How do People Choose Teams to Root For?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do people choose a team to root for?

Thanks,
Meng


 

Dear Meng,

That’s a great question! It must seem somewhat unclear, especially in a big city like New York where there are many people from all over the country and world and where there are multiple local teams in most sports. I’ll do my best to break this down for you:

Primary Reasons:

  • Heredity — If you are a child of sports fans, they start indoctrinating you at an early age. There’s baby clothing, hats, and pennants. They take you to games, which is fun for any number of reasons that don’t involve sports but which gets associated in your mind with the home team. You learn to not bother Daddy and Mommy while they are watching their favorite team and that if you are in the room, you have to root with them!
  • Location — Most places in the country have a clear regional alliance with a set of sports teams. If you grow up in Western Pennsylvania you root for the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates. If you grow up in Utah, you’re going to root for the Jazz. If you grow up in New Orleans, you are a Saints and Hornets fan. Why? Because they are the only games in town!

Heredity and Location probably account for 80% of all the sports allegiances. But, there are always oddballs like me whose parents didn’t have any strong allegiances (except to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that’s another story…) and who grew up in an area like Central New Jersey where there were no clear home teams in some sports. When that happens, people tend to fall back on…

Secondary Reasons:

  • Style — It is rare, but sometimes a team will play with such panache that their actual play attracts fans. Even more rare is a team that plays so poorly that they repel fans. This was the case with my favorite hockey team. I started watching Hockey seriously in 1993-94 and even though I was from New Jersey, I quickly decided that I could not in good conscience root for the New Jersey Devils. Their strategy in those days was to compensate for their lack of skill by playing a rigidly disciplined, passive, and defensive style of hockey that involved negating their opponents skill by hanging onto their shirts the whole game… meanwhile, over in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were playing a wide open, offensive game. They tried to beat you 9-8 instead of 1-0. They were fun to watch and I soon became a fan. Other examples of teams whose style could have attracted fans are the Philadelphia Flyers on the 1970s (they beat their opponents bloody,) the Dutch national soccer team of the late 60s and early 70s who pioneered the “Total Football” style, or the Brazilian national soccer team of the… well… just about anytime…
  • Bandwagon — Sometimes it’s not about how a team plays, but how well they do. Most people enjoy rooting for a winning team, so winning teams tend to have more fans. There was a pretty cool article about this the other day on The Big Lead that showed that Super Bowl winning football teams see a 4% increase in fans identifying them as their favorite team in the year after they win. If you know someone who is a Lakers, Yankees, and Cowboys fan, this is probably why.[1]
  • College — This one is pretty straight forward. When it comes to College sports most people root for their Alma Mater. Go Rutgers!
  • Friendship — When you watch sports with a good friend, as long as it doesn’t go against your own favorite teams, you begin to pull for the teams they root for. Over time, these topical rooting experiences add up. If you don’t have a favorite curling, swimming, or netball team, maybe you adopt theirs.
  • Video Games — Believe it or not, I think a lot of people root for teams at least in part because they enjoyed playing as them in a video game. Sports video games are a great way to get into a sport that you’re not familiar with and while playing them you do develop a relationship with the team you most often play as.

Hope this answered your question,
Ezra Fischer

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Also stop being friends with them.

Can you Explain the Head Injury Issue?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can some one other than Malcolm Gladwell explain the whole head injury issue? How is Toyota going to fix it and why is no sport but football getting flack?

Thanks,
Sarah


 

Dear Sarah,

The bottom line is, science is getting better – so while we probably always knew that people smashing into other people (or objects) wasn’t good for them, we can now point to a specific brain injury that results, and it ain’t pretty: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which basically means that, if you studied some athlete’s brains at 50, you’d think they were 85 year olds suffering from dementia.

