The perks of being a sports fan: Cheering on a team has benefits beyond game day

This research shows how being a fan can lead to a better social life and other markers of wellbeing

Published November 13, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

England fans react as they watch England's victory over Norway in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup quarter-finals on the West Holts stage during day two of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 27, 2019 in Glastonbury, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
England fans react as they watch England's victory over Norway in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup quarter-finals on the West Holts stage during day two of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 27, 2019 in Glastonbury, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Excerpted from "Fans Have More Friends" by Ben Valenta and David Sikorjak (Silicon Valley Press). Available now.

Raised in a small town in Italy in the 1980s, Marco grew up playing soccer. But when high school graduation came, his soccer days ended. In Italy, you either play ball, or you go to school. You don't do both. College sports, athletic scholarships — they weren't an option. Marco's mother had impressed upon him that education was important, and sports were for fun, so he headed off to college, pursuing a dual degree that allowed him to study for the first two years in Italy and the second two years abroad. 

For those second two years, Marco landed in Boston, across the street from Fenway Park. That was in 2005. "I had no idea Fenway was such a big deal." Though he had some familiarity with baseball, he had heard only of the Yankees. During his two years in Boston, he confessed, "I never went to see the Red Sox." He had too much on his mind to bother with sports. He shrugged: "I had to figure out English first." 

At the end of his stint in Boston, Marco accepted a six-month internship, and then a full-time position, at Merrill Lynch in New York. This is where his true education in American sports began. "My initial bosses at Merrill were both baseball fans. One was a Mets fan, and the other was a Phillies fan, and so I naturally became a Yankees fan to antagonize them." 

The Yankees were doing well at the time, and Marco attended a few games with his colleagues. But for a guy whose sports rhythm was set to the constant motion of soccer, baseball seemed more like "an interesting social experiment" than an exciting sport to watch. 

Then Marco switched work groups and found himself among a bunch of (American) football fans. To join in their discussions, he started watching some football. "Coming from Italy, I didn't have a lot in common with a lot of Americans, but I found a lot of appreciation for football players in terms of their physicality, the speed, the techniques. Despite the game stopping a lot, it was a lot more interesting to me than baseball ever was." As it happened, that year the Patriots were on fire, ending their regular season 16–0. "I got interested in a team that could make history," Marco said, "so I hosted a Super Bowl party." 

Spoiler alert: the Patriots lost. But Marco, in search of social connection with his colleagues, had pushed the fandom flywheel. And it started to spin. 

The next season, he added another fan activity: joining a fantasy football league. "It was a big opportunity for me to get closer to other people, to have something in common to talk about. It would force me also to pay more attention and understand the game better because the rules are complicated." 

As the flywheel gained momentum, Marco's social connections grew, and his fandom deepened. Watching NFL RedZone and managing a fantasy football team, in combination, became a great way for him to become more knowledgeable about the NFL in general. "It definitely gets you to follow more and appreciate the sport more. Initially, I was doing season-long fantasy football, where you have a draft at the beginning of the year. That involves a lot of up-front work and then maintenance over the weeks, but that caused too much frustration related to luck and injuries, so I moved to daily fantasy, where you get an opportunity to build your team every week. That requires you to become a much better observer of trends, and that got me more excited about certain players." 

In 2018, when Marco and a few colleagues founded their own business, he immediately recognized an opportunity to bring the group together: He started a fantasy football league with them. He remained active in the Merrill Lynch league and in the new one, because together they allowed him "to network and stay in touch with a lot of different people." 

Meanwhile, Marco discovered that he and a work friend shared a passion that predated his immigration to America: golf. The two began discussing golfers, playing together, and inviting others into their conversations. As that added activity accelerated the flywheel, friendships grew. Marco and his buddies began meeting up to watch tournaments together on TV. Marco's fan flywheel might have started slowly, but once it gained momentum, it started to spin freely, and his social connections flourished. 

