SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Rooting for a losing sports team may be hazardous to your health. It can raise your risk of depression and heart attacks, make you more likely to eat fatty foods or commit violent acts, and it may also lower your testosterone (uh, guess I can deal).
There’s losing, and then there’s losing. As an Orioles fan, this has been one the worst weeks I can remember. (No, if you’re wondering, I have no memories of the 1988 season, but I did sit through last year, and more than my fair share of Ubaldo Jiménez starts.)
Nothing is going right for the Orioles right now. So why stay invested as a fan?
First, some of us can turn off the TV and go into hibernation until October, but that’s not an option for all. Sports fandom is not necessarily something you choose, any more than you choose your parents or your hometown.
Social psychologists used to think that fan allegiance was explained by a phenomenon called basking in reflected glory, says Dr. Edward Hirt, a professor with the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, the same way some of us brag about our kids or talk about celebrities from our hometown.
But, Hirt explains, when it comes to sports, that’s not what fandom is about.
That’s one of the interesting things about fans. There’s something that drives them to [keep watching] independent of how it makes them feel. Even knowing ahead of time they’re going to lose. It’s this sense of loyalty: ‘If I’m committed to them I have to support them.’ They take an almost perverse pride in ‘that’s what makes me different.’
One popular model views fandom like an elevator: you progress through stages like awareness of a team’s existence, attraction (the casual fan), attachment (the committed fan) and eventually allegiance (the diehard). (If this sounds a little like falling in love, well, maybe that’s right.) Essentially, if you’ve reached the top floor, a sports team can do no wrong, even if it consistently loses. “Only 20 percent of sport fans show allegiance,” says Professor Daniel Funk, one of the model’s inventors. “The majority of sport consumers are not loyal; they are fair-weather fans. A sport team cannot have 65,000 loyal fans.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly help loyal fans deal with the pain of losing—and I’m not kidding when I use the word “pain.” A 2011 study, for instance, found that cardiovascular deaths spiked in Massachusetts after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl in 2008.
For many, the solution is fair-weatherism. In the short term, fans will “dissociate,” or cut themselves off from a losing team; even diehard fans do this to some extent.
Others adapt: in the long run, a team that loses consistently will weed out fans, leaving only “high-team-identification fans” left. Some fans wear their loser status like a “badge of honor”: this helps to explain the pride of fans from perennial sadsack franchises like the Mets, the Indians, the Buffalo Bills, or the Arizona Cardinals (I highly recommend this last read).
For me, cutting and running this season is not an option. So, here are some tips I’ve picked up from experts on loss and fans of other losing teams:
- Accept your impotence. You don’t control the outcome of the game, no matter how high you wear your lucky socks on game day. (On this note, playing fantasy sports, which does give you some control over events, can help.)
- Look for silver linings. For me, one of those is that watching a bad team makes me a better consumer of the game. You learn a lot by watching a good team; you learn more by watching mechanics—pitching, fielding, throwing—break down.
- Be kind to yourself. The same team of French researchers that found out that losses make us binge eat also discovered that these consequences disappear when supporters spontaneously self-affirm. Jason Lanter, a psychology professor, calls this corfing, or cutting off reflected failure. In other words, repeat to yourself the mantra: “My team is a loser; I am not.”
- Get a little exercise. Even a quick jog or just a few pushups or jumping jacks helps work off anger and disappointment. This year could be bad for the Orioles, but great for your marathon time!
- Relive the past. I do this sometimes by watching videos of Adam Jones pieing people and things.
- Embrace the “camaraderie of losing.” Find ways to vent, including by talking with others or writing your feelings down. (Shameless plug: CamdenChat really helps me here. It’s reaffirming to know that other people are seeing the same crap out there that I am.)
- Be prepared to deal with taunting from other fans. Drive those Yankees fans out of Camden Yards, if at all possible.
- Find humor in the situation. In the ‘80s, a fan of the lowly Manchester City Football Club brought a five-foot inflatable banana to a game, sparking a trend: people started showing up with inflatable crocodiles, sharks, and airplanes.
- Appreciate the little things. Here’s how novelist Kevin Sampsell describes his “humanistic connection to the game”:
my love for discovering the players’ personal stories of overcoming adversity; the bonding community of fandom; the sheer unpredictable nature of all sports; and yes, indeed, the amazing beauty and skill of what these players are able to do on the field. I can still remember plays that happened decades ago and recall them as precisely as my favorite songs.
It could be the Orioles getting lucky on a given day, outplaying a division rival, or just showing a little extra hustle. The little stories are all part of what makes the game great.
And if all else fails,
- Turn off the damn TV. It’s great to be a fan and all, but you don’t have to be a masochist about it. There’s always next season.