Sports do more good for society than we realize, but none of it would be possible without the fans.
I enjoy sports, but I’m not a die-hard fan. I am, however, a passionate fan of sports fans.
As we roll into the busiest part of the sports calendar—a few months that typically include March Madness, baseball’s opening day, the Masters, the Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby, the NBA, and NHL playoffs, and, this year (knock on wood), the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games—it’s worth considering the role sports play in so many of our lives.
That role has never felt so crucial as during the past year. The shutdown of live sports last March—at the same time that many of us found ourselves stuck at home, simultaneously bored and scared — showed how integral they are to our day-to-day existence.
There may be more content to stream than ever, but sports are different.
The uncertainty of their outcomes demands they be watched in real-time. Last spring fans found themselves starved. When the games returned, the ratings went through the roof. Major League Baseball’s opening day game on ESPN was MLB’s most-watched regular-season game in nine years, drawing 4.4 million viewers.
Another winner was European soccer. Ratings for the first game aired in the U.S. were 564 percent higher than for the last before the shutdown. Plus the WNBA saw its average viewership for the entire season increase by 68 percent.
In fact, spectator sports have a long track record of helping heal individuals and communities following traumatic events.
After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged baseball’s major leagues to carry on playing.
The New Orleans Saints helped uplift their city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, culminating in their 2010 Super Bowl victory.
The Boston Red Sox took center stage in the #BostonStrong campaign in response to the marathon bombing in 2013.
More recently, I traveled to Las Vegas to interview survivors of the worst mass shooting in American history, the 2017 One October tragedy. When someone who has been shot at and is afraid to leave home tells you they got through it because of the city’s new NHL team, the Golden Knights, it makes an impact.
When someone who was shot in the chest and nearly killed explains why they went to a hockey game the day after being released from the ICU, it makes an impact.
Of course, at the present moment, most of us can’t actually go to the games.
The question of whether fans will be able to attend the Tokyo Olympics—or whether the Games will even take place remains open. But even when we can’t pass through the turnstiles at Chicago’s Wrigley Field or Barcelona’s Camp Nou, spectator sports make a number of often unacknowledged positive impacts on the lives of those who follow them.
Murray State University psychology professor Dr. Daniel Wann, considered the nation’s leading researcher of sports fan behavior, has spent three decades studying the specific mental health benefits of fandom. Everything from having higher self-esteem to feeling less tension.
According to Wann, fans are significantly happier, achieve higher GPAs in college, and enjoy better jobs and more stable personal relationships than non-fans.
Beyond these benefits, sports can make a positive political impact. Witness the awareness raised by NBA and WNBA players about the Black Lives Matter movement.
After a uniquely challenging year, and with the future looking brighter yet still uncertain, we as individuals and as a society can use all the help we can get. As you tune into tonight’s game, take a moment to appreciate not only what sports give to fans but also what fans give to sports.
While the focus is often aimed at what happens on the field, without the people watching in the stands and at home, none of the aforementioned societal impacts would be possible.
Give yourselves a hand, sports fans.
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