- Courtesy Of Allison Olmsted
- Larry Olmsted
Die-hard sports fans are often dismissed as lazy, ignorant and male — "hard-drinking, hard-eating, jersey-wearing" guys, in Larry Olmsted's words — and he's not having it. Olmsted's new book, Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding, offers a vigorous and heavily researched defense of fandom as a popular and mind-sharpening activity. If you need ammunition — including dozens of studies — to refute your smug friend who thinks watching sports is a waste of time, this is the book for you.
So it's a surprise when Olmsted casually notes — on page 263 of his book — that he's not much of a sports fan himself:
I like the NFL and I watch a game every now and then, and I sometimes watch post-season baseball, and of course, 'American Ninja Warrior.' But generally I don't spend a lot of time watching sports.
The Vermont-based, best-selling author of four books and hundreds of magazine articles describes himself instead as "a fan of sports fans." In a Zoom interview with Seven Days, he talked more about his latest book and the research behind it.
Olmsted, who normally travels constantly for his work, said he sees the real magic of fandom in sports bars, whether in airports or small towns anywhere on Earth. As he points out in the book, "There are no opera bars, or weather bars, or movie bars..." (Maybe those topics don't drive one to drink?) For him, sports are a global language among fans, and that's a beautiful thing, especially if you speak soccer. You can "sit down and strike up an enjoyable conversation around sports with a complete stranger from pretty much anywhere," Olmsted writes.
Not all sports conversations have been enjoyable lately. The "big four" American men's sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey — have had to confront long and ugly histories of racism, homophobia and violence against women by star players. Fans often reinforce these problems with a "win-at-all-costs" mentality. Olmsted digs into those issues in the middle chapters of his book.
But these days, spectators have a lot of choices beyond the big four. Younger viewers might be just as likely to watch a competitive video gamer on the Twitch network as a traditional game, and the International Olympic Committee is considering adding "e-sports" to the 2024 games in Paris. But are these sports?
"I wrestled with some of the same issues back when ... the World Poker Tour [was launched on cable TV]," Olmsted said. "Is it a sport? Is something a sport just because it is on ESPN or similar?"
He defines a sport as anything that "involves some level of ... skill, ability or physicality to compete and win." E-sports "require extreme reflexes and dexterity," so they qualify, "falling somewhere between darts/billiards and auto racing, [both] long accepted as legit sports."
Fans cites a bevy of studies supporting the idea that fans of team sports are happier, healthier and possessed of a stronger sense of community and belonging than are nonfans. Those observations make sense here in New England, where, in the last 20 years, the Patriots competed in nine Super Bowls and won six, and the Boston Red Sox took four World Series titles.
I asked Olmsted whether the same benefits also flow to fans of, say, the Cleveland Browns, who have never been to the Super Bowl and enjoyed only one playoff game between 1994 and 2020 — which they lost. The studies Olmsted presents aren't team specific, but he has an answer, backed by more studies: Fans relish and remember the big wins and improbable upsets, while they readily forget the losses. He calls this useful form of selective memory a "circuit breaker."
The tribalism that gives hard-core fans their sense of community also has a dark side, leading at times to intense passion, irrationality and even violence. The word "fan" is short for fanatic, after all. Distinctly American, it dates back to 1889 as a term for a baseball enthusiast, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So the obsessive and irrational aspect has been there from the beginning.
Olmsted identifies four elements of the sports-fan experience that create this powerful phenomenon:
1) games that have an unpredictable outcome, unlike scripted entertainment;
2) a fandom reinforced by distinctive clothing (such as jerseys, hats and other gear);
3) the crowd at the game, bonded by pregame tailgating and passionate cheering; and
4) a much bigger audience watching on TV that bonds with fans at the game.
I asked Olmsted to elaborate on that last element, which hasn't been discussed much until this year, when the eeriness of pandemic-emptied stadiums hit home.
"When you watch sports on TV, except in a pandemic, the stands are always full, and they're full of people in jerseys, in gear holding up signs," he said. "So when you're home, you might not even be thinking about that, because you're watching the field, but they're constantly in view — 30, 40, 50,000 people that you're part of ... It's transporting you to the event."
