Here is a fact: The 2017 Toronto Blue Jays have been very, very bad.
Here is another fact: I am a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays – including their very, very bad 2017 iteration.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, watching the Jays dig themselves deeper and deeper into the grave of early-season losses, about this strange behavior we call fandom. It’s irrational enough that we’re so invested in a game where a bunch of guys dress up in weird pajamas and throw a ball really fast. It borders on the absurd that we would continue to care about our pajama men when they don’t provide the satisfaction of victory.
I don’t enjoy watching the Jays lose. It doesn’t make me feel good. For some reason, though, I still care – and it’s not just me. It’s me and the thousands of people who continue showing up at the dome to watch the Jays lose. It’s me and the millions of people who listen on the radio, watch on TV, or have Gameday open on their phone at work. It’s the millions of people every year who identify themselves as fans of the losing 29 MLB teams, or of the losing 29 NHL teams, or of any number of losing teams in sports.
We all know our team is going to suck sometimes; it’s a literal inevitability of being a sports fan. We all also know that when the team sucks, it makes us feel bad. So why do we all choose to hurt ourselves like this? Why do we not, as the reasonable, free-will-having people that we are, just jump ship and stop caring about the team when the team stops giving us the emotional validation of victory? I set out to find answers.
Casuals vs. Die-Hards
Before getting into why fans stay loyal to losing teams, we must first define the specific kind of fans we’re interested in here. Sports, after all, are almost omnipresent in most cultures, consumed in many different ways by many different people. In sports psychology, there are two basic distinctions made between types of people who engage with sports.
First, there is the distinction between a sports fan and a sports spectator. A sports spectator is anyone who watches or listens to a game, whether live or through media – TV, radio, people’s Twitter reactions. A sports fan, however, takes an active interest in the sport, a team, or an athlete. Though the terms “spectator” and “fan” are often used synonymously, and though they do have a significant amount of overlap, it’s important to distinguish between the two. A spectator at a Jays game, for example, might not have any interest in baseball at all, but just went to get drunk with their friends, whereas a Jays fan living in Korea might only very occasionally get to witness games due to distance and time difference. The research I will be citing deals with sports fans specifically.
The second distinction is between low identification fans and high identification fans. For the low-identified fan, the team is superficial to their idea of themselves. A fan who displays low team identification will show little emotional investment in the outcomes of games. You probably won’t see them shelling out hundreds of dollars for jerseys and hats, and they won’t feel much dejection or elation if the team loses or wins. For a fan with high team identification, however, the team is an extension of themselves, and of what they perceive to be their own personal qualities. The team takes on a much bigger role in their lives. These are the people who willingly stay up until four in the morning watching the Jays play thirteen excruciating innings against the Angels – people who one might describe as “loving the team.”
How does one determine a fan’s level of identification? The Sports Spectator Identification Scale (SSIS), developed by Daniel L. Wann and Nyla R. Branscombe, is the standard method of measuring fan identification levels for psychological research purposes. For the sake of illustration, I took the SSIS myself. Here are my results:
An SSIS score of 18 or lower indicates low team identification. Scores of 18-35 qualify as moderate team identification, and scores of greater than 35 indicate high team identification. At a crisp 45, my score puts me firmly in the category of a high-identification Blue Jays fan. Take the test yourself, and determine your own score – I would imagine that if you’ve read this far, and if you’ve stuck with the Jays through their losing ways of late, you are most likely a fan with high team identification.
How Losing Affects Devoted Fans
What does high team identification mean, then, when it comes to the team losing? Research indicates that high-identification fans experience significant physical anxiety and a heightened emotional state while watching the team play, regardless of whether or not the team is winning. So when the team does lose, high-identification fans take the loss much harder than low- or moderate-identification fans.
Not only do high-identification fans report much stronger negative reactions to their team losing, but their depression about the losses extends to their view of life in general. And if you take a look around the internet, it isn’t difficult to see this generalized depression manifesting after misfortune strikes a sports team. Take this April 13 Blue Jays Nation headline, after the Jays lost both the game and Josh Donaldson:
Or this April 21 headline from San Francisco Giants blog McCovey Chronicles, after Madison Bumgarner broke himself dirt biking, and also the Giants lost:
These are intentionally hyperbolic reactions, but they resonate with the sentiments of high-identification fans when their team of choice fails. The team is bad – ergo, life is bad, death is approaching, human activity is destroying the earth, and everything and everyone you ever love will inevitably disappoint you.
