Until you find yourself in a stadium with 65,000 Detroit Lions fans who just suffered yet another loss, you don’t know true dejection.
I’ve twice sat alongside my husband and his Michigan family, cheering on this perennial underdog team, high-fiving complete strangers in giddy delight when the Lions score, thinking along with every blue-clad, bright-eyed eternal optimist at Ford Field that this is it … only to see everyone’s hopes crushed.
“Why do you subject yourself to this?” I pressed my husband after a humiliating loss to the Packers. “Year after year, game after game, you know they’re going to lose. Doesn’t it hurt too much to keep watching?” But after a few minutes of commiserating with his fellow fans, he turns to the future. “Next year will be different,” he says. Maybe next year they’ll make it to the playoffs, he believes, and who knows, maybe for the first time ever, the Super Bowl.
This raises another question: what do fans even get out of a winning team? Having no interest in sports myself, I’m curious: why does it matter that one group of extremely highly paid professional athletes beats another team?
To find out, I asked Dr. Edward Hirt, a professor with the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University who’s researched fanship and allegiance.
Social psychology’s historic answer, Hirt said, was a phenomenon called basking in reflected glory. “Basically, one way we derive our self-esteem is through our connections with other people who are successful,” he explained. It’s the same idea behind gloating about our kids’ accomplishments, or talking about celebrities from our hometown, he said. “We have some connection to those people and if we point out that connection, we indirectly derive a sense of esteem in other people’s eyes.”
When it comes to sports, however, “I love that theory, but that’s not what fanship is about,” Hirt said. “That expresses fair-weather fanship. People who are really fans despise fair-weather fans. [They believe] they’re not legit. We may celebrate with them when the team wins but we don’t respect them. For the real fans, the idea I’ve found is they really do suffer when their team loses.”
They suffer. And yet, they keep going back for more. “That’s one of the interesting things about fans,” Hirt said. “There’s something that drives them to [keep watching] independent of how it makes them feel. Even knowing ahead of time they’re going to lose. It’s this sense of loyalty: ‘If I’m committed to them I have to support them.’ They take an almost perverse pride in ‘that’s what makes me different.’ That shows more about you in some ways than being the bandwagon person that jumps on a team when they’re successful.”
“A lot of this is the idea that loyalty hallmarks a true fan—if you suffer when they are not successful, you’ve earned that mantle that you’re a true fan,” Hirt went on. “So when they pull off a miracle, you were there.”
But that doesn’t answer how they can stand the pain. Maybe that’s because it’s about more than the sting of loss, Hirt said.
“A big part of this is that it’s something you share with other people,” he said. “We truly embrace having other people commiserate with us. It’s a real bonding thing to feel connected with people who care as much as you do. You get that win, lose, or draw with sports. What a great opportunity to feel connected to something that transcends ourselves. We’re all looking for something.”
There’s also an optimism that keeps these fans going, Hirt said. “Hope springs eternal. One of the things that make sports one of the most appealing things for people to follow is the belief [that it might happen].” With every new season and game, the slate is clean, he said.
This optimism is similar to what makes so many people root for an underdog, though their motivation is different, Hirt said. “One of the beauties of sports is that anything can happen on any given day,” he went on. “It can be luck, outplaying, or just hustle.” That means there’s always hope that a little team can take down a Goliath. “Everybody loves a Cinderella team.”
Whether they’re an underdog team or a team that consistently fails to win, it’s the chance that they might that draws fans in. If they can pull off the miracle, what might we be able to do?
“So many of us that played sports ourselves, we might not have been the best player but we tried our best and worked harder,” Hirt said. “We want our kids to do that because it teaches work ethic. When you see underdogs win, [it shows] that stuff pays off. The team that wants it more and tries harder getting rewarded is a theme that really resonates with us. It makes us feel like there’s justice in the world.”
So far there’s no justice for Lions fans, but hey, after the Cubs found it in the World Series last fall, anything is possible. Maybe this year, Lions.