Being a fan of a winning sports team can change your life in ways you couldn’t imagine

“Every weekend I traveled the fifty-odd miles from Glacial Falls to Watertown, where I spent. .. Sunday with a few bottles of beer at The Parrot, eyes fixed on the television screen, cheering for my team,” wrote Frederick Exley in the 1968 sports-themed memoir A Fan’s Notes.

Cheering is a paltry description,” he continued. “The Giants were my delight, my folly, my anodyne, my intellectual stimulation.”

The late Exley, the ultimate fan, might be heartened by the results of a new study: fans of a winning team experience a spike in self-esteem that can last for two days afterward, says a new study from Ohio State University.

The study also found that the fans of the losing team weren’t devastated, but experienced a subdued mood.

Fan dance

The key may be watching the game with friends, and not alone, researchers said.

“Just feeling connected to others while watching the game helped sustain self-esteem,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and professor of communication at The Ohio State University, in a release.

“So for fans of the winning team, the social aspect of sharing the victory with each other led to a self-esteem boost. For fans of the losing team, sharing the pain may have protected them from losing self-esteem. Those who didn’t watch at all experienced a self-esteem drop — they felt completely left out,” Knobloch-Westerwick said.

For example, Exley watched his beloved Giants with friends and strangers alike from The Parrot bar among the regular patrons. They were friends, but more importantly, they were serious football fans: “I found myself unable to relax in the company of ‘unbelievers,’ in the company of those who did not take their football earnestly or who thought my team something less than the One God,” he wrote.

The study

Knobloch-Westerwick and her team of researchers questioned 174 students from Ohio State and Michigan State Universities about their self-esteem and mood, among other things, right before a major college football game between the two schools. Michigan State ended up winning over Ohio State, 17-14.

Students from both schools were surveyed again on their self-esteem and mood the day after the game, and two days afterward. So that their research would not be skewed, researchers told students the questions were for a study on “well-being and leisure activities.”

Before the big game, the students from rival universities showed similar levels of self-esteem on topics like their appearance, body, academics, and other subjects. On the day of the game, however, students from the winning Michigan State exhibited much higher levels of self-esteem than Ohio State students. Two days later, the Michigan State students’ self-esteem levels were even higher while the Ohio State students’ self-esteem remained about the same.

Watching the game with friends is key

No matter who wins or loses, it’s really about watching the game with friends when it comes to self-esteem.

If students had watched the game with friends or not had a large impact on their self-esteem, researchers found. At both schools, those who watched in a group were found to have the highest self-esteem, and those who watched by themselves had the lowest.

“You want to be in this with other people. Winning or losing, it is better to be a fan with your friends,” Knobloch-Westerwick concludes.

What does it mean to be a fan?

Exley put fandom – and the self-esteem swell that happens when one’s team wins – like this: “Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. … In football, a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. … Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.”

The study appears online in the journal Communication & Sport and will be published in a future print edition. Co-authors were J.C. Abdallah and Andrew Billings of the University of Alabama.