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The rational and objective die-hard fan: Is that an oxymoron?

Dr Vassilis Dalakas

Posted: July 1, 2014

Tagged: fans / loyalty / marketing / teams

When it comes to romantic relationships, we are aware that often “love is blind.” Yet, this seems to also apply to fans’ love for their sports teams and the World Cup is no exception.  In the recent match between Nigeria and Bosnia, Bosnian striker Džeko scored a goal that was disallowed as offside.  Replays clearly showed it was the wrong call and the goal should have counted.  Interestingly, the official twitter page for the Nigerian Super Eagles posted that he scored from an offside position and called it a “close call” causing a bit of a stir among Twitter users from elsewhere.

While it is easy to criticize them because they did not acknowledge the bad call that benefitted their team, this is not an isolated incident and is not even limited to football.  It transcends nationalities and it transcends sports.  For example, many fans of American football can recall an infamous call made by replacement referees in the National Football League in 2012 that awarded a questionable touchdown (and the win) to Seattle against Green Bay as the game ended. Predictably, Seattle fans adamantly defended the call with several explanations for why it was the right call; we can imagine that if the roles had been reversed, it would have been the Green Bay fans defending the call while Seattle fans would be appalled by it probably calling it the “worst call ever.”

As the world is watching the World Cup in Brazil, there is inevitable debate and controversy about several incidents in the matches: was the player offside or not, is the injury real or is he faking it to kill time, was a red card deserved or not, and was it a penalty or not, are all classic examples of what football fans passionately argue about.  And, of course, we all have Luis Suárez to thank for making the list more interesting as it now includes additional questions that fans debate: is his punishment for biting an opponent fair or not (and, as some Uruguay fans are protesting, did he even bite him in the first place).  Not surprisingly, one’s view and position on any of these incidents is largely colored by his or her rooting interests and team affiliation.  As painful and frustrating it is for English fans to remember the 1986 World Cup with Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England, fans from Argentina are quick to defend and justify the very same goal and celebrate it.

Academic research first found evidence of these biased tendencies among sport fans many years ago.  A classic study by Hastorf and Cantril (published in 1954) involved fans of Dartmouth University and Princeton University regarding a quite violent (American) football game between the two schools.  Although both Dartmouth and Princeton fans recognized that “rough and dirty” play occurred during the game, they were reluctant to blame their own players for it and attributed it mostly to the opposing team; despite the fact they had access to the same objective information, each group essentially saw a different game.

The biased processing of information by sport fans can largely be explained by social identity theory which proposes that people define themselves in part by their affiliations to various social groups.  While sports are not the only context where such strong identities can emerge (politics, for example, is another such case), their competitive nature certainly reinforces an “us versus them” mentality.  As a result, highly identified fans are likely to exhibit biases favoring the in-group (their own team) and against the out-groups (competing teams and especially hated rivals).  For example, Daniel Wann, a well-known researcher on this topic, and his colleagues have found die-hard fans to attribute a team’s victories to internal causes and losses to external causes and to favorably evaluate fellow fans of the same team while unfavorably evaluating fans of an opposing team.

The more attached a fan is to a team, the more important the team’s victory becomes for the fan, because, at that point, it feels more like a personal victory; therefore, the desire for victory is likely to override any likelihood for rational and objective processing of information.  In fact, this often takes place not just in terms of evaluating what has already happened but also in terms of optimistic expectations and predictions for the future.  The rally chant by American fans during this World Cup (“I believe that we will win”) captures this idea perfectly.  Technically, chants like “I believe that we can win” or “I hope that we will win” would be more objective but, let’s face it, they are not as catchy or likely to generate the same level of pride and excitement in rallying behind the team.

So, overall, die-hard fans indeed seem to be more irrational rather than rational and more subjective rather than objective.  And maybe that’s a part of sports in general and the World Cup in particular that adds to the energy and excitement of our experience as fans where we endlessly debate calls and incidents by vigorously defending the calls that go our way while getting aggravated, appalled, and riled up by the ones that go against our team.  And, once it will be all over in July, we’ll probably start the countdown for the World Cup in Russia in 2018, to go through this all over again.

About Dr Vassilis Dalakas

Dr. Dalakas is a professor at Cal State University San Marcos and visiting professor at the San Diego State University Sports MBA.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, home of the James Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.  He currently serves on the editorial review board of Sport Marketing Quarterly and the Journal of Sport Management and also on the advisory board for the African Sports Business Association.