Sports Fandom as Identity

The multifaceted concept of sports fanaticism has been researched and picked apart by people of all fields. Journalists, economists, and social psychologists, just to name a few, have all tried to get a better grasp on who the sports fanatic is, why they act the way they do, and the effects of these actions. Bits and pieces of social psychological theories emerge when we look at Milwaukee, a city who was searching for an identity and found it in the form of a major league baseball team; first the Braves, and then the Brewers. Sports fanaticism is a way that the identities of individuals and communities are created.

1982alcs_11982 Brewers fans storm the field

Although the words fan and fanatic have different dictionary definitions, many of their behaviors can be described using the same concept (1), so for the purposes of this explanation of sports fanaticism, the terms will be used interchangeably. By exploring the psychological concepts of the in-group and out-group bias, de-individuation, self-esteem and belonging, the social identity theory, and the idea of identity in general, sports fanaticism can be better explained.

The Social Identity Theory, which was developed by Tajfel and Turner in 1979, encompasses many of the ideas that apply to sports fanaticism. The theory is split up into four areas, which include: categorization, identification, comparison, and psychological distinctiveness (2). A persons social identity comes from one’s memberships in certain social groups. Based on these memberships,, “people gain a sense of who they are and derive much of their esteem from their memberships in these social groups (3).”  The main idea of the theory, when applied to sports fan, is boosting self-esteem, and making oneself more attractive to the outer world. To accomplish this, the theory states that one will associate and affiliate him/herself with the team. “When a team wins, the fans tend to believe it’s their success too, and bask in reflected glory (4).” 

Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRG) and Cutting Off Reflected Failure (CORF), are two phenomena used to explain sports fan behavior. BIRGing, which is rooted in the social identity theory, basically states that someone’s self-esteem can be increased when they feel identified with someone who has experienced success (a winning sports team). But the main point that has to be made with BIRG is that the person whose self-esteem is being heightened, has actually done nothing to receive this glory; hence the term reflected glory (5). The concept of CORFing states that when a team experiences failure, those individuals with weak ties to the team will distance themselves as much as possible from the losing team. This is seen when fans will describe a win and say “we won” but when the team loses, the fans will say “they lost” (5).

Marlins Brewers Baseball

Social psychologist Gordon Allport’s theory of the in-group and out-group bias can be easily applied to a sports fan and their actions. The theory, most simply explained states that “it is necessary to categorize people into groups for adaptive functioning. Categorization reduces the complexity of the social world (6)” When people create groups, they put themselves in the in-group and everyone else into the out-group. This will lead to the members of the in-group favoring their group over any other groups that exist, and believing that their group better than any other group. Groups will identify themselves to set their group apart from others, for example “Brewers fans” and “Cubs fans”. Groups will use language to identify themselves such as “we” or “us”, or “them” to describe the out-groups. By doing this the fans are not only identifying themselves as a “Brewers fan”, but they also are seeing themselves as part of the team. Because of this bias, discrimination of fans who are not a part of the persons in-group can occur, along with the out-group homogeneity effect. This “sub-theory” of the in and out group bias states that “out group members are not only seen as being different from the in group, but also seen as being more interchangeable with each other (6).”

An important reason people identify themselves so closely with sports teams, according to Edward Hirt, PhD., a psychology professor at Indiana University “feels that sports provide many avenues for meeting the human need to belong (7). Close affiliation with a sports team increases self-esteem, and decreases depression. It feels good to be a part of a group, especially one that you can share interest and successes with, which could be the number one reason for the identity created from being a sports fan. Someone feels good to be identified as a successful person, based on their teams (Ed Hirt speaks about the psychology of a sports fan :success.

But what happens when fans love for their team gets out of control? Fan riots have a long history of the world of sports, and Christian End, an expert in sport fan behavior from Xavier University (7) offers up a reason for why. In large groups of people, de-individuation, “in which individual accountability diminishing (8)” can occur. Because being a part of this group of sports fans is so important to some, based on the fact that membership to such a network provides a feeling of belonging, some may be prone to act in ways they wouldn’t normally, just to fit in. “So if we see someone throw a beer bottle and it draws cheers from our group members who we’re really identifying with at the time, we might be apt to match that behavior or up it (8),” said Rick Grieve, a psychology professor at Western Kentucky University. Questions however have been raised as to how many sports fans are actually part of the riots that occur. Those who participate in riots could just be capitalizing on an opportunity, “There’s a TV store down by [Detroit’s] Palace at Auburn Hills [arena] and [rioters] want a flat screen TV, so they are going to get one (8),” said End.

Phillies Fans rioting after their team won the 2008 World Series

The Milwaukee Brewers

It was 1953 and the “love affair” with the Braves had begun. Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, (and also the man credited with bringing baseball back to Milwaukee after the Braves left) said, “I couldn’t believe that Milwaukee had a major league team. I remember driving over there just to watch them build County Stadium. It went way beyond excitement (10)” The Braves left Milwaukee in 1965, and for the four years that the team was gone, hard work was done to find another team to make Milwaukee into what it had been when it was part of the major leagues. In 1970, Bud Selig and the city obtained The Seattle Piolets and turned them into the Milwaukee Brewers. “An estimated 8,000 well-wishers showed up at Mitchell Field to greet Manager Dave Bristol and his band of mostly nondescript ballplayers,” displaying Milwaukees yearning to be back in the big leagues.