Why? There’s a lot of talk about concussions, and that’s the simplest, most straightforward explanation. If you’ve ever had a concussion, you know it’s a miserable experience – you also know that after you get the first one, you’re more likely to get a second one, then a third. If you’re a football player, that’s basically an occupational hazard. What we’re learning, though, is that each subsequent concussion has more serious long term impacts – and can lead to early onset of dementia or other emotional/depression issues. It’s slightly easier to deal with the kinds of massive hits that most frequently cause concussions because, at least in football, these are mostly blindside hits on players who don’t know they’re about to get clobbered and can’t defend themselves. These hits can be phased out of the game by changing the rules. They’re trying to do that now.

What also contributes to this is the so-called “sub-concussive” hits – the thousands of times a player will clash with someone and jostle the brain around in the skull just a little bit. This is one of the things that makes football the center of the brain injury story. In football, offensive and defensive linemen clash every single play with the force of a small automobile accident. Turns out these add up too, especially when you consider these guys have been playing football since they were kids. All of those little hits keep accumulating, and the concern now is that this is an issue that’s even bigger than pro football – that college and maybe even high school players may do some long-term brain damage. That issue is much more difficult to address, because you can’t get rid of that type of contact – it happens every play, all over the field.

Which brings us to Toyota. There is no silver bullet to this problem. The solution will involve a combination of rule changes and improved technology – and acknowledgement that the problem will never be truly solved. People will suffer some amount of brain damage, both because we want to see football and there are people who are willing to take the risk to play it. But the technology involves some really cool research that allows scientists to tell exactly how much force is being delivered with each hit, how the impact is distributed across the body – and, theoretically, how to design equipment to ensure the brain is the recipient of less of that impact. Toyota’s part of that effort because 1. They’ve got an image problem,[1] 2. They’ve got lots of engineers and 3. They’re smart enough to know that nothing makes a foreign company feel less foreign than making America’s favorite game safer and

That last point explains why football is taking the brunt of this. It’s the biggest sport, and sports business, in America today. So while other sports have similar issues – hockey, boxing, Mixed Martial Arts – the research hasn’t been as widespread because those sports aren’t as popular and there aren’t as many kids playing them. It’s only a matter of time though. The science is only going to get better, and I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks that what we learn is going to make us feel better.

The only question is, is there a point at which Americans – the fans and the players – will say the risk is no longer worth taking?

Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Runaway Priuses and Camries + Ford resurgence = need for image makeover.

Now that I'm a Dad Should I Try to Like Sports for my Son?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve never been a big sports fan, but this is my first Father’s Day and I’ve been feeling like I will be depriving my son if I don’t raise him with sports in his life. What can I do to introduce a little sports to his life?

Thanks,
Kurt


 

Dear Kurt,

Happy Father’s Day and congratulations on being a new father!!

I don’t think you should feel like you have to feign sports fandom for your son. He’s going to have lots of influences during his life and it’s far more important that they be honest than contain sports. That said, there are a few things that you might want to think about doing.

You might want to encourage your child to play sports. Oddly you don’t really have to be a sports fan to enjoy playing sports. So buy some balls and frisbees and sticks and even if your kid is too small to really use them, you can kind of swing him at them. If he seems to take to any of it, encourage him! Participating in team sports from a young age is a wonderful way to build confidence, make friends, and get stronger. It’s also a big lesson on how to deal with success and failure. Your son will definitely learn how to win and how to lose from his parents even if the winning and losing for them is not sports related. Be a good winner and a better loser.

The other piece of sports that a child often picks up from his or her parents is who to root for. If you don’t have any sports allegiances, hopefully you live in a one team region. My parents weren’t fans of any sports teams (except the ones my brother and I were on) when I was growing up and partially as a result[1] of that, I root for a hockey team a thousand miles from where I live, a basketball team from my home state, and don’t have a favorite baseball or football team. If there is a local team in your area, why don’t you buy your kid a hat. If he ends up liking sports than he will have the credibility of a true fan — baby pictures in his team’s uniform!

Hope you have a great day,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. But mostly because I grew up in Central New Jersey where the allegiances are as twisted as a clover-leaf highway entrance.

