This post originally appeared at WaitButWhy.com.
Throughout the world, the way people feel about sports spans a wide range. Let’s start with what we know about the non-sports side of the spectrum—
To non-sports fans, caring about sports makes no sense.
If you’re a sports fan, here’s how non-sports fans view your love of your team:
A bunch of strangers in their 20s and 30s are paid to play games against each other that have no real world consequences and you’ve decided that you care a ton about this. There are teams that must win and teams that must lose and players that must play better than other players—and this is all critical.
Meanwhile, the players that must play well sometimes get traded to the teams that must lose, and now you want those players to play badly. In fact, the only thing you’re really rooting for is a certain set of jerseys, regardless of who happens to be wearing them.
Then there’s the fact that as you follow your team that must win, almost every season ends with them losing, leaving your face looking like this:
Then, every 30 years or so, this team you so badly want to win actually wins! 30 years and thousands of hours of time and dedication and finally, the ultimate goal is achieved—and then what happens? Some major change in your life? No, you go stand on the street and yell things and then people start rioting, which makes no sense because they’re happy.
Then you spend a few days reading articles about the great victory, buy a t-shirt, and go on with your life. That’s it. That’s what it was all for.
Like I said, it’s an odd phenomenon.
And yet, one of the few things nearly every country in the world has in common is sports fandom. When something is both odd and universal, there’s got to be something deeper going on.
As a big sports fan from a city full of frightening sports fan lunatics (Boston), I feel the need to take a shot at getting to the bottom of this.
Because so many people are paying attention, and because what happens will be remembered for a long time, the stakes are actually high for the athletes you’re watching, which creates drama.
This is the same phenomenon that made American Idol such a big hit—it was precisely the fact that it was such a big hit that created the drama that made it entertaining.
Of course, then there are also many people who find sports genuinely entertaining to watch themselves—they enjoy watching an arena football game or a minor league baseball game or a high-level pickup basketball game because they just like watching sports, even without the stakes or drama. But I think most sports fans need the high-stakes component to feel fully engaged.
Humans have a fascination with freakish greatness, no matter what the skill is. Sports is a great place to watch people who are in the best .001% at something do what they’re great at, against other .001% people. Meanwhile, you—who are in like the best 73% at that thing—get to sit on your fat couch and judge them. It’s fun. Speaking of which—
It taps into our creepy side that wants to sit in the ancient Roman Coliseum and watch people fight to the death.
You can deny it all you want, but part of you wants to do this. And sitting there on your couch, there’s some schadenfreude happening as you watch people sprinting around in the freezing cold or searing heat, getting smashed in the face and possibly embarrassing themselves and destroying their dreams in front of 20,000,000 people. “Play for me—do your best,” you think as you feed yourself a chip.
This is a huge appeal of many of the Olympic sports, and it’s part of the reason it’s fun to watch a person as smooth and athletically blessed as LeBron James play.
A lot of people get together with friends to watch sports in times they otherwise might not see them, and I know no fewer than eight guys whose primary talking point with their fathers is sports. Sports isn’t replacing other, more worthwhile topics of conversation between those sons and fathers, it’s just adding a level of closeness that would not be there without it.
There aren’t too many times in life you can celebrate something with complete strangers and feel an emotional connection with your community as a whole. People love this feeling—that’s why Christmas songs make everyone happy. When they play in public all December, it’s like we’re all in holiday mode together.
The best example of community bonding euphoria is an end-of-war celebration. But since six-year collective struggles that finally end in sweet victory don’t happen very often, sports gives us another way to do this.
The key is that sports creates an “us versus them” structure, which allows people to be part of a collective “us,” where the us can triumph or fail all together. In tribal times, the concept of “us versus them” was highly pronounced in a tangible way—today, especially in huge countries, it’s not. Sports is an artificial way to bring some more collective “us” into our lives…
…which is the only reason that my list of life experiences includes the time I cuddled with a big, scary, mean man I never spoke to before or since.
Try coming up with another circumstance under which that man and I would squeeze each other tenderly and blissfully in a moment of pure innocent joy—good luck.
Sports can give two people who would otherwise be horribly awkward together something to talk about.
Sports fans have a morbid fascination with the off-field drama of famous athletes in the same way people are captivated by the lives of movie stars.
Life is a self-centered thing, and sports is often a nice place to focus when you’re sick of your own issues. Especially on days when your life sucks.
It’s a perfect tool for your crippling procrastination tendencies.
And in the end…
In a time when heroic triumphs aren’t part of most people’s lives, sports allows us to capture a little sliver of the feeling of glory.