“Baseball was king, and Milwaukee was king of baseball”

-Bob Buege, Milwaukee Braves fan

Fast forward to 1982 to the team known as “Harvey’s Wallbangers.” The roster consisted of one of the “most feared lineups” for that time, and the fans were some of the best. When the team won the game against the California Angels to go the the World Series, the streets of the city filled with fans, and ten days of celebration followed (10).


Harvey Kueen (coach), Paul Molitor, and Robin Yount from the 1982 Brewers

No team could mirror the success of this phenomenal group, but the 2007-2008 team came close. Making it to the playoffs for the first time since the 1982 team did 26 years prior, the fans went crazy and a celebration broke out yet again in the city. The excitement of the fans can be most adequately captured in the video below:

Post-season rally occurring after the Brewers made it to the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. 

Attendance for the 2008 season reached 3,068,458 (12) creating a new record, passing up the 2006-2007 season which previously held the record with about 2.8 million. The numbers for the past two years even exceed attendance totals for the 1982 season, and even the 1983 season where fans expected Harvey’s Wallbangers to have success similar to that from the previous year. The countless sell-out crowds this past season could be a reflection of the psychological phenomena of BIRGing. Milwaukee baseball has been in recovery for the past decade or so, and now to be associated with such a success in baseball is something that the fans weren’t going to miss out on. Feeling successful because the Brewers are successful, for a sports fan, is psychologically rewarding. 


Social psychology can be easily seen in the city of Milwaukee’s love for baseball. A city, so desperate for an identity that they worked tirelessly for four years to get what they thought defined them back, baseball. And even when obtaining a team that was below par and filed for bankruptcy in their previous town of Seattle due to their terrible performance and lack of ticket sales, the city welcomed them with open arms and sell-out crowds at their games. As far as in-group and out-group bias goes, just take a look at the Brewers and Cubs I-94 rivalry. Although it wasn’t around until 1998 when the Brewers joined the National League, it has been growing since and with only about 90 miles separating the two teams, its easy to see why both Miller Park and Wrigley Field are constantly being flooded with opposing teams supporters for their teams away games. So many members of the “out-group” seem to be attending Brewers games at Miller Park, that an effort to “Take Back Miller Park” was launched, and even gained the support of some of the players, and the former coach, Ned Yost (13). “It’s always fun to send those Cubs fans for a long sad drive, but at the same time, we’d like to see our own fans,” said Bill Hall, Brewers third-baseman. 

People will continue to identify themselves with America’s pastime of baseball (along with other sports), because by building the strong connections with the team, and the networks with the other fans people are fulfilling basic human needs. High self-esteem and success are things that everyone wants to feel, so much so that they may resort to doing it vicariously through their favorite sports team. Creating groups that you belong to creates positive feelings, so nobody is going to stray away from that anytime soon. Riots are the downside to being too much of a  fanatic, but because of the questions of how many rioters are actually sports fans, we can at least for now try to keep faith in the basic goodness of being a sports fan and the positive psychological feelings it brings. 


Works Cited/References

(1)  Hansen, Sascha, Michael Perry, Merritt Posten, and Jamie Shclabach. “Living in a Social World.” 1998. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(2)  “Social Identity Theory.” 9 Sept. 2004. University of Twente. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(3)  Dietz-Uhler, Beth, and Audrey Murrell. “Examining fan reactions to game outcomes: a longitudinal study of social identity.” Mar. 1999. BNet. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(4)  Ashish, Dev. “Sports Fan Psychology: It’s More Than Just a Game.” Bleacher Report. 26 Sept. 2008. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(5)  Posten, Merritt. “Basking in Glory and Cutting Off Failure.” 1998. 10 Dec. 2008.

(6)  Schlabach, Jamie. “In-Group, Out-Group Bias.” 1998. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(7)  Wood, Debra. “Living Vicariously Through Sports Teams: Is It Healthy?” Feb. 2008. Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(8)  Handwerk, Brian. “Sports Riots: The Psychology of Fan Mayhem.” 20 June 2005. National Geographic. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(9)  “Phillies Riot and Flip a Car.” You Tube. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(10)                 Mishler, Todd. Baseball in Beertown: America’s Pastime in Milwaukee.

(11)  “Milwaukee Brewers Attendance Data.” 2008. Baseball Almanac. 10 Dec. 2008 <;.

(12)  “Brewers Playoff Pep Rally.” You Tube. 11 Dec. 2008 <;.

(13)  McCalvy, Adam. “‘Take Back Miller Park’ set to launch.” 20 Feb. 2006. Milwaukee Brewers. 11 Dec. 2008 <;.




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