Sport Socialization: Sounds Good Explores the Origins of Sport Fandom

Nov 14, 2019

Sounds Good has explored what it means to be a sports fan, basking in reflective glory (BIRGing), and cutting off reflective failures (CORFing) - this week, Tracy Ross and Murray State professor of psychology, Dan Wann, Ph.D., go to the origin of sport fandom: how one becomes socialized into being a fan.

As might be expected, lots of sports fans begin their fandom journey at a young age. "One of my colleagues, Jeff James, has found in his research that most individuals will identify themselves as a sports fan or not by about the age of five. We're talking really young, even before some individuals get to walking into kindergarten. They've already sort of learned that this thing of sport is out there and whether or not they are going to be interested in following it as a fan," Wann explains.

"People used to ask me about my children and say, 'boy, your kids sure seem to be interested in sport,'" Wann continues. "I'm like, 'well, sure, because my house is wall-to-wall bat and ball.' It'd be hard not to become interested in sport in the Wann household because it's just what we did. So much was on the television and in the discussion and vacation that we would take and the way we spend our money. So for my kids - and many millions of kids like that - when the parents are fans, they see that this is what you sort of do. It helps teach the kids what sport is all about. Really, that's the whole point of socialization. Somebody has to teach these individuals what it means to be a sports fan, how do you follow sport, what are the benefits from that, what are the dangers in terms of linking yourself psychologically with something that might not work out very well."

"Certainly, when they look at the research and you compile all the studies that have been done, the parents stick out first and foremost," Wann says. "In particular, fathers. One of the most well-replicated findings is that dads are the single primary influencer for socialization in sport. It starts with dads. Certainly moms have a huge influence...for young ladies. But even daughters are more likely to be influenced by their fathers. Why? Well, there's a lot of reasons. One is certainly that dads are more likely to actually play sports. Dads are more likely to be in a bowling league or a church softball league...so they see Dad doing this more than they see Mom. But parents aren't the only influence. Siblings are also a powerful influence, peers are a powerful influence." Communities and schools can also serve as socialization agents for young fans. 

The presence of external factors like sport-loving parents, friends, or community does not, however, absolutely guarantee the creation of a new sport fans. "I have a friend who is a big sports fan, particularly Major League Baseball. His son, for whatever reason, was never interested in sport. I can remember him saying, 'ah, he just doesn't care. I'm such a failure as a father.' But it doesn't work out that way. Just because mom or dad has a passion for something, doesn't guarantee the child is going to follow along in that. It increases the likelihood, but at the end of the day, there's still free will. Particularly by the time kids get to be 12 or 13, the power of parents as a socialization agent declines and the power of peers increase. I've always said for parents, by the time your kids are about 14, or 15, you're no longer a parent, you're just a consultant," Wann laughs. "You're just kind of suggesting things along the way because they're probably going to listen to their peers more. Fandom is the same way." 

Socialization into sport doesn't have to occur at a young age to stick, despite most sport psychology research's focus on child socialization. "I would actually argue that we pretty much know what's happening with respect to the socialization of kids," Wann says. Now, research is starting to focus solely on non-child sport socialization. 

"I'll give you a really good example. I had no interest whatsoever in hockey...I grew up in Kansas City. It just wasn't a thing in Kansas City," Wann explains. "When I started dating [my wife], she said, 'who's your favorite hockey team?' And I said, "I don't have one.' She was absolutely shocked. She asked me, 'how is it that you could possibly do what you do for a living and be the sports fan that you are and not care at all about hockey?' I said, 'well, I just wasn't socialized.' My parents didn't care, my friends didn't care, there was no hockey team at my schools, there was no community hockey, there was no reason for me to care. So she said, 'well, you know, I now have a bucket list item. I have to take you to a Predators game.' So we went and by about the first break, I was absolutely hooked...I already have the make-up as a sports fan and now, I'm getting exposed to this something. Fast forward three years later, we have partial season ticket packages to the Predators. So I was socialized actually into being a hockey fan in my '50s. That's pretty late."

"Another way it works out is what they're calling reverse socialization," Wann continues, "where the child is actually socializing the parent. For example, you've got a parent...mom and dad never cared about soccer, they grew up in a time in the country when soccer just wasn't a big deal. Now all of a sudden, the child is interested in soccer, so she goes and plays on the youth soccer teams, and she's really into it, and she's coming home and talking to mom and dad about soccer. They're thinking, 'well that sounds like it might be kind of fun to follow.' In that case, the child is actually encouraging the parents' interest in that sport."

Continuing on the topic of soccer, Wann then explains how soccer fans in South America and Europe are particularly passionate fans due to the nation-wide socialization that often occurs in those countries. "[Being a soccer fan] literally does become part of their national identity. So much so that they have research that indicates that when a European soccer team does poorly in a national competition, it has a direct negative impact on that country's stock market because the people in that country are so disappointed. Sad people don't buy things, and they have a negative outlook on the future, and it negatively impacts the stock market."

"There's definitely socialization for soccer in the U.S., particularly in the past 20, 25 years...but it's just minuscule compared to what you would have for Brazil [and] some European countries. You can argue what is or is not the national sport in the U.S. Historically, it was baseball. Is it football now? And if it's football, is it the NFL or college football? You know, you can make that argument and have some logical contributions and debate on both sides of the issue. There is no debate in almost every other country out there. It's soccer and, you know, whatever else might happen when soccer's not being played. The socialization for those people in those countries for soccer is extremely powerful because you're not just being socialized by your parents and your community and your peers, your country is socializing you. This is literally who we are. We are a soccer country," Wann concludes.