The Science Of Why People Don’t Understand Fans Of Multiple Sports Team

If you read my essays regularly then you know that I am weather geek, a scholar, and big sports fan. This essay is a collision of those worlds and is motivated by my own personal experiences. However, I always try to find science literacy in these moments. For context, the University of Georgia plays Texas Christian University for the College Football National Championship this upcoming week. I am a Professor at the University of Georgia but a three-time alumnus of Florida State University. I strongly support the Georgia Bulldogs and my alma mater. Over the years, it is stunning how many people seem to struggle with that concept so I decided to dig into this.

What I have found in my research and personal experiences is that perspective is a powerful factor shaping that response. My colleague Steffan Surdek wrote in Forbes, “Perspective is the way individuals see the world. It comes from their personal point of view and is shaped by life experiences, values, their current state of mind, the assumptions they bring into a situation, and a whole lot of other things.” I often refer to this as our “personal marinades.” Like vegetables or meat, we soak for years in cultural, religious, political, and geographic marinades that shape who we are and how we see things.

I attained my undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Florida State University and value my experiences at that institution. It launched what has been a fulfilling and rewarding career in atmospheric sciences. I spent 8 years of my life at that school, met my wife, and developed lifelong friendships. After a 12-year stint as a scientist at NASA, I joined the faculty at the University of Georgia in 2006 and now serve as the Director of its atmospheric sciences program. I also hold an endowed distinguished professorship there. When our semester begins next week, I will start my 17th year at the University of Georgia. As you can see, I have a “marinade” at two universities and cheer for both of them in sports.

However, it is not unusual for me to get light-hearted (for the most part) Tweets or comments like the one above questioning whether I am a Florida State or Georgia fan. My response to Bill was that I am a fan of both. This is where perspective comes in. For many fans, their experience or anchoring point is to one team. They likely grew up a fan of a team, moved to region, or attended one university. For me, that is not the case. I have strong and deep ties to more than one university. Likewise, many of you may have similar experiences with colleges or residing in multiple professional sports cities.

Believe it or not, there is actually scholarly literature on the topic of sports fandom. A 2016 press release from the University of Oxford said, “Anthropologists have discovered that intense experiences of crucial wins and losses shared with fellow fans bind them more tightly to one another and their club.” From my perspective, this resonates with me for two college teams. For you, it may only be one team. An article in Psychology Today links strong fan loyalty to self-esteem, a need to belong, and a sense of embracing larger ideologies.

While a rather trivial topic at the end of the day, my thoughts here on sports fandom have more important implications. As a scientist, I often see how marinades and biases shape public viewpoints on things like climate change, vaccines, or even weather forecasts. For example, consensus scientific evidence clearly points to changes in our climate, yet people still anchor their “opinion” on it because of political, religious, or other perspectives. More relevant to the discussion at hand, it works for me to pull for Florida State University and the University of Georgia. That may not work for you. It should not cause you to want to impose your perspective on me or minimize my fan loyalty. Hmmm, now that I wrote those words. They are certainly wise counsel in other parts of life too.

Go Dawgs! Go Noles!