Sports and Media Effects

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Since the dawn of civilization, people have enjoyed viewing sports. From the time that there was glad-iatorial combat in Rome and frenetic ball games in the land of the Aztecs, there have been avid sport spectators (for an excellent review of the history of sport spectators, see Guttman, 1986). A sport spectator is defined herein as someone who regularly watches, listens to, or reads about sporting events. Spectators can be further subdivided into two classifications: direct sport consumers and indirect sport consumers (Wann, 1997). Direct sport consumers are individuals who are actually in attendance at the sporting event. Indirect sport consumers are individuals who view the event on television, listen to it on the radio, or read about it in the newspaper or on the Internet. This entry focuses primarily on the reasons why indirect sport consumership is so ubiquitous and discusses the effects that sport fanship has on people.

The prevalence of sport spectatorship in Western society is undeniable. Consider that in 1986, American viewers reported a preference for watching televised sports over watching newscasts, documentaries, sitcoms, and every other category of televised entertainment except movies (Guttmann, 1986). Major events such as the Super Bowl regularly top 100 million viewers, while the World Cup is reported to have drawn more than 2 billion viewers internationally. There are more than half a dozen cable channels in the United States devoted exclusively to sports programming, and numerous other sports-related subscription packages are available from cable providers, so the sport spectator has greater access to sporting events than ever before. But what is it that draws so many people to watch sports?

To begin to answer this question, it is important to note the unique features involved in watching sporting events compared to watching other forms of entertainment. Lawrence Wenner and Walter Gantz (1989, p. 242) outline these fundamental differences:

Most nonsport entertainment programs are prerecorded, scripted stories with actors playing roles. Plot outcomes are rarely in doubt, protagonists tend to survive, and actors "bloodied" in action show no scars off the set. Most televised sport is live and unrehearsed, and "bloodied" athletes carry scars off the field. Athletes' careers hinge on their performances, and outcomes are uncertain.

Thus, it appears that the inherent uncertainty of sporting events is firmly linked to the enjoyment of viewing them. Indeed, Dolf Zillmann, Jennings Bryant, and Barry Sapolsky (1989) point out that the uncommon, unexpected, and surprising events "hold greater promise for being appreciated" due to their novelty. The unthinkable upset can happen (e.g., the victory of the U.S. Hockey Team over the heavily favored Soviet National Team in the 1980 Winter Olympics) and thus an individual has the chance to see something never seen before (e.g., fantastic finishes, amazingly acrobatic defensive plays, dominating performances).

Motives of Indirect Sport Spectators

Several motives of both direct and indirect sport spectators have been theorized or identified by researchers. These motives include, but are not limited to, catharsis, stimulation seeking, social needs, escapism, entertainment needs, aesthetics, and self-esteem management. Although each of these motives will be discussed in turn, it is important to point out that these different motives are in no way mutually exclusive; it is likely that for many individuals, sport spectating serves a number of different motives. A consideration of the range of different motivations provides a fuller picture of the widespread appeal of sport spectatorship in Western society.


The first of the motives, catharsis, is a theory invoked by Sigmund Freud in 1920 and which later gained popularity through the work of Konrad Lorenz (1966). The theory of catharsis is based on Freud's belief that aggressiveness and hostility are unavoidably inherited traits or predispositions, rather than characteristics gained through learning or experience. Freud (1955) believed that an inherent need to act aggressively was evolutionarily adaptive and served people well until laws and societies were formed wherein aggressive behavior was frowned upon. In such a society, other outlets would be necessary to vent the natural predisposition toward aggressiveness. Hence, the theory of catharsis, wherein individuals seek to view aggressive acts as a vicarious way of satisfying their need to act aggressively (Bryant and Zillmann, 1983). This theory has been used to explain the popularity of many of the kinds of violent sports. It is proposed that by watching others engage in brutal and violent actions, one can vicariously release pent-up aggressive impulses and feelings.

