What if we told you that being a sports fan is good for you, good for others, and good for society? Two years ago, we would not have written that sentence, but we had a hunch that sports fans experience increased social connection. What we didn’t know was how deep that connection was, the potential it carried for individual and societal wellness, or the opportunities it offered for adult friendships, making and keeping friends, and family ties.
While conducting research for our book, Fans Have More Friends, we came across a disturbing statistic: 61% of Americans report experiencing loneliness. Using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, we asked fans and found a hopeful insight: degree of fandom correlated to the amount of loneliness a fan experienced. Highly engaged fans reported less loneliness than less engaged fans and non-fans. We further wondered about other life-enhancing experiences, such as happiness, gratitude, and satisfaction.
Using the Pew Research Center’s happiness scale “Very Happy Pretty Happy and Not Too Happy,” we found that just over a third (34%) of highly engaged fans described themselves as very happy, compared to 25% of somewhat engaged fans and 20% of fans with low engagement. As for gratitude, using the Gratitude Questionnaire, we found the same correlation between fan engagement and gratefulness. The same was true for satisfaction: with a Pew survey, highly engaged fans reported higher satisfaction with their familial relationships, their financial situation, and their community – which explains another finding. Highly engaged fans reported more frequent interaction with their friends and valued those friendships more than those surveyed who were non-fans. Fans, in fact, have more friends!
Individual fans supported our findings and the stories they shared with us, like Marco, an Italian immigrant and soccer fan who grew to love American football through interactions with his colleagues. He began throwing Super Bowl parties, and eventually, when he created his own business, he led a fantasy football league to bring employees together. Jennifer learned about American football when she too immigrated to the United States. Coming from Jamaica, she more easily socialized when she spoke about football and her uncles’ favorite team: the Raiders. That love and knowledge of the team and game was the starting point for one of her most important friendships, which helped her navigate bullying and bigotry as an adolescent. And we got to see a lifelong Knicks fan, Greg, at a game and in his element. “I’m at home at The Garden,” as in Madison Square Garden, where his 25 years of season tickets manifested in knowing ushers and fellow fans by name and launching into conversations about each other’s children.
The common thread in all these stories is belonging–a feeling research can’t reveal as well as stories can. With both research and individual fan experiences, we began to think of sports as a social superconductor: an ever-present facilitator of connection across multiple contexts. Sports are the reason to bring people together, the reason to send that text message, to call and check in with your parents, your child away in college, that friend you haven’t heard from in a while. Further, they’re the entryway into more meaningful conversations. But is it just sports that facilitate that?
There are some unique aspects to sports fandom that put it in a class by itself. First: scale. Half of the American population are sports fans, so integrating belonging and connection into the sports fandom experience has the potential to address loneliness, isolation, and polarization on a larger scale than most other common interests.
Second: versatility. Sports are everywhere: on the street, in a bar, at work, on campus. They can facilitate a five-second “fast friend” interaction with a stranger on the street and also serve as the foundation of your relationship with your father.
Third: Consistency. There’s a rhythm, a pace to fandom, that creates events and dates fans anticipate. It enriches calendars with season openings, playoffs, finals…and the social opportunities that come with them. To know when the Super Bowl’s happening, March Madness, the World Cup, NBA Playoffs, Stanley Cup Playoffs is to be a participant in a larger and ongoing conversation. We know the calendar, understand the patterns, and look forward to the events and moments that guarantee connection.
Lastly, in an increasingly polarized country, not only are sports genuinely playful and fun, but it provides a joyful opportunity for increased identity complexity. When we used the backdrop of Marilyn Brewer and Sonia Roccas’ “Social Identity Complexity,” we saw how highly engaged fans are an example of this term. The engaged sports fan is more likely to hold more than one identity, and they will likely interact with other fans who also have complex identities. Anyone can be a fan of a sport or team, from any religion, background, political affiliation, race, gender, nationality, etc.… and when we recognize the multiple identities that make up ourselves, we’re more likely to notice and appreciate these complexities in others. “Too often we reduce people to the most common denominator, and then we make judgments based on that, but when you have all these layers of complexity you become less reductionist in your own thinking because you recognize, that things are not always what they seem,” Dallas Cowboy fan Stephen Chukumba explained to us.
We know sports fandom isn’t a panacea for our society’s ills and individual loneliness. Still, we are enthusiastic about the potential sports have to facilitate belonging, strengthen relationships and provide opportunities for new ones. And this optimism isn’t a coincidence: we found that highly engaged fans are more optimistic about the future than non-fans across multiple aspects of life.
In 2008, we asked George Vallaint, principal investigator in The Grant Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938 and followed the lives of 268 men over 75 years, what he learned from studying these men’s health and wellbeing. He responded bluntly: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
So what if we told you fans have more friends? Would you lean into your fandom? Send that text message? Schedule that call with your parent to debrief after the game? Organize a workplace fantasy league? Strike up a conversation with the barista you see every morning or the stranger wearing your team’s jersey on the street? If we told you fans are more confident, less lonely, and more optimistic, would you consider integrating more sports into your life? We hope so – for your own happiness and well-being, and our collective sense of belonging.
Ben Valenta and David Sikorjak are the authors of Fans Have More Friends (Silicon Valley Press). Available now.
David Sikorjak (right) is the founder of Dexterity Consulting, a strategy and analytics consultancy that artfully blends research, analysis, and empa- thy to transform how brands think. Prior to that, he was an executive at Publicis, NBC, and Madison Square Garden. A proud New Yorker, David is a husband, father, yogi, little league coach, and Yankees/Knicks/Jets fan.
Ben Valenta (left) is the SVP of Strategy & Analytics for FOX Sports. In his previous life as a consultant, he advised an incredible array of clients, including: Nike, NFL, Anheuser-Busch InBev, YouTube, ESPN, National Geographic, MSNBC, NBC News, Livestrong, New York Knicks, and New York Rangers. He likes to surf and ride bikes and wrestle with his kids in Venice, California.