Understanding Fandom

I have never really been into sports. I played soccer and basketball as a kid but for whatever reason I have never really taken a great interest in sports. Maybe because I suck at them. But I do enjoy the pickup games I sometimes play, and even if I didn’t you would think I could still enjoy watching others play.  I have often puzzled over what the appeal is of watching an NBA championship. You’ve seen one jump shot you’ve seen them all, right?

Then I heard this podcast on Radiolab: http://www.radiolab.org/story/153809-rules-set-you-free/. It explains how exceptional circumstances can give rise to plays where the competitors go “off book”. These novel moments make spectating exciting because they reveal the endless possibilities of the game and give us something unique to remember for a lifetime.

This was an epiphany for me. Maybe this is what gets people to obsess over sports so much. The same mechanic that gets them going back to the casino. Maybe Lambeau Field is just a big Skinner box that we have collectively decided is OK to get wrapped up in. This made sense, but I still couldn’t see myself spending three hours of my Saturday watching a hockey game just on the hope that I might see Alexandre Burrows bat in a hockey puck from mid-air. I mentioned this to Steel while we were all in California.  He basically confirmed that if my entry into fandom is through these off-book moments that is not going to be enough to hold interest.

So what is it then that gets people coming back?  What is the economic incentive (behavioral or monetary) for someone to give hours and hours of time this week to a series of NBA games that will have no material impact on their life?  (Assuming they do not gamble.)


Then today I read an article that might be another clue into this world of fandom.  I don’t know why I clicked on this article about Stephen Curry’s performance in the NBA Finals.  I didn’t watch any of the games.  But I found it fascinating.  It think what drew me in was the statistical analysis and the underlying strategy that it revealed.  The article basically uses statistics to show in what areas Stephen excels and then recommends strategies that could optimize team performance.  The author then provides some counterpoints to his own argument and explores theories for why the team may not be adopting these strategies.

After reading this I was struck by how similar this article makes sports to video games.  Video games are great because you get constant performance feedback and can use that information to adjust your strategies to increase your chance of winning.  That seems to be exactly what this article is aiming to do.

So what do you guys think?  Is it stats and armchair strategizing that keeps people engaged in sports in the absence of off-book moments?  Or am I approaching this in a completely backwards manner.  Is it enough for most people to simply watch a sporting match and enjoy it without thinking about all this other stuff?


  1. Alan, Alan, Alan… Seems like the guys at Freakononics ought to have fielded this one by now.

    What is the economic incentive (behavioral or economic) for economists to believe that all of life can and must be explained? Why is it that economists believe that there is an economic model to explain everything. And by everything, I mean everything. Why enjoy a garden, sunset, or sports game, when we could analyze them instead. 

    Economists are the guys that rarely got to experience flow, you know just being in the moment, unaware of enjoyment, time, relationship, and least of all economic incentive. Not that the rest of us are flow-masters, ever present in the moment, never consumed by the need to construct a story (or economic model) to explain life’s dissonance. No, it’s just that us non-economists find the need to create these stories, these explanations, around weightier matters such as death, religion, and love. The economist on the other hand, he can’t sleep at night, not until an economic model explains why women prefer Jeep, men prefer Porsche, and what economic incentive explains why chewy granola are bars out-selling crunchy.

    As far as “going off the book” Howie don’t play that. It’s a cool idea, but mostly as it alleviates the plight of the sports journalists. Reporting on an event when everyone already knows the most important part, the score, is made much easier when there is an “off the book” play. I’m with Steel on this one.

    But even more off is the statistical analysis theory. Statisticians suffer more than economists from the need to put all of life in a bell curve. How many Phd students spend months gathering data, but years running stats until they find an analysis that is dissertation worthy? 

    At their best stats explain what was going on. They may illuminate our awareness of our past preferences, but do you profoundly enjoy basketball or video games more now that an article on statistical analysis helped you come to the painfully obvious conclusion that sports games and videos games are similar? If we are talking about obsession stats are a woefully inadequate explanation.