This "hydraulic" model of aggression has been widely accepted in contemporary society, and many people subscribe to the view that participating in or watching violent sports or movies is an effective way to reduce aggressive inclinations. Although it makes intuitive sense that an individual might achieve some sort of "release" through watching violent or highly competitive sports, this theory has not been substantiated by research. In fact, the findings of almost all related studies show that the aggressiveness and hostility levels of spectators actually increase as they watch a competitive or aggressive sporting event (Goldstein and Arms, 1971). The work of social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz (1969) and others have shown that exposure to violence and aggression "primes" people to think, feel, and act more aggressively. Social-learning theorists such as Albert Bandura (1971) have demonstrated that people exposed to others who are rewarded for acting violently are more likely to display violent behavior in their own behavior. Both of these findings have been used to explain the increase in fan violence often observed during and after the viewing of sporting events. Thus, there seems to be little evidence for the cathartic effect of sports; instead, watching violent sports seems to fuel aggressiveness in spectators.

Stimulation Seeking

The second motive, stimulation seeking, is almost the exact reverse of catharsis theory. Researchers Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann propose that individuals, whether consciously or not, seek out stimulation to achieve an increased level of arousal or excitation (Guttmann, 1998; Bryant and Zillmann, 1983). This view stems from the perspective that humans, similar to other organisms, seek stimulation and novelty in their environment. Participating in or watching sports is one avenue toward alleviating boredom and achieving an optimal level of arousal. This line of research has shown that subjects tend to rate more violent and aggressive plays in football and other sports as more fun to watch. Anecdotally, it is known that many individuals enjoy the fights in hockey games or the crashes at auto races, presumably because these events add to the excitement of the contest. In their fittingly titled 1970 essay "The Quest for Excitement in Unexciting Societies," Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning propose a direct relationship between decreasing opportunities for overt excitement and thrill in society, and an increase in the prevalence of violent sports (Guttmann, 1998). Thus, there seems to be converging evidence that people find the vicarious experience of violence and aggression to be stimulating and enjoyable.

It should be borne in mind that catharsis and stimulation-seeking motives can serve as explanations only for the spectating of violent sports. Wenner and Gantz (1989) found that stimulation-seeking motives applied most strongly to spectators of fast-paced and contact sports. Because not all sports are violent, it is clear that other motives must underlie the attraction for spectating nonviolent as well as violent sports.

Social Needs

The third motive for sport spectating, social needs, applies to nonviolent and violent sports alike. This motive is based on a proposed desire of spectators to spend time with their family or others that they socialize with, such as friends or coworkers. The work of Wenner and Gantz (1989) has shown that spectators will often cite social involvement and companionship as motives for their spectating of sports on television. Zill-mann, Bryant, and Sapolsky (1989) discuss the possibility that indirect spectatorship of sports with others should create bonds between people who affiliate themselves with the same teams. Spectators who root for teams together share the joys of victory with each other, as well as the humiliation or anguish of defeat. Though intuition suggests that the sharing of such experiences surely creates a lasting bond between people, these researchers are quick to point out that the actual social effects of spectatorship have received little empirical examination.

Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary (1995) have discussed the "need to belong" as a fundamental human motivation. This belongingness need is satisfied when individuals feel strong, stable social attachments to others. These social attachments may be derived through connections with family or friends, but they can also be satisfied by the groups to which individuals belong. Bonds formed by individuals sharing a common allegiance (to a hometown team, for example), like the bonds between members of a church or other social group, serve the important purpose of satisfying the belongingness need and helping an individual to feel a part of a community. Indeed, in many communities and social circles, following the local sports team is part of the cultural norm; those who do not follow the team are considered social outcasts. Moreover, in the company of fellow spectators, an individual is able to feel accepted and can share his or her feelings, thoughts, and emotions freely. Thus, fundamental affiliative and emotional needs can be satisfied through watching and following sports with fellow spectators.