What is Being Offside?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is being offside and why does it cause so much screaming in the bar next-door?

Thanks,
Max


 

Dear Max

Offside rules are about time and space. They are about a line, an event and an order. Although they are probably the most misunderstood, most shouted about, most infuriating rules in sports, they are deceptively simple. Offside rules exist in most of the most-watched sports in the world. Offside is the rule in soccer; it has caused more bloodshed than many major border conflicts or minor religions. It is an important part of hockey, can mean the difference between winning and losing in football, and although it is disguised in basketball, it still has major implications. If you understand the role being offside plays in all of these sports, you will understand a lot about the nature of each game.

In every sport, being offside means that a player is in a position he or she shouldn’t be in when a particular event happens. I’ll repeat it: being offside means that a player is in a position he or she shouldn’t be in when a particular event happens. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You’ve got it! Now all we need to do is fill in the where and the when.

Hockey
Where: If the player is in the offensive zone; the area between the blue line closest to the goal his team is trying to score on and the boards…
When: The puck is moved from outside this area into this area…
HE IS OFFSIDE!

Soccer
Where: If the player is closer to the goal she is trying to score on than fewer than two players of the opposing team…
When: The ball leaves the foot of a player on her team who intends to pass her the ball…
SHE IS OFFSIDE!

Football
Where: If a player on defense[1] moves across the line of scrimmage (an imaginary line across the field of play where the ball is placed before a play starts…)
When: Before the ball is snapped to start the play…
HE IS OFFSIDE (If the player touches another player on the other team, this is called “encroachment” which is much more fun to say than offside.)

Basketball
Where: If a player is on the side of the court that she is trying to defend…
When: When she has the ball for more than eight seconds after her team initially gains possession of it…
SHE IS OFFSIDE (This is called the “eight-second rule.”)

Where: If a player dribbles the ball on the side of the court that he is trying to defend…
When: After his team has had the ball on the side of the court that they are trying to score on…
HE IS OFFSIDE (This is called a “back-court violation.”)

Notice how the way the offside rule is written seems to suggest something about the game? The soccer rule favors the defense in a big way — if a player can’t pass to one of his teammates unless he has at least two defenders between his teammate and the goal, why are we surprised that there isn’t more scoring? The hockey rule also favors the defense, just a little less. Note how the rule makes it so that if a defender can clear the puck from his third of the ice into the middle third, the other team’s offense needs to totally reset by leaving the offensive zone. Basketball, on the other hand, seems to require offense. If a player cannot stay on her side for more than eight seconds, she’s going to be forced to get her team in a position to score, isn’t she?

See how simple the offside rules can be? What other questions do you have?

Thanks,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Before a play starts, only one offensive player is allowed to move at once. If any of the big guys in a row even flinch, they are called for a “false start” which is more or less an offside rule.

Why are sports fans obsessed with injuries?

Dear Sports Fan,

The sports fan in my life disregards my injuries and illnesses as mere complaints until I am either completely incapacitated or bleeding prodigiously. Yet the mere mention of a potential injury to any appendage of one of his teams’ players sends him into Colonel Kurtz mode – The horror, the horror – before he spends an hour on WebMd trying to identify a miracle cure. Any chance any of that sympathy can be directed my way?

Hurt in Houston

— — —

Dear Hurt in Houston,

Let me put it bluntly: no. When you get sick or injured, (knock wood) you get better and your life goes on. Your fan’s favorite athlete, or a key player on his team? Well…

Injuries are one of the most frustrating things in sports. Think about sitting at your computer doing work – not one of those mind-numbing, I’m half-working and half-googling to see if I can buy the dress Kate Middleton wore to her engagement announcement, but really jamming on a project, getting excited about it, rocking back and forth in your chair and laughing to yourself from time to time cause your brilliance surprises even you. Now, imagine the power goes out.  Your first thought is pure horror: all is lost.

