical. I wouldn't become aggressive over "my" team nor would I ever wear a foam wedge of cheese on my head (not that there's anything wrong with that). But I will be there on Super Bowl Sunday, watching every minute of the game. Don't try to call me or even talk to me. I don't want any distractions.
Photo: Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI/Corbis