On my way from the airport, I had a long conversation with a taxi driver named Peter about soccer. He was a die hard Portsmouth supporter, a team that is now in League Two in England. That is, three levels below the premiership, the most watched football league in the world. I was completely fascinated with this man’s passion for his team. I was able to keep the conversation going because, I too, am a huge fan of the game. I asked him several questions and I noticed that he very knowledgeable about every last detail of his club from its history and current financial situation.
I wondered to myself, why are so many people, including myself, dedicated to a cause that is beyond their control. If you support a sports team, then you are probably well aware that other than the purely ‘created narrative’ in your head, in Rory Sutherland’s words, this team or club has no idea who you are, and could not care less about you. It is, on the surface, the most pure, and selfless relationship that can ever exist. Compare the amount of one sided dedication and commitment that supporters show to their teams, without any expectation of getting back what they put in, to how these very people probably behave in their relationships with their loved ones.
So why do we support teams so passionately and selflessly? And why is it that this kind of behavior is so universal that it can be found across all ages, cultures, and backgrounds? Is it a social craving that we have to need to belong to a certain group of people who share our same interests? Is it our love for competition and rushes of adrenaline that keeps us coming back for more?
If you ask several people who are soccer fans about why they love the game so much, they’ll probably respond by explaining how beautiful and intricate the game is, or how the tactical aspects of the game gets them mentally engaged, or the fact that it’s just purely entertaining.
Many teams play a very boring brand of soccer, and if it was entertainment that the fans wanted, it was surely not what they were getting. The Portsmouth fan I had the conversation with, surely didn’t watch his team for the appreciation of the quality of play, or anything of that nature. I suspect that, for him, it’s really about being part of his culture. He recalled how he used to spend days to travel across the entire country, and would go through great inconveniences to see his team play, and I think that was truly remarkable.
I believe there are types of fans, and their levels of dedication differ according to the reason they watch their team play in the first place. Fans who watch it for the mere appreciation of the sport are the least likely to be loyal, and to go through what Peter went through. The reasoning is this, if you support a team because they provide you with a certain level of entertainment, you will easily be able to substitute this entertainment for something else.
However, if you support a team because doing so is a deeply ingrained part of your town and culture, a major subject of discussion with those closest to you, then you’re probably going to be a lot like Peter. Of course, there are die hard international fans that support their favorite team through thick thin even though it is not part of their culture, or immediate group of friends, but even they very likely form online societies with other international fans or form pfriendships with people at home who share their passion.
People like Peter never chose to become fans of their respective clubs, it was a choice imposed on them by their circumstance, and yet, they are undoubtedly considered the most loyal and dedicated fans, and are the ones who will watch their team with the same passion and joy no matter what league division they played in and no matter how mediocre they become. The ones who choose who to support will rarely have those same qualities, just as how it was so easy for them to choose their favorite team to start with, it’ll be just as easy to stop supporting them.
I think this is interesting because it is somewhat counter intuitive, as we are taught to believe that autonomy of choice always leads to long term happiness as opposed to restriction of choice.