It’s a great time of the year to be a sports fan. The NBA and NHL playoffs kick off in April, a new MLB season is underway, and many collegiate seasons in both Canada and the United States are in their championship tournaments.
For many, it might simply be enough to watch the sport for the sake of it, to watch the incredible level of skill on display, from high-flying dunks to dazzling dekes. For others, that skill may only matter when it happens on their team.
“One test to whether you’re primarily a fan of the sport or a fan of a team is how do you like watching your team thump another team mercilessly,” says Dr. Mark Migotti, PhD, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary.
“If you’re a fan of the sport, you prefer a better game, but if you’re a fan of the team you enjoy the thumping.”
For those fans of specific teams, they can experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows based entirely on how their team performs. This may not seem like the most rational response, and Migotti, who teaches a course on the philosophy of sport, observes that sports fandom can indeed be an irrational endeavour.
“Only one team wins the cup every year, so you kind of know going in that the chances can’t be that great,” he says. “Year over year, you’re going to wind up disappointed way more often than you’re elated, and predictably so, so isn’t that the height of irrationality?”
Sports fans can acquire a thirst and lust for stimulation and excitement through the game, and some may seek to up that excitement level through gambling on their team. Migotti, however, says that the true fan will get that excitement simply from a victory.
“You get all that stimulation for free, because you’re just invested in the team winning, you don’t have to have 10 bucks riding on it,” he says.
In particular, there is a special something about the way a local sports team can inspire fans within a city.
“The fans of a home team will, in effect, treat the team the way subjects treat the monarchy, as a living embodiment of the whole,” says Migotti.
The names emblazoned on the back of the jerseys will change as players come and go, but the crest on the front doesn’t, and wearing that jersey and cheering for that team allow you to show allegiance to your city.
However, this kind of fandom can cross the line, where the day of a fan can be made or broken depending on how their team did the night before. Migotti says people who play the game can let the results eat away at them, but that is also true for the loyal, diehard fans of the team.
“It’s pathological in the same way an addiction is if you’re not able to control it,” he says.
Migotti harkens back to the gentleman-athlete era, before athletes were paid to play. They’d go and play all out for the game, and then when it was over, they'd shake hands and have a drink with their opponent.
Players and observers could simply move on after the game was over, but this era of professional sports has created a pathology where fan and player alike can be impacted by a losing streak or a failed season. However, Migotti says the main excuse for this is that experiencing the lows is the only way to enjoy the highs.
“It’s the only way you can really plumb the depths of joy that a comeback victory or a championship season can inspire,” he says.
So, how can fans deal with the inevitable disappointment they will experience with their team?
Migotti says there is the practical approach, in which a fan can identify whether their fandom is impacting the rest of their life and seek help if they need to.
The sporting approach to the question may provide some insight into why fans will keep coming back year after year, despite the disappointment they are bound to feel at some point.
“It’s the Brooklyn Dodgers motto: ‘Wait ‘til next year,’” says Migotti. “There will always be a next year or a next game to hope on.”