How We Become Sports Fans: The Tyranny Of Fathers

It's World Series time, time to meet a triple threat: he's young, he's fierce, he's new to sports, and we find him in a kitchen with his dad. They are discussing baseball. More specifically, they are addressing the topic, "What's our family's favorite baseball team?" Dad is a Red Sox fan. The son — who looks to be 3 going on 4 — is about to utter the most dangerous words of his young life. Here's the video:

YouTube

Thank god for the older brother, is all I can say. And while I never have, never will, give my heart to the New York Yankees (or the "Ankees", as the little guy calls them,) my heart is doing flips for this brave boy who dares defy one of the Great Laws of sports fandom.

That law says little boys and girls don't choose their own sports teams, not in the beginning. As with language and religion, their first team gets chosen for them. Yes, every so often a kid like our hero will cry out, "but I...I...LOVE the Ankees!" but he won't prevail. Next birthday, he'll be sporting a Red Sox cap. That's the way it goes.

What The Data Says

I've seen the data (courtesy of my sports-obsessed friend Eric Simons.) There are scholars who have studied these things, and one of their studies, from Daniel Wann and colleagues at Murray State University, asks: When a kid chooses his or her first sports team, who or what in their life most influences the choice? Is it family? Is it friends? Is it TV? Is it geography? School? Teachers, brothers, mothers, coaches, what?

The answer's simple: In an overwhelming number of cases, it's dad. Dad says, "We're Yankee fans." Dad decides.

Here are the numbers. One of Wann & Co.'s questions — asked to a group of grownups — was who had "the greatest single influence" on your first choice to become a fan. The answers are broken down by gender. (I've included only the significant categories.)

  Males Females
My father 38.7% 31.3%
My mother 4.8 2.7
My grandfathers 1.9 0.7
My grandmothers 0.4 0.4
My husbands 0.0 1.7
My wives 0.0 0.0
My son(s) 0.0 0.6
My daughter(s) 0.0 0.2
My brother(s) 10.7 5.0
My sister(s) 0.8 1.9
My uncle(s) 1.9 1.5
My aunt(s) 0.0 0.2
My friends (no gender noted) 10.1 7.1
My boyfriend(s) 0.0 6.9
My girlfriend(s) 0.0 0.0
My school 8.0 14.6
My coach 2.5 0.7
Media 6.9 4.1

See how fathers rule! They leave mothers in the dust. Males cite dads 14 times more often than moms. Females cite dads 5 times more often (much more than husbands.) Brothers are second in importance for males, big for females. But the ladies put school (gender neutral) higher than the males.

Women, if you look down the column, are consistently influenced by men. They take cues from fathers over mothers, brothers over sisters, sons over daughters, boyfriends over peers. "School" (which isn't specific about gender) may be less male oriented, but fathers still cast the biggest shadow. When I was reporting a recent Radiolab on sports and games, we talked to several women who said they chose their first sports teams specifically to get "couch time" with their fathers. Dad would be parked on the sofa, watching the tube, and by sharing a team, girls could snuggle in and have something to hug, cheer, cry and talk about.

Why Does Daddy Prevail?

Not because he stomps and threatens like the dad in the video whose tongue, I suspect, was firmly in his cheek, but because sharing a team with your dad is a point of connection for both sons and daughters. Dads are more emotionally remote than moms, except when they're watching sports, and that's the crack in the ice that kids naturally choose to exploit. If Dad laughs, cries and high fives about the Red Sox, his kids are going to use the Red Sox to laugh, cry and high-five with him.

What about kids who defy their dads and go for the Other team? (There are some. Our boy may be one of them.) I found no studies about them, but my guess is that if you asked Che Guevara, Benjamin Franklin, Joan of Arc, Evel Kneivel, Steve Jobs, James Dean, Charlie Parker and Ted Turner if they rooted for their father's teams, a good many of them would say, "No I didn't." Just a guess.


Special thanks to reporter Eric Simons (recently featured on Radiolab) for sending me survey data from Daniel L.Wann, Merill J. Melnick, Gordon W. Russell and Dale G. Pease, "Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators". See also: The Role of Cognitive Development and Socialization In the Initial Development of Team Loyalty, by Jeffrey James, University of Illinois, Champaign

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