    But this is coming from a guy that has spent more time clipping his toenails than watching sports or playing video games. By the way, how do you explain the economic incentive behind watching other people play video games? I suppose it’s a natural progression, but it amazes me when I see kid after kid after kid at the library watching YouTube videos of other kids playing Minecraft.

    While I personally find little joy in watching professional sports or video games, I do find joy in other ways, and not just bad-mouthing economists and statisticians. If you’ll permit me to make this about me, lately I’ve been enjoying learning about story, speaking, writing, stand-up, teaching, performance, communication arts kind of stuff. I get geeked out excited when I see a communicator “go off the book” by telling an authentic story, a joke that wasn’t rehearsed, or tossing the slides and saying what needs to said as opposed to what was prepared. But, I don’t love this stuff for these moments. They are rare, and I don’t need a statistical analysis to know that so many speakers and teachers are really bad, so bad that they don’t even know the book, much less how to go off it with style. So, why am I obsessed with this stuff? What economic incentive drives my obsession?

    If I felt the need to explain it, which I didn’t until Alan got in my head, I’d say transcendence. Right now I am so bored with my job that when driving I (this will make Mark nervous) find myself making 3 left hand turns instead of 1 right hand turn. In light of all this boredom I crave something to elevate me and to bring me closer in intimacy and influence with my fellow man. That craving has been satisfied with my study of communication arts. Oh, and I just love the sound of my own voice.

    Being a part of something bigger than yourself is, well, bigger than yourself. Sports, sporting events, and team affiliation epitomize this and if in the process, someone goes “off the book” or makes a statistical analysis that tickles your cerebellum, all the better. But these reasons are still so very academic and lifeless. How often do 60,000 people fill. Stadium to chant and cheer for the economist? 

    These academic ideas may explain bits of the sports fandom phenomenon. But they’ll never explain why it exists. Obsession is fueled by something deeper than reason and conscience. If you don’t believe me just try and turn an interest into an obsession. It can’t be done. Kind of like trying to make yourself love a girl you only like. You’ll end up exhausted and resentful.

    Which brings me back to the idea of the human need for an explanation. It’s inescapable, even the notion that “things are as they are, and need no explanation” is an explanation. I’m much more interested in those moments that need no explanation, those moments where all awareness is in the present, when there is no brain chatter, and an hour feels like both a second and a lifetime. It can happen for me when I am telling my kids a story, having a good run, watching a great movie, writing, even playing basketball, and ironically when trying to come up with explanations for the unexplainable. Go figure. 

    So while I don’t personally experience this lack of a need for explanation while watching sports, I assume that obsessive fans do. And that is likely a huge part of the appeal of sports fandom, the fact that you don’t need an explanation. It just is and you just are. That’s an awesome feeling, no, it is the awesome feeling, and I totally understand someone comin back season after season for it. 


  2. Alan, you’re the kind of guy who likes to understand beforehand what’s going to happen by repeatedly punching a milk jug until it explodes. Howard is the kind of guy that likes to try it and see.


  3. I think fandom for most people is an emotional thing. It provides a platform for feeling connected to neighbors, friends, and family. I still take an interest in the minor league baseball team in Idaho Falls simply because I grew up going to their games. And I still have a soft spot for the Atlanta Braves because they were the affiliated major league team (and they had Dale Murphy – possibly the best Mormon baseball player of all time until Pete Rose gets baptized).

    Our modern, globalized society seems to have curiously made sports at once highly localized and independent of geography. I can follow every headline about a sports team from halfway around the planet; At the same time, allegiance to a local sports team is one of the few regional markers left in our culture (except for the Yankees, whom I loathe – sorry Dave).

    All of this to say that I don’t understand truly fanatical followers of a team, but I also totally get why even casual observers might take an interest in a specific team and follow along – even if they’re not watching 100% of every game.


  4. Hey Alan,

    I don’t love watching all sports, but I do love basketball and a little rugby. I just wanted to stand up and say that along with you, I find the Five-Thirty-Eight-style articles about sports to be awesome–when you start breaking a sport down and understanding the hidden drivers, it becomes much more interesting to me–particularly when an analysis like that reveals how someone is under-rated.


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