Sports, socialization, and shared affinity

October 31, 2022

This La Salle professor explains our tight connections to our favorite sports teams—and their effect on our well-being.

A winning sports team has a way of lifting the collective spirit of a city.

This fall, Philadelphians can relate. In fact, they have plenty of first-hand experience, with the Phillies reaching the World Series and the Eagles being the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten team.

Win or lose, why are sports teams so strongly linked to a fan’s demeanor?

To explain, we spoke with Meredith Kneavel, Ph.D., a professor of urban public health and nutrition at La Salle University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, where she also serves as associate dean. Kneavel studies the intersection of sports, stress, socialization, and friendship. She also is a biopsychologist.

It seems that shared passions—like a favorite sports team, for example—bond people so tightly. Why is that?

Kneavel: The bond that individuals share because of a common sports team is because of social group affiliation and is often linked back to childhood. These experiences can often be tied to nostalgic positive experiences with loved ones and tied to emotional experiences, both good and bad.

Why do sport-focused social interactions affect our overall well-being?

Kneavel: Sports are significantly tied to our social and psychological well-being. They provide group affiliation instantly. Individuals with high identification with a sports team have lower levels of alienation, lower loneliness, higher self-esteem, and more positive emotions. This group affiliation fosters belongingness.

Is there a way to describe the phenomenon of experiencing such extreme emotional expressions, like after thrilling victories (or, conversely, our inability to shed pain following defeat)?

Kneavel: The emotional experiences that people feel during and after thrilling victories or even during the pain of defeat are tied to how individuals view themselves in relation to the team. According to social identity theory, fans identify with the group—that is other fans and the team itself. When the team does well and is up, they do well and are elated. They model their attitudes, emotions, and behaviors based on the membership in the group. This is why there are normative behaviors about how to behave in Philadelphia after an exciting win or a tough loss. There are also expected behaviors, which is why immediately after a championship win, fireworks can be seen and heard throughout the city.

When our team wins, we often find ourselves texting friends, talking with colleagues, and even high-fiving complete strangers. Why does socialization play such a key role in developing these passions?

Kneavel: We see the team as an extension of ourselves and view ourselves as representative of the group. We form an instant bond with anyone who affiliates with the team. If you see someone who supports the team—for instance, someone who is wearing the team jersey or a team cap—you immediately recognize them as part of your ‘tribe’ and you have something to talk about. Texting, talking, high-fiving when significant plays, wins, or losses occur are ways to stay in social contact. The best part about this is that it isn’t divisive in the way that other areas, like politics, economics, relationships, or even job-related difficulties, can be.

On the flip side, do these social interactions help when we are managing the stress and anxiety of a tense moment in a big game?

Kneavel: Social support is definitely a factor in managing stress. When we are isolated, our ability to manage and ameliorate stress is significantly reduced. By sharing the experience of tense moments that our favorite team is going through with friends and others who are experiencing the same thing, we do not bear the burden alone.

—Christopher A. Vito