We are nearly at the end of March Madness, one of America’s greatest sporting events. Over 100 million Americans will have watched a college basketball game during the month. But just as notable is that few of these over 100 million Americans are watching a game because they have a favorite team playing in that game. These March Madness fans are part of a new trend: they are more fans of the sport rather than of a particular team playing the sport. This world of “sports without tribes” is growing in prominence. Sports without tribes is a welcome addition to the important—but also limited—tribal ways that used to dominate how people experienced sports.
Let’s first consider the stereotypical image of the sports fan in the past: the person who likes sports because of the tribal affiliations it can create and represent. Humans have a basic need to belong to communities, and being a fan of a particular sports team provides an emotional homeroom. Your sports fans become your extended family, your tribal membership. One British sociologist wrote that “[j]ust as [Emile] Durkheim suggested aboriginal tribes worship their society through the totem, so do the lads reaffirm their relations with other lads through the love of the team.”
Whenever your team is playing, you know that there is a public place where you can go and be with thousands of your fellow tribe members. If you can’t make it to the stadium, you know that they are watching from all around the world. Think of how important it is to Robert De Niro’s character in the movie Silver Linings Playbook that his son (played by Bradley Cooper) watches the Philadelphia Eagles games with his family.
Being a fan of a team becomes a salient part of your personal identity. The team that you become a fan of tells others a lot about who you are and helps create who you are. Pittsburgh in the past was a gritty, industrial town known for its steel production, and therefore embraced its tough Steelers defense in the NFL in the 1970s—a defense that came to be known as the Steel Curtain. Teams that are located in places with a less salient identity—think of a Miami or a Phoenix—have less devoted tribal bases than do the cities with long-standing locals tied to their teams (think of Boston, Chicago, or Philadelphia).
Indeed, scholars that have studied sports have argued that these emotive, communal commitments to sports teams have stepped into the gap created by the withering of our other identities. The number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated has grown substantially. We move more across the country and across the world than in earlier periods of American history. Our other identities might be fading, but our sports identities provide us some portable and persistent comfort.
Sports with tribes therefore perform a valuable social function. As Ted Turner once said, “[s]ports is like a war without the killing.” Being a New York Mets fan assigns you a tribe and a passionate identity, but one that is relatively innocuous. I still remember the morning after the 1986 New York Mets won the World Series as one of the greatest moments in my childhood.
But sports with tribes were always limited in their appeal, and as a dominant vision of what it meant to be a fan excluded from the family of sports fans natural allies. Not everyone has a passionate attachment to a team. Americans are constantly moving closer to one team and farther from another team. Americans are surrounded with friends and family of conflicting sports loyalties.
Sports with tribes, at its worst, was not just limited but problematic. The passionate commitments that tribal loyalties provoked made sports go to extremes. Devoted fans of one team would sometimes (admittedly very rarely) engage in acts of violence against fans of the other team. One academic study found that fans of one soccer team were much more likely to provide emergency medical assistance to strangers wearing the jersey of their favorite team rather than to someone needing emergency assistance but wearing a rival jersey or no jersey at all.
The passions that sports with tribes evoke make us resistant to engage analytically with sports in order to improve them. We love our NFL team so much that it blinds us to the fact that the NFL has a violence problem that must be addressed.
There was always a major contrast to this dominant vision of sports with tribes: the notion of sports without tribal loyalties to a particular team. It was always the case that some people viewed sports the way that they view art: a source of pleasure rather than a statement of affiliation. You do not have passionate attachments to a particular opera singer or to a particular Impressionist artist, but that should not stop you from loving opera or the arts. People don’t care about Romeo or Juliet winning, they just care that Shakespeare wrote a great play. Likewise, the fact that you do not have a favorite college basketball team should not prevent you from appreciating Georgia State’s win over Baylor.
In the past decade plus, these types of sports fans have been growing in number. The emergence of Big Data in sports means that there is more information about sports to be analyzed empirically rather than emotionally. Sports teams now have their own analytics staffers. The Michael Lewis book and later Brad Pitt movie Moneyball mainstreamed these types of sports fans. The Grantland website owned by ESPN gave them a prominent Internet presence. There are more who enjoy sports because it is an interesting analytical puzzle, not just—or not even—because it is a statement of tribal affiliation.
The creation of fantasy sports likewise represents a shirt towards sports without tribes. Fantasy football is just several decades old, but already is a $70 billion a year market. Sports fans invest their time and often their money in their fantasy teams. To perform well, they will have to select for their fantasy teams players from a number of different franchises, not just their own. Loyalties to a preferred team become weakened, or even subsumed, below loyalty to your personalized fantasy sports team.
The greater availability of sports on television has also made it possible to appreciate a wide range of teams. Rather than just local networks broadcasting local teams, one can watch many different teams on their television. The appreciation that develops for all of these teams pushes fans away from always watching—and only appreciating—one sports team.
This trend towards sports without tribes is in many ways a return to the roots of sports. One of the great words that sports introduced to the English language is the word fan. Now we think of a fan in a narrowing sense—one is a New York Yankees fan or a Boston Red Sox fan. The word fan, though, derives from the word fancy, a term that was used in England several hundred years ago to refer to the fans of an entire hobby or sport.
America is a country that loves many different college and professional sports. Changes in the past few decades now mean that America is a country that has many different types of sports fans too. This is a positive change for how we experience sports.