Blogs & Comment

It's time for some science on sports riots

What makes a sports fan? The answer, it turns out, is unclear.


A police car burns during a riot in downtown Vancouver following the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins in game 7 of the Stanley Cup hockey final. Geoff Howe/CP

In watching and reading about the riots in Vancouver the other night following the Canucks’ loss of the Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins, many people probably shared my knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh look, there go those stupid hockey fans again.” The following day, there was all kinds of debate over who started the riot – were these people in fact real hockey fans or just idiots looking for any excuse to cause trouble?

I have to admit I’ve never been a hockey fan, or a fan of any sport really. Like many technology journalists, I do however possess a strange affinity for baseball. My suspicion is there’s something about the statistics that somehow attracts us; perhaps we like the sport for its similarity to product specifications? I dunno.

I do know that I like playing baseball, so I sometimes enjoy watching professionals who can perform the sport at a much higher level than myself. But that’s about the extent of my sports fandom.

Living in Canada as I do, I’ve seen plenty of examples of hockey fan stupidity. Indeed, Toronto probably has more dumb hockey fans per capita than any city in the world. The proof comes every year when the die-hards continue to sell out Maple Leafs games despite the team not having a hope in hell of winning the cup. I also remember walking down the street as a kid wearing a hand-me-down Montreal Canadians T-shirt, which was apparently enough to motivate some complete stranger to roll down their car window and yell “faggot!” as they drove by. What a lovely thing to say to a child.

The riot got me thinking about what kinds of people are sports fans – and why are they fans? I’ve always likened sports to religion, so my innate biases kicked in. As numerous demographic studies have shown, religion is more popular with less-educated, lower-income people. If sports is like religion, shouldn’t the same factors apply?

I looked for demographic numbers to back that up but couldn’t find any proper studies on the topic. I found a few sets of seemingly contradictory numbers that showed, for example, that the majority of sports fans were both young and had high incomes. That doesn’t seem possible – unless sports are extremely popular in Silicon Valley. In fact, the only reputable statistics that turned up in my search, from the Pew Research Center, showed that people who follow sports news come from all income and education levels. Without anything better to go on, and considering that I do know several highly educated people with high incomes who are also sports fans, it looks like my initial hypothesis was wrong.

The question remains, though: Why are people sports fans? The reasons, I suspect, are varied. Some people are probably like me – they appreciate seeing a sport played at its pinnacle level, the same way any beginning guitarist can marvel at the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen. Others may simply like getting out of the house and experiencing the spectacle of it.

A couple years ago, University of Washington psychology professor David P. Barash tried to take a more clinical view and came to some interesting and provocative conclusions. Sports isn’t like religion, he wrote, it’s the opiate of the masses that has superseded the nationalism that used to pit countries against each other not so long ago. In that way, sports is like war, which is of course an intriguing premise to anyone having written a book on the topic.

The observer of spectator sports cannot help but confront the odd underbelly of this passion: the yearning to be someone else, or at least, a very small part of something else, so long as that something else is Something Else, large and imposing, impressive and thus irresistible. That dark desire for deindividuation was felt for millennia by the herring and the wildebeest, and perfected by human beings centuries ago: interestingly, not by sports franchises but by the world’s military forces…

…It is no great distance from the mesmerizing impact of close-order drill to the stimulating consequence of shared chanting and cheering, the waving of arms (military or civilian) in unison. The Wave, which many fans say originated in my hometown of Seattle, is a good example. Even though they don’t get to swing a bat, throw a pass, or sink a three-pointer, fans have been inventive in providing themselves with ritualized, shared movements that further embellish the allure as well as the illusion of being part of the larger, shared whole, tapping into that primitive satisfaction that moves at almost lightning speed from shared, ritual action to a tempestuous sense of expanded self. One becomes part of a great beckoning, grunting, yet smoothly functioning, and, presumably, security-generating Beast. And for those involved, it apparently feels good to be thus devoured whole and to live in its belly.

In many ways, Barash’s article comes off as psycho-babble but he does raise some salient points. Given the frequent eruption of riots following sporting contests, there does seem to be a solid link to violence regardless of income or education.

Others blame such events on mixing booze with adrenaline, but that sounds too simplistic. National Geographic tried to explain it a few years ago by suggesting that people who get into a crowd think they’re less accountable for their actions because they’re tough to pick out. That rationale seems to be going out the window thanks to social media, where instigators are being identified by good citizens.

In the end, it is worth it to figure out scientifically why people are sports fans and what drives some of them to rioting after playoff games. Otherwise it might be time for cities to start wondering whether they ever want to field contenders in any sport. Without some conclusive science indicating one way or another, the question for cities now remains: Is having a winning team really worth it?