However, given that there are many other ways that people can satisfy basic belongingness needs, there is still a question as to why so many choose sports. In Western society, sport has some unique features that make it a particularly desirable and attractive avenue to achieve a sense of belonging. Sports are an extremely popular conversational topic, and many people often spend hours talking about past, present, or future sporting events with friends and acquaintances. Sports events can also be conversational topics that help establish social contacts with others; people can promote good relations with colleagues and coworkers by discussing last-night's game and can initiate conversations with strangers on buses and planes by "talking sports" with them. Zillmann, Bryant, and Sapolsky (1989) theorize that this popularity is due in no small part to the low risk of sports topics in conversation. They postulate that, while most opinions on music, movies, and politics are extremely open to argument, great performances in sports are rarely refutable. One person may think a movie actor is fantastic while another considers him terrible, but few people would disagree with the opinion that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, that Mark McGwire is a great power hitter, or that the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team had a great season in winning the 1999 World Cup. Thus, watching and following sports may be one of the easiest and most societally acceptable ways to create social bonds with others and satisfy basic social needs.


The fourth motive, escapism, applies quite broadly to many varieties of entertainment. People will often go to a movie or watch a television drama to escape momentarily their everyday humdrum. Sport spectating, however, seems to be an extraordinarily effective escape as evidenced by the following examples. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a decision to let the professional baseball seasons continue. In spite of the burden on the teams, players, and families, he hoped that it would provide Americans with an escape from their trying times (Wann, 1997). This, combined with the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943 (immortalized in the 1988 film A League of Their Own), at a time when a large number of male ballplayers were drafted for military service, points to the particular salience of sport spectatorship as an effective route for escape from worries.


The fifth motive, entertainment, is relatively self-explanatory. Spectators seek to be entertained by watching or listening to sporting events. According to sport psychologist Daniel Wann (1997), this motive may play heavily into the spectating of pseudosports. Pseudosports are athletic contests that are scripted and staged; for example, roller derby or professional wrestling. Sport researcher George P. Stone found in 1971 that although there is no surprise in the rigged outcome of these events—which is one of the factors that differentiates sports from other entertain-ment—spectators were still attracted to them for their sheer entertainment value.

The seemingly paradoxical enjoyment of even these highly predictable sporting events may be due in part to the two basic tenets of disposition theory in sport fanship. These are laid out simply by Zillmann, Bryant, and Sapolsky (1989) as follows: (1) positive feelings for a party (i.e., a team or player) will increase the enjoyment of witnessing the victory of that party and (2) negative feelings toward a party will increase the enjoyment of witnessing the defeat of that party. These simple propositions are easy to apply to a sport where the victory of the proverbial "good guy" over the "bad guy" is doubtlessly written into the script. However, such a view would also predict that the entertainment value should be magnified when the outcome is uncertain, making victory sweeter and defeat more devastating. Indeed, Zillmann, Bryant, and Sapolsky (1989) reported that factors that accentuate the human drama of sports (e.g., announcers that present the players as embittered rivals or the fierce competitive spirit of the participants in a contest) enhance the enjoyment of the sporting event.


The sixth motive for sport spectatorship, and one closely related to entertainment, is aesthetics. By the motive of aesthetics, it is meant that spectators are drawn to certain types of sports for the qualities of beauty, grace, and skill inherent in them. Sports such as figure skating, synchronized swimming, or gymnastics lend themselves for obvious reasons to aesthetic appreciation. American football, baseball, and hockey might not seem such likely candidates for this motive, but one need only talk with a devotee of hockey or pay notice to the title of Robert Mayer's 1984 book The Grace of Shortstops to realize that this is not necessarily the case. People marvel at the athletic ability of these skilled individuals who make difficult, unbelievable plays. In fact, the cable sports network ESPN has begun to give out awards known as ESPYs to plays that are recognized as the most outstanding ones of the year.

Although relatively little research has been devoted to investigating the particular role of aesthetics in sport spectatorship, there is some evidence that people appreciate and enjoy more complicated and difficult plays. However, it is often hard to separate the effects of the riskiness of a play from the success of the play. Risky or difficult plays that are successful lead to greater enjoyment ("great call"), but unsuccessful risky plays often result in the greatest disappointment. Nonetheless, there is sufficient evidence to this point that spectators derive enjoyment from an aesthetic appreciation of the skill and agility, as well as the competitiveness and intensity, of the players.

