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As Bucs go, so go Bucs fans

When they're up, so are we, and when they lose, woe is us, and thereby hangs a bit of weird science.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2000

The Tampa Bay area has long rooted for one of the losingest professional sports franchises of all time. Over the past two seasons, though, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been a much improved product; there was even talk earlier this year of a hometown Super Bowl appearance. That was before the Bucs lost to the last-place Chicago Bears on Sunday and Tampa Bay fans went into a collective swoon.

The St. Petersburg Times asked Charles Hillman, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois and an expert on sports fan psychology, to explain why our corrugator muscles are hurting.

Times: Is it really possible for a whole city to experience a mood swing based on the performance of a professional sports team?

Hillman: Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of research out there on this topic. What we know of fan identification is that people live vicariously through their teams. When their team is doing poorly, in most instances you see fans' identification reflecting that.

Times: Why do people identify? Why is there that need to hold on to a sports team as opposed to a religion or politics?

Hillman: I think you do see it with religion quite a bit, but with sports more than anything. People want to associate with things that are positive or successful. There's a term used in this area called "basking in reflected glory." Basically what that means is that when a team is successful people want to affiliate with that success. When a team is not successful, they want to cut off the reflected failure.

Times: What are examples of that?

Hillman: The most common is the choice of pronouns. When the team wins you're more likely to say, "We won." But when the team loses you're more likely to say, "They lost." That's kind of distancing yourself from the losing team.

Times: That seems awfully fickle.

Hillman: That's definitely true. The average fan, especially in a team that has traditionally not been a powerhouse, most of the fans are pretty fickle, fair-weather fans. Teams that have strong histories, the fans are not as fickle. The fans tend to be more diehard even in a losing season because they have bigger expectations. The Chicago Cubs or the Green Bay Packers fans, they're there win or lose.

Times: The Packers win and the Cubs don't. Why does somebody stick with a team that isn't giving them that glory to bask in?

Hillman: For one thing, the Packers have only been winning recently. When was their last Super Bowl? Wasn't it Super Bowls I and II? But in all that time, Green Bay fans are infamous for showing up without a shirt in the dead of Wisconsin winter. There's a stronger sense of identity regardless of winning or losing because at one time that team was good and that history carries that identity. That kind of fan base hasn't had time to develop for Tampa Bay.

Times: The reason then that a fan would gravitate to a sports team, even one that's losing, as opposed to a religion or a political candidate, is that there's always the possibility of success and an immediate, intense pleasure from that success?

Hillman: Remember it wasn't too long ago that you could be hanged for being the wrong religion or following the wrong candidate. It's a very personal thing. People don't discuss who they vote for. Fanship is the exact opposite. If you compare going to the movies with going to sporting events, when you go to the movies your one job as a spectator is to be quiet. At a sporting event, more so now than ever, it's to be loud, to cause a scene, to do whatever you can to help your team win. The 12th man in football is a serious factor.

Times: I want to say that as a fan you really don't control the outcome of the game and yet you're investing a lot of emotional capital in this event. But you're saying fans can influence the outcome of a game.

Hillman: There was an incident two or three years ago in New Jersey when the Nets were fined by the NBA for piping in crowd noise during a game. One of the opposing players looked around and said, "There's no way these 12,000 fans are making this much noise." There's research on this that shows that as the decibel level increases, the home team performs better until a certain level, and if it increases beyond that, both teams' performance declines.

Times: Is it true that a male fan's testosterone level spikes after a win, while after a loss it declines an equivalent amount?

Hillman: I have read about that. But I study the psycho-physiology of fanship, things like heart rate and brain activity.

Times: What have you found?

Hillman: I ran a couple of studies that looked at (University of Florida) Gator fans, looking at pictures of the Gators versus looking at pictures of other sporting events. What we found was increases in arousal as measured through the brain and heart and different muscle activity in response to the Gator (pictures), but not in response to the other sports pictures. The amount of increase in arousal was specific to their level of fanship. Diehard fans obviously showed the greatest increase.

Times: Levels of arousal equivalent to what?

Hillman: Arousal is defined as the amount of energy expended in an emotional response. We found increase in sweating activity in the palms of their hands. In self-report they rated the pictures more pleasant and more arousing. Also, the eyes showed an increase in muscle activity related just to pictures of when their team was winning.

Times: Is this like a sexual experience?

Hillman: People rated the pictures as slightly more pleasurable than sex, but not significantly so. Equally pleasurable would be a better way of saying that.

Times: When you showed a Gator fan a picture of Jevon Kearse planting a quarterback, and I'm just imagining the kind of photograph you used, what kind of response did you get?

Hillman: This was done back in 1996, which was more of (Danny) Wuerffel's era. We showed very obvious pictures of success or failure. I had a great picture of either Reidel Anthony or Ike Hilliard catching a touchdown where you see the Seminole falling down in the end zone behind him and the referee's arms up in the air. This is where arousal increased.

Times: You'd get an increase in heart rate?

Hillman: Actually, it's a decrease in heart rate. You're slowing down your heart in order to take in an externally arousing stimulus. There's an increase in sweatiness of the palm, which was greater for pleasant pictures than unpleasant pictures.

Times: You mentioned there was also an increase of eye activity. What is that?

Hillman: There's a muscular orbit around your eye which is involved with basic things such as blinking your eye. Just (in) the raw activity of that muscle we saw big increases when we showed them winning pictures. There was basically no activity when we showed neutral or losing pictures. In the future we can measure the zagomatic muscle. When you smile you feel the (zagomatic) muscles tighten. You can measure that. The facial muscles are very telling.

Times: Physiologically, what would a Buccaneers fan have been experiencing when Shaun King threw an interception with 2 minutes to go and the team down to the Bears by 3 points in the fourth quarter?

Hillman: There will be an increase in arousal because it is a significant event. Arousal increases whether it is positive or negative. I would expect to see more frowning activation, measured through the corrugator muscle.

I watched that game. It was a tough loss. It was even worse because they have an expectation to beat up on a perennial loser like the Bears. When was their last good season? '86, I think. When performance doesn't meet expectations, losing can have a more unpleasant effect.

Times: Is it possible for someone to over-identify with a sports team? Are there people whose psychological state swings so radically they become inconsolable after a loss?

Hillman: I don't know of any evidence of it being pathological, but certainly there are people who when their team loses, it ruins their day, if not their week. It has an effect on their mood. Rooting for your team can be stressful, win or lose. I'm not saying it's unhealthful, but it's stressful. And rightfully so. It's an investment in your identity when you become a diehard fan and when your team loses, you feel like you lost. If you didn't experience that, I would basically question your fanship.

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