Yet despite the fact that losses are so distressing to high-identification fans, they are exactly the fans who will stick around to witness continued team losses no matter what.When faced with team failure, fans who identify less strongly with the team employ a self-esteem regulation strategy known as cutting off reflected failure, or CORFing. In CORFing, the fan disassociates themselves from the team if the team performs poorly, thereby protecting themselves from any significant emotional reaction or impact on their self-esteem. But research indicates that fans who rate highly in team identification don’t – or rather, can’t – use CORFing to cope. Their identity is too closely intertwined with the team to create or maintain any real emotional distance between the team and themselves.
Taking only these negative emotional outcomes into account, having a high level of identification with a team seems at best destabilizing, and at worst dangerous. The answer to “Why do we do this to ourselves?” seems to be: because we can’t extricate our own identities as people from our identification with the team. Because we’re in too deep now, and we can’t get out. Because suffering is all we’ve ever known, and will be all we’ll ever know, until we die or the Blue Jays stop existing.
Thankfully, though, this isn’t the whole story.
Wait, Sports Are… Good?
Given the information I’ve just presented, you would be justified in assuming that high team identification is, on the whole, bad for a person’s mental health. There’s the stress that comes with watching the team, even if they’re winning. There’s the time and money you invest, and there’s the negative emotional reaction inevitably created by team failure. You would think that someone with a low team identification would be emotionally healthier. They can enjoy the good times, while not being affected by the bad, and they are stable enough in their sense of identity not to go and get so attached to a sports team. Perhaps bandwagoners, that oft-derided class of fan, are really much better off – and much less neurotic – than the rest of us.
You would think that, sure. But it’s not true.
In 1991, Branscombe and Wann undertook studies of 880 college students in an attempt to determine a correlational relationship, if any, between level of team identification and emotional health. In the first study, students were asked to complete a self-esteem scale and a social desirability measure, to rate their frequency of experiencing depression, and finally to complete the SSIS, rating their level of identification with their college’s basketball team. The results indicated a positive correlation between high levels of team identification and high levels of self-esteem and social desirability, with a negative correlation between high fan identification and depression. In the second study, high levels of identification with the college basketball team correlated negatively with feelings of alienation. In the third study, students were instead asked to rank their identification with a favorite MLB team, and to assess their frequency of depression; once again, depression was experienced less frequently by those with higher team identification.
Though these studies were correlational, and didn’t reach the conclusion that devotion to a sports team necessarily causes fans with higher levels of identification to be better off emotionally, they certainly suggest that high-identification sports fans are no less emotionally healthy than fans with lower levels of identification. The results of these studies were corroborated by further research of college students in 1999, which indicated once again that fans who highly identified with their college team showed a healthier, happier emotional profile.
How can this information coexist with the information we already had – namely, that the team losing absolutely sucks, emotionally speaking, for devoted fans? This paradox suggests that we must be getting benefits from our high level of fandom which outweigh the stress of investment and unpleasantness of losing.
Branscombe and Wann hypothesize that it’s the social aspect of sports fandom which produces these positive outcomes. In an era wherein other social structures such as religion and the nuclear family have lost much of their societal clout, perhaps sports fandom replaces the role of such communities in the lives of fans, creating positive social connections and serving as a buffer for real, non-sports-related depression and loneliness. A team’s lack of success won’t sever these valuable social connections – they might actually make them stronger. Misery loves company, after all, and recent research on UK football fans found that dysphoric events like pivotal losses had the marked effect of strengthening fans’ identification with the team and the community. The stinging unhappiness of losing is no match for the soothing balm of friendship, and no matter how woeful the team makes you feel, there’s a huge group of sympathetic people who share your woes – people who, like you, chose to continue to be fans, even in the face of futility.
There’s no more obvious manifestation of this phenomenon than the devoted fanbase of the Chicago Cubs. The collective identity of Cubs fans has been bonded together by over a century of failure, to the extent there was reason to question the purpose of living on when they finally did win. Even now, though, when the Cubs are World Series champions, with a young and absurdly talented core group of players and as good a chance of success as any team in baseball, the lingering feeling that failure and disappointment are Cubs’ fans’ peculiar lot in life persists. After the Cubs failed to preserve a dramatically-achieved tie in the 9th inning of their 2017 season opener against the Cardinals and lost the game, Zack Moser at BP Wrigleyville wrote this about what is unique about Cubs fandom: “What does differentiate the Cubs fan is nebulous, almost imperceptible if one doesn’t live with it already. It’s the collective memory of years of failure—the enduring melancholy of not even really coming close to achieving the ultimate goal, and yet rarely dipping into despondency.” Failure and loss is an entrenched, essential part of the identity of the Cubs fan.