Self-Esteem Management

The last motive that will be discussed in this entry, self-esteem management, is one of the more thoroughly researched and complex motives of sport spectators. Several researchers have found that sport spectators derive self-esteem enhancement from identifying with a successful team. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues (1976) denoted a phenomenon known as "basking-in-reflected-glory" (or BIRGing), which refers to the tendency for individuals to proclaim their association with a successful other. For example, Cialdini and his colleagues found that fans of a university's college football team were more likely to wear school-identifying apparel on the Mondays following team victories than on Mondays following team defeats. Moreover, in describing the outcome of team games, university students used the pronoun "we" to describe team victories (e.g., "We won that game, 20-17") but used the pronoun "they" to describe team losses (e.g., "They lost, 38-14"). This research demonstrated that sports fans are more likely to illustrate their connection with a team when that team is successful. Conversely, sports fans tend to distance themselves from a team when that team is unsuccessful, a phenomenon that has been labeled "cutting-off-reflected-failure" (or CORFing). Cialdini and his colleagues argued that by BIRG-ing, an individual can derive positive esteem from their association with a successful other. Indeed, people often state their association (e.g., from the same hometown, attended the same school) with a famous celebrity or personality. Similarly, identifying with a successful sports team can be a way to derive self-esteem from the success of the team. Team success becomes a personal success, and one can take pride in the accomplishment of one's team.

But do people really feel greater self-esteem when a team is successful? Cialdini and Kenneth Richardson (1980) found that people whose self-esteem had previously been threatened (by failure on a social-skills task) were more likely to bask in the success of their school's teams (as well as its other assets). Moreover, these same individuals experiencing a self-esteem threat were most likely to blast their school's rival. Thus, it appears that self-esteem needs are indeed involved in the BIRG-ing phenomenon. Furthermore, Edward Hirt and his colleagues (1992) directly measured the self-esteem of fans after team victories and defeats and found that fans showed some elevation in mood and self-esteem after team wins, but reported lower mood and self-esteem following team losses. Indeed, in one study (Hirt et al., 1992; study 2), the reactions of fans to team success and failure were compared to a personal success and failure (i.e., doing well or poorly on a test of general intellectual ability). The results indicated that the mood and self-esteem of fans were as high after team success as after personal success, and as low after team failure as after personal failure.

These data strongly suggest that fans ally themselves so closely to their team that they view team success as a personal success and team failure as a personal failure. Moreover, the outcome of a team had profound effects on the predictions by fans of their own future performance. Hirt and his colleagues (1992) had fans predict how well they would do at a series of tasks following the game. It was found that after wins, fans were much more optimistic about their performance at these different tasks than they were after losses. After wins, fans viewed themselves as winners and predicted that they would be more successful in their future endeavors; after losses, they viewed themselves as losers and were much more pessimistic about the future. The most interesting implication of these findings is that, at least for highly allegiant fans, following their team is a precarious proposition. Fans can derive greater self-esteem when their team is successful but suffer self-esteem decrements when their team is unsuccessful.

It is important to note that not all sport spectators are highly allegiant fans. Many spectators may have little or no allegiance to the teams playing or may be best characterized as "fair weather fans" who jump on the bandwagon of teams who are successful and can bask in their reflected glory (BIRG). When these teams are no longer successful, these spectators lose interest in the team and can cut off reflected failure (CORF). However, for fans who strongly identify with a team, they maintain their allegiance to the team through thick and thin. They suffer through the poor seasons and hard times, but relish the successful seasons and good times. The sense of loyalty that these individuals feel to their team becomes a critical part of their identity and they steadfastly maintain their allegiance to the team (case in point, the long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans).

An intriguing aspect of the BIRGing phenomenon is that the spectators feel justified in taking some credit for the success of the team. While many people acknowledge the "home-field advantage" in sports and view this advantage as at least partially due to the support and cheering of the fans in the audience during home games, it is more difficult to imagine how spectators watching the game on television can believe that they had a causal effect on the game. However irrational this belief may appear to be, psychological research has shown that individuals merely associated with positive or desirable events are liked, whereas individuals associated with negative or undesirable events are disliked (cf. Zajonc, 1980). Thus, associating with a winner or a team of winners will elevate the esteem of an individual in the eyes of others and is an avenue for improving an individual's self-evaluation.