There’s uncertainty – when’s the last time I saved? Does it even matter? Will it even remember that? There’s the period of irrational hope as you reboot when the power comes back on – I’m sure Bill Gates saw this power outage coming, there’s NO WAY Word wouldn’t save automatically. Then you login and pull up Word and, really, all you can do is hope.

That’s the best comparison I can come up with to an injury: no matter how well everything is going for your fan’s team, they are always one injury away from catastrophe, and there is NOTHING anyone can do about it. Absolutely nothing. That injury can happen in any number of ways – horrifically (Joe Theisman, a Redskins quarterback having his leg broken in two), hysterically (Bill Gramatica, an NFL placekicker, tearing an ACL celebrating a field goal) , frequently (Vince Carter[1]) and downright bizarrely (Shaq, the 7 foot, 300 pound beastly freak of an athlete who, for a chunk of his career, was felled by an injury to his big toe) –  but there’s no recourse for the team or your fan. All you can do is watch the athlete get carried off the field and try to convince yourself that it’s not nearly as bad as it looks and that yes, elbow joints are definitely meant to rotate 360 degrees.

One other note: an injury to your fan’s favorite athlete is a particularly crushing blow. One thing all sports fans are acutely aware of is that we have a limited amount of time with our athletes, and even less time to watch them while they’re in their prime (whereas, theoretically, they have their entire life to spend with you. But I digress). Age will slow them down even if injuries don’t. So when we see an injury to our favorite player we think two things. 1. I just lost some of my quality time with this guy; and, 2. Thanks to this injury, this guy may never be as incredible an athlete again. Think about that: in what other job can a single, freak occurrence ensure that someone will never perform at a high level again?

Hope this helps,
Dean Russell Bell

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Note on Vince Carter: Vince Carter was an enormously talented basketball player who never fulfilled his potential because of his complete lack of heart and desire. He’s like the guy in your office who takes so many sick days for so many absurd reasons that you can start to predict when it’ll happen – you even have an office pool to bet on which ailment he’ll claim on a given day. It’s 80 and sunny – I’ve got $20 says Bob’s calling out with a stomach flu! That was Vince Carter – the man made tens of millions of dollars, but the mere suggestion of physical contact was enough to send him sprawling with a look on his face making clear that what just happened was some kind of historical injustice.

My friend's favorite team is out, why is he still watching so much sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

My friend’s favorite team was eliminated from the playoffs a few weeks ago but he seems to be watching as much sports as he was when they were still in it. What’s up with that?

Thought it was over for the year!

Jane

 


Dear Jane,

There’s a few reasons why your friend might still be watching as much of the playoffs now as he was before his favorite team was eliminated. Some people are fans of a team and some people are sports fans; some people are both. Your friend sounds like he is both. So, while he’s likely to be upset by no longer having his team to root for, rooting for “your team” is just one way of rooting.

Once your favorite team is gone you are free to root for other things. People root for close games, for exciting players, for games to get to overtime, for a seven game playoff series to make it to the most exciting seventh game. Everyone who watches sports wants to be able to say they were watching when something great happened.

Fans also tend to create miniature morality plays out of games and playoff series’. For example — the Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat series has been cast as a battle between a group of selfish mercenary stars (the Heat) and a young team built around an unselfish star (Derrick Rose) who are respectful of basketball history and play ‘the right way.’ In the last round of the NHL playoffs, the San Jose Sharks barely beat the Detroit Red Wings in what was an incredibly compelling series in part because it took on the plot of a great Western film; the old, veteran gunslingers (the Red Wings) are outgunned by the younger challenger (the Sharks) but through sheer force of will, guts, and the treachery of old-age try to stave off the inevitable advance of time.

It’s not always clear how much truth there is in these little plots but you can find out a lot about the character of a sports fan by noticing what side he or she takes when watching a game that doesn’t involve a favorite team.

Hope this helps answer your question.

Sincerely,
Ezra Fischer