There are interesting and disturbing parallels between this tribalism and the rise of nationalist politics in recent years. Former president Donald Trump's Make America Great Again movement relied on the excitement and unpredictability of his transgressive live rallies. It even adopted a form of team clothing and gear: MAGA hats, shirts and flags. Arguably, TV news coverage on conservative networks offered some of the same connection between the cheering crowds and Trump fans watching from home.
Olmsted doesn't see MAGA as sports fandom metastasizing; on the contrary, he believes that sports can inoculate society against the risk of such movements.
"Sports fandom tribalism is a much preferable alternative to dangerous versions of political, jingoistic, nationalist or religious-based tribalism," he commented in a later email. "You hear a lot about terrorism, and unfortunately we have seen a big increase in domestic terrorism, but you never hear the words sports terrorism."
By the end of the book, Olmsted concedes that it might be beneficial to soften the zealous commitment to one team that leads some British soccer fans to have their ashes scattered on, or buried under, their team's pitch.
Olmsted is surprisingly shy about naming his own favorite teams in this book. His biggest advocacy is for "American Ninja Warrior," a teamless competition designed explicitly as a television show. Since it premiered in 2009, more than 330 Ninja Warrior gyms have been established in the U.S. alone to cater to fans and train wannabe competitors. Because this sport literally didn't exist before it was a show, it's an unambiguous example of people watching a sport on TV and being inspired to get off their couches and exercise more.
Olmsted also includes a chapter on the explosive growth of "fantasy sports," in which fans form leagues and draft professional players onto their own virtual teams. Computer programs use the real-life statistics of their own players to determine who wins.
The genius of fantasy sports — developed originally by bored fans of losing teams — is that they break through the siloing of sports fans, who might know all of the substitutes and coaches on their favorite teams but no one on squads from other cities. With a reason to study all of the players, league-wide, and chart their progress, fantasy players rely less emotionally on their hometown teams.
If fantasy sports dial down the most obsessive commitment to favorite teams, Olmsted suggested, that might be a positive development.
"Personally, for me, being less invested in a particular team has made all of sports more enjoyable to watch," he said, "because, if it's football season, I look at who's playing, and if it's a good game, if it's the Saints playing the Seahawks ... I'm going to watch that game, but I don't care who wins."
Isn't that an argument against fandom?
"It depends — are you a fan of the team or a fan of the game?" Olmsted said. "The real sports junkie will watch [anything] — that's why we have ESPN2."
There's undeniable power in gathering with a large group of fellow believers, and Olmsted is right to defend the endeavor. But there is danger in the intense passions those gatherings sometimes unlock. Hopefully the broadening of fandom across racial, gender and even team lines will diminish that danger while preserving the joy.
Fandom will always entail a share of misery along with the sporadic joy, and maybe that's part of its value. In our conversation, Olmsted said that, as a kid growing up in Queens, he adopted the NFL's long-suffering Buffalo Bills as "his" team when the better-known New York Giants and New York Jets started playing their games in New Jersey. In one of the many acknowledgments at the end of Fans, he pays tribute to them:
To the Buffalo Bills — New York's only professional football team — who taught me the hard way that winning is not everything and that you can still enjoy being a fan even in the face of historically anomalous and statistically highly improbable back-to-back-to-back Super Bowl losses.
Now that's a fan talking.
From Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding
I asked Dr. [Daniel L.] Wann what was the most interesting study he had done in his decades of fan research, and without hesitation he started laughing. "We wanted to look at fan superstition, so we asked them to describe their sports-watching beliefs and superstitions. It was really fun, but it took us five years to code the responses, because they were all over the place and didn't easily fit into categories. What we did learn was that people really think what they do watching at home three hundred miles away affects the outcome of a game. People take this seriously and they feel guilty if they don't follow these superstitions and their team loses.
"A lot of it is apparel-related; what they wear when they watch. Some had lucky charms, including people — 'Mom can't watch with us because they always lose when she's here. We always lose when we go to the in-laws'. Some was sex: One said, 'My wife has to call me Roger Clemens during sex the night before Clemens pitches.' ... [Another:] 'I have sex with nothing on but a jersey and one blue and one yellow sock on.'"