In the end, Marco sees the benefits of the flywheel in his personal and work lives. "Becoming close friends outside of work makes it easier to collaborate and work well together. When you become friends, then you become more accountable to each other. You don't want to let each other down." 

Fandom's Intrinsic Benefits 

This flywheel we're talking about — it's not trivial. It doesn't merely pull you into buying jerseys, or watching more games, or deepening your sports knowledge (although it does do those things). It pulls you into initiating more social interactions. And that, we suspect, is where the real payoff lies. 

George Vallaint, principal investigator in The Grant Study, would agree. The Grant Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938, followed the lives of 268 men, all Harvard graduates, for 75 years, analyzing various components of their health and wellbeing. When asked in 2008, "What have you learned from the Grant Study men?" Vallaint responded, "That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."

"When you become friends, then you become more accountable to each other. You don't want to let each other down."

Knowing that fandom increases social interactions, we leaned into the idea that it could also elevate fans' sense of wellness. We began studying wellness-related social science and incorporating wellbeing measures into our own research. Soon, the cascading benefits of fans' rich social lives became clear. In what follows we highlight the impact of fandom across five wellness markers: happiness, satisfaction, optimism, gratitude and confidence. 

To measure happiness, we borrowed a scale from the Pew Research Center, an organization that regularly tracks happiness using a simple three-point scale: very happy, pretty happy, not too happy. Just over a third (34%) of high-value fans described themselves as very happy, compared to 25% of mid-value fans and 20% of low-value fans. More precisely, the bigger the fan, the more social interaction; the more social interaction, the happier the person. It's the additional socializing that fandom inherently spurs that leads to this increased happiness. 

Next, we employed a life satisfaction scale, also from Pew, asking respondents to rate their satisfaction with life in three areas: their family, their community, and their personal financial situation. With this added level of detail, we saw even more dramatic differences in wellbeing between non-fans and high-value fans. 

We turned to Pew yet again to measure optimism, asking respondents to imagine how various aspects of their lives would look a year out. These included overall happiness, personal finances, connection with family, connection with friends, and connection with the local community. A familiar pattern emerged: the bigger the fan, the more optimistic about the future, across all aspects of life. 

Interestingly, high-value fans are much more optimistic than lower-value fans about their connection to their local communities. Seeing this, we wondered if loyalty to a local team might drive this connection. But we found no evidence to suggest this. The connection is not driven by an attachment to a local team or that team's relative success. Rather, the fans' greater number of social interactions forges stronger bonds with their local communities. 

As an additional measure of wellbeing, we used The Gratitude Questionnaire, which was developed to measure people's experience of, well, gratitude. The bigger the fan, the higher the degree of gratitude, across the board. 

The connection is not driven by an attachment to a local team or that team's relative success.

Finally, it occurred to us that people with robust social networks, and with elevated levels of happiness, satisfaction, optimism, and gratitude, might also move through the world with more confidence. To measure confidence and self-worth among fans, we borrowed attributes from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, the instrument most used to measure self-regard. We see, once again, that high-value fans outpace all other segments. 

This is the fandom flywheel in action. Propelled by its feedback loop, the flywheel spins ever faster with each added activity, not only pulling fans deeper into their engagement with sports, but also producing greater social connectedness, which generates an elevated sense of wellbeing among fans. 

When we remove our preconceived notions, connect the dots, and understand the logic that underpins fandom, the connections between fan activities and heightened wellbeing become clear. When leveraged mindfully, that sense of wellbeing can grow beyond individual fans' lives, positively impacting entire communities.

By Ben Valenta

Ben Valenta 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.

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By David Sikorjak

David Sikorjak founded Dexterity Consulting in 2017, a strategy and analytics consultancy that artfully blends research, analysis, and empathy to transform how brands think. Prior to that, he was an executive at Publicis, NBC, and Madison Square Garden. A proud New Yorker, Dave is a husband, father, yogi, little league coach, and Yankees/Knicks/Jets fan.

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Book Excerpts Fandom Friendship Relationships Sports