Research has attempted to understand other bases for the desire of fans to affiliate themselves with sports teams. Mark Dechesne, Jeff Greenberg, and their colleagues (2000) argued that one source may be a fear of death. In their research, they compared the reactions of people who are first asked to consider their own death (a mortality salient condition) to a control condition wherein people are not asked to ponder their own mortality. They found that fans who were reminded of their own death showed stronger affiliation and identification with their team, suggesting that allegiance to a successful team may help individuals cope with and transcend mortality concerns. These conclusions also fit in nicely with the notion that identifying with sports teams serves social needs for belongingness: individuals who feel connected to and identify with a successful other or group may feel better about themselves and the meaningfulness of their existence.

Dispositional Approaches

As has been discussed, there are a variety of different theories about what motivates people to be sport spectators. It is likely that, for many individuals, multiple goals and motives are being satisfied while watching sports. Sport spectating may serve as a source of highly stimulating and captivating entertainment, while simultaneously satisfying social and self-esteem needs. Indeed, the pervasiveness of sport spectatorship in Western society almost requires that this is so, since its appeal extends to so many different types of people.

This is not to say that there are not individual differences in the kinds of people who are the most avid sport spectators. A good deal of research has attempted to identify a personality profile of the sports fan. The word "fan," short for "fanatic," implies an individual with an undying devotion to their team. Indeed, the behavior of these highly devoted fans (whose rituals before and during games are legendary) is often bewildering to those individuals who are not fans. A dispositional approach to sport fanship has yielded some interesting findings, but its greatest contribution appears to be demonstrating how individual differences moderate the strength of the various motives underlying sport spectatorship. For example, individuals differ in their degree of sensation seeking (Zuckerman, 1979). High-sensation seekers crave excitement and are easily bored; these individuals tend to prefer high-risk sports and activities. Low-sensation seekers, on the other hand, tend to prefer the safety and predictability of routine. Thus, the extent to which stimulation motives underlie sport fanship should be greater for high-sensation-seeking individuals. Similarly, individuals with low self-esteem have been shown to be likely to engage in indirect forms of self-enhancement, such as basking in reflected glory (Brown, Collins, and Schmidt, 1988). Individuals with high self-esteem prefer to derive their esteem from their own accomplishments as opposed to the accomplishments of others with whom they are associated. As a result, the self-esteem management function of sport fanship is likely to play a greater role for individuals with low self-esteem. These results underscore the value in considering that certain types of individuals may be more prone to be attracted to sports and to become sport spectators precisely because salient motives in their lives can be satisfied through sport fanship.

Conclusions and Future Directions

It is clear at the beginning of the twentieth century that sport spectatorship is growing to unprecedented proportions. Further research is needed in order to understand the bases for this phenomenon. Although the theories and research reviewed in this entry have provided some insights to the reasons and motives that may be associated with sport spectatorship, the work has been generally descriptive in nature and has not fully elaborated the factors underlying these motives or the ways in which watching sports satisfies these fundamental needs and motives. One potential fruitful avenue for future research is an examination of the biological bases for these motives. Indeed, some of the work on individual differences has focused on the biological differences between individuals who are high or low in sensation seeking. People who have a high level of sensation seeking have a lower baseline level of arousal than people who have a low level of sensation seeking—which may account for their greater need to seek arousing stimuli in their environment. Work by Paul Bernhardt, James Dabbs, and their colleagues (1998) has found changes in the testosterone levels of fans in response to the winning and losing of their sports teams, changes that seem to parallel the psychological changes to winning and losing that were documented earlier in this entry. Increases in testosterone levels were associated with watching winning performances, implying that physiological changes may underscore psychological phenomena such as basking in reflected glory. Furthermore, changes in testosterone levels have been shown to be associated with expressions of dominance and aggressive behavior, which may provide some links to understanding achievement-seeking motives in sport spectating as well as the increases in violent behavior often associated with sport spectating. When combined with the solid foundation in research and theory outlined in this article, results such as these provide some exciting future directions for the study and understanding of sport spectatorship and all its many facets.

See also:Arousal Processes and Media Effects; Catharsis Theory and Media Effects; Social Cognitive Theory and Media Effects.


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Edward R. Hirt

Nathan L. Steele