It’s not just Cubs fans, of course. All teams have extended periods of time during which they are unsuccessful, whether it be a month, a season, or several decades. The sharing of this extended melancholy, this persistence in loyalty to a team with little precedent of success, binds the social group of fandom together. And this is likely why failure is mythologized to the extent that it is in baseball narratives. Mighty Casey struck out; Roy Hobbs’ career ended in ignominy (don’t believe what the movie told you). Roger Kahn writes in The Boys of Summer that “you may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat,” and the research indicates that this is true.
With the shared despondence, too, comes a heightened collective delight when the team is successful – a shared hope that any isolated success is a sign of great things to come. A team win has a similarly strong bonding effect to a team loss, and high-identification fans tend to mentally privilege recent positive outcomes over long-term negative ones. (For example: I think I’ve seen someone say “This is the turning point in the season!” after every single Jays win this year.) All of these factors compound to create a uniquely persistent, stable, and internally loyal social group.
In their research on the correlation between high team identification and emotional health, Branscombe and Wann note that the correlation they found was stronger in fans of a geographically nearby team than in “displaced” fans, which they attribute to the lack of a robust fan community for a displaced fan to participate in. But Branscombe and Wann did this research during the 90s, prior to the proliferation of social media. Fans no longer even have to get out of bed to actively participate in the fan community. Though I have found no research pertaining to this topic specifically and thus have no science to back this up, I would imagine that geographic displacement from the team would have less of an impact on the positive outcomes of fandom now, in 2017, than it did in 1999. Whether you’re a fan of a Toronto team living elsewhere in Canada – like I am, in Vancouver – or on a different continent altogether, you can still be a participant in a vibrant fan community as long as you have an internet connection, even if you’re the only person in your local bar wearing a Blue Jays jersey. Speaking from personal experience, the Blue Jays fan community on the internet absolutely transformed the way I interacted with baseball. I would likely not identify so strongly as a Jays fan if it weren’t for the online fan community.
Summary: Why We love to Suffer
Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve learned today:
- Psychology differentiates between sports spectators – anyone who witnesses a game in some form – and sports fans, who take an active interest in the sport/a team/an athlete.
- We can measure sports fans’ levels of team identification. Fans with low team identification are what we would call casuals, who aren’t particularly invested in team performance. For fans with high team identification, though, the team is an essential part of their identity.
- Team losses have very strong negative emotional impacts on fans with high team identification, to the extent that losses influence their view on life in general. But while less strongly identified fans will protect themselves by cutting off reflected failure and disassociating themselves from the team, high-identification fans remain committed.
- Despite this, high team identification correlates strongly with positive emotional outcomes. Compared to the outcomes for fans with low team identification, research has positively correlated high team identification with higher self-esteem and social desirability. High team identification has also been negatively correlated with feelings of depression, alienation and isolation.
- This is likely because of the social benefits of high team identification. The positive experience of having a supportive community of like-minded fans contributes to these positive emotional outcomes and negates any strife caused by team losses. Team losses themselves actually serve to strengthen the bonds of the fan community.
The answer, then, to “Why are Blue Jays fans masochists?” is – we’re not, actually. It may feel like we hate ourselves, hate the Blue Jays, and hate baseball when the team is performing poorly, but when the ledger of psychological health is balanced, loyal, thick-and-thin fans come out looking none the worse. For the majority of fans with high team identification, the positive experience of fan community outweighs the disappointment of the team doing badly. Add this to how entrenched the team becomes in one’s self-concept, and the fact that team losses actually strengthen one’s identification with the team, and it is essentially guaranteed that fans will stay loyal through the good times and the bad – no matter how terrible the bad times make them feel.
But then, you’re a fan of a team that hasn’t won the World Series for almost 24 years, one that didn’t even make the playoffs for 21 of those. You’re a fan of a team that started the season 2-11.
You probably don’t need any reminder that you’re here forever.
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2. Wann et al., 4.
3. Eliot R. Smith and Susan Henry, “An in-group becomes part of the self: Response time evidence.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22 (1996), 635-642.
4. Nyla R. Branscombe and Daniel L. Wann, “Physiological arousal and reactions to outgroup members that implicate an important social identity,” Aggressive Behavior 18 (1992), 85-93.
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6. Wann et al., 171.
7. Daniel L. Wann, Sport Psychology (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1997), 363.
8. Wann, 364.
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11. Wann et al., 164.
12. Martha Newston, Michael Burmester, and Harvey Whitehouse, “Explaining Lifelong Loyalty: The Role of Identity Fusion and Self-Shaping Events.” PLoS ONE 11 (2016), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0160427
13. Newston et al.
14. E.R Hirt et al., “Costs and benefits of allegiance: Changes in fans’ self-ascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63 (1992),724-738.
15. Branscombe and Wann, 124.
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