What Makes Us Root for the Teams We Do?

by Deb Seymour

To paraphrase a famous writer: it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. MLB is currently in a lockout; MLS just completed its season with a championship by the New York City Football Club; the NFL is starting to gear up for the playoffs — and from the looks of things, neither of the New York/New Jersey teams will participate; the Knicks are rather disappointing so far this NBA season while the Nets are quite the opposite; the Rangers are outperforming their actual quality of play in the NHL standings; and the Islanders have been an utter downer on a variety of fronts — some due to their own mishaps and some due to factors beyond their control. And Covid-19 has impacted almost all these teams in some way. All in all, not a very upbeat picture for New York City sports at the moment, albeit with a few notable exceptions.

And yet, we still remain fans of the sports we follow, of the teams we care about, of the players we love most. Why? As a New York City sports fan who’s lived in Southern California and now Maryland for some time, I’ve been asked many times why my allegiance is still to New York City teams with whom I grew up and not to the teams of the regions in which I’ve lived since.

While I was living in Baltimore, I had a work colleague who was originally from Ohio and had grown up a Cleveland Indians and Browns fan. Her husband had, as well. And yet, they became Baltimore Orioles and Ravens fans over their years residing in Maryland, and raised their two daughters to become the same. I recall having a conversation with her in which I asked why they’d changed allegiances. She responded that they’d lived away from Ohio for long enough to assume fandom of the sports teams where they live now. And that they didn’t want their daughters to feel out of place among their friends. The second reason I bought; but the first was, and still remains, completely mysterious to me.

Sure, when it comes to MLB, I cared a little bit about the Angels when I lived in California and the Orioles when I lived in Baltimore and the Nationals now that I live closer to Washington DC; but I still am only really invested in the New York City baseball teams. That’s true for all the other sports, as well. And I doubt it’ll ever change.

So what is it about the psychology of a sports fan that makes us root for the teams we do?

“Being a sports fan is a ‘very psychologically healthy activity,’ says Daniel Wann, professor at Murray State University… ‘Fandom connects us to other like-minded people, which satisfies our human need for belonging'” (“Sports fans have higher self-esteem and are more satisfied with their lives (whether their teams win or lose),” Cory Steig, CNBC.com, July 23, 2020).

More from the same article: “’Sports fandom has nothing to do with the outcome [of a game],’” Wann says. For example, if a pizza restaurant continually got your order wrong, you’d likely switch to a more reliable parlor. But because being a fan is so central to people’s identities, people are willing to accept defeat and continue to be loyal to a team.” 

This last sentence resonates and seems to approach an answer to the question of why we root for the teams we do — and remain loyal to them even if we move to another region or even if they have a losing season. True blue sports fans’ attachment to their teams is so central to their identities, it takes more than living in another time zone or a game loss to disrupt that attachment.

Here’s more from SportsTravel along the same lines:

“For the most part, sports fandom is a community activity. This can be seen in the ways that we come to choose our favorite team. We begin watching games with our family and learn to root for the team that Mom, Dad, and Grandpa all love or we attend the home games in our hometown and cheer with the rest of our local community. You may move later on in life, but most of us don’t switch teams without the pull of some real connection. You always stay with the team that represents home and that community to which you have the greatest connection” (“What Being a Sports Fan Shows Us About Ourselves,” Dr. Dawn Kamilah Brown, SportsTravel, January 21, 2021).

Well, that certainly helps explain why I haven’t changed my team allegiances over the years. I’m guessing a number of you’ve moved localities during your lives, as well, and yet still root for the teams you did originally. If you attended a college that has a sports program, chances are you still root for the same college’s teams years later. It’s part of your identity, and we don’t just drop those integral parts of our identities by moving away or growing older or because our favorite college basketball team hasn’t won the Final Four lately.

I recall a conversation I had while still living in New York City in which I described my sports fandom as making me feel like a part of something greater than myself; a part of a community within the larger community of the city. I remember feeling a little less alone in a city with millions of residents rushing past me on a daily basis. Despite my having grown up in the city, gaining a greater sense of belonging among my fellow New Yorkers through our shared fandom was fulfilling in a way that nothing else really was. Except, perhaps, getting on the subway before a game and seeing it packed with fellow fans all sporting the same team apparel and colors that I was. That is, indeed, an experience that cannot be replicated.

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