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Sounds Good Examines the Effect of COVID-19 on Sport Fandom

Huy Phan
Murray State professor of psychology Dan Wann explains that while sport fandoms can expect some fans not to return post-pandemic, most will.

Sounds Good's sport psychology series reconvenes after a year of COVID-19-related shutdowns disaffected sports from local T-ball to professional leagues. Sport psychologist Dan Wann speaks to Tracy Ross about the pandemic's effect on sport fandom and the fans within them.

Prior to the pandemic, the idea of living without a season of one's favorite sport seemed like a fan's worst nightmare, though they would never let on to it. "When you talk to epople about what sport means to them and how they derive meaning from sport, they reject it so much," Wann begins. "It's one of the singular themes throughout that literature. When you [ask] people, 'tell me what being a fan of such-and-such a team means to you, tell me about its purpose in your life,' [they'll reply], 'it's not that big a deal, I'm just a sports fan."

'It's almost like they want to reject how much it matters," Wann continues. "It's almost like they're embarrassed to admit they're deriving meaning and purpose in life [from] being a sports fan. It's meeting these psychological needs. They just don't want to think about it that way. Then when you start to press them and show them ways that it could, this lightbulb goes off. Oh, yeah, it's a bigger deal than I think."

Wann says that while sports do play significant roles in fans' lives, participating or watching sport is just one way to meet the psychological need to belong and self-identify. "If you're in Murray, Kentucky, and you're a Racer basketball fan, that fulfills your psychological need to belong. There are individuals in this society who met their need to belong through their church. Then for several months, churches weren't having service. That wasn't the only way to meet the need to belong."

"When individuals say 'I wasn't aware that I could get by without sport,' that's basically them saying, 'I thought it might be a bigger deal than it was.' we aren't very good at guessing the power of our emotions in the future," Wann explains. "We're actually really good at guessing what the emotion will be. We kind of stink at guessing how powerful that emotion will be. We always overestimate."

As amateur and professional sport seasons were cancelled across the country last year, sports fans were forced to find new ways to pass the time. These new forms of recreation or entertainment, Wann explains, don't necessarily mean that sport fans won't come back once sports make a full post-pandemic comeback.

"Once it comes back, most of them will jump on the bandwagon. Not all of them. Some of them have probably found a pastime that they enjoy more. Since it's only X amount of hours a day you can spend on pop culture and pastimes, there are some people who probably won't come back as strongly as before."

"But you know," Wann continues, "if we have three million sports fans in this country, I think the league is going to be okay. If one or two or three percent doesn't come back, there are still plenty of people for that."

"All throughout the spring and summer [of 2020], the media would contact me and ask me a pretty similar question: how are sports fans going to respond without sport? We now know. But back in March and April, the question was, how will they? How will the sports fans respond to a pandemic that shuts down sport?"

"I giggled every time I was asked that question because my response was, 'how do you expect me to know that?' If you want me to base my responses on the literature and science, well, we don't really know. It hasn't happened for 100 years, and back then, no one was looking at sports fans. Hindsight allows us to know how fans coped with the loss due to COVID. Maybe they're not all going to come back, but the vast majority of them will," Wann concludes. 

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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