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Our identity as seen through the sports teams we follow

When asked to describe oneself our answers tend to reflect our social identity through our group membership: family (how many kids, partner), occupation (colleagues or organisation), sports (played sport for X team), and other interests (play golf at this club). It is such the innate desire of the human to identify and associate with others, the need to belong. We tend to relate better to those that associate with similar groups to ourselves.

Granted we have little say and control in some of the groups we’re members of including family, age and race. But we take control in other groups we associate with such as friends, where we shop, where we eat, the music we listen to, the books we read and the sports teams we follow.

Identity theory states that we exhibit a hierarchical order of these various identities and groups we associate with within our self-concept. The order that these identities place within our self-concept is decided by the relative importance we place on each identity/group. Team identification is the extent to which a fan feels a psychological connection with a particular team, the degree in which they believe that the team is an extension of themselves. For example, if a sport isn’t that of huge importance to an individual then they will have a weak identification with the team. However there are some fans that enhance their social identity by associating with successful and prestigious groups. These fans tend to bask in the reflected glory associated with the particular team, improving their own social-identity in the process. Explaining the phenomena that appears to be an increase of fans for a title contending team, these people love the glory.

When supporting a team there are numerous associated psychological benefits, this is more salient in fans that are highly identified as the process of being a fan of a particular team is more central to their self-identity. Supporting certain teams may seem to bring about more heartbreak than anything else (I speak for myself here), but it does still bring about enhanced social and personal self-esteem, energy, while also a reduction in anger, loneliness, alienation, tension and depression. These psychological benefits are largely realised through the societal connections and the sense of camaraderie that is exhibited between fellow fans. The relationships that you develop with the people you meet through supporting your team; with the people on the gate, the volunteers that you buy a programme off or the other fans that you sit around for games all contribute to your psychological health.

So how do we become highly identified? How do we reap these benefits?

Team identification comes about in many ways including exposure to both the sport and influenced by the team that friends and family members support. Fathers appear to have a greater influence than any other family member. Parents can have an effect on a child’s team identification from as young as the age of 5. I can corroborate this, my father is a Boston Celtics fan and as a child I wasn’t even allowed to wear a Lakers top. Whether we’re aware of their influence or not is a different story!

Living near a particular team has a significant influence over a person’s team identification. This is due to a sense of similarity as they are seen to represent our area, our region or our country, as a result we are more inclined to support teams that are near to us. They represent a sense of who we are and therefore they accurately reflect our sense of self-identity. Supporting a local team also increases the probability of live spectatorship, a considerable element of team identification.

Exposure to a particular team on TV or the internet can explain the phenomenon of many Irish fans supporting teams further afield. Similarity also extends to morals and views that are also expressed by the club; we are more inclined to support a team with similar values to ourselves. It is the sense that players appear to have a similar set of values and are seen as relatable. AC Milan relaunched the identity of the club last season with an emphasis on their values of teamwork, excellence, passion and elegance.

The extent of our identification directly relates to our consumption behaviours and whether we attend matches, buy raffle tickets, merchandise and apparel. The highly identified fan is likely to make spur of the moment purchases of team apparel in comparison to the less identified fan. Club officials facilitate identification and increase merchandise sales by offering opportunities for fans to interact with their players. However, this is largely unachievable for today’s bigger teams.

Further, teams can remind fans of their history and previous success to bolster identification, success is an important element of team identification. Historically successful teams amass large followings from newer fans as they appear to have an easier route to success and as a result bring about enhanced wellbeing. Former Real Madrid General Manager, Jorge Valdano, spoke of their history following a period of poor performance “the sheer size of Madrid’s history meant that just by applying a cloth to it, the Rolls-Royce could shine again.” Associating with a team and their rich history contributes to identification and self-identity.

It is standard to see supporting a team as one element of a person’s identity, but in an unusual manner support for FC Barcelona (FCB) became the entire identity for many Catalans. Stemming from Franco’s Government seeking to eradicate Catalan culture, names, foods and symbols they had no outlet for their identity. FCB became a way for Catalans to express their culture and identity, Les Corts and later the Camp Nou were a haven in which they could cheer for Catalan players, sing Catalan songs and wave Catalan flags. When Franco had blocked all other channels of political expression, FCB was the last possible means of expression. The club is “mes que un club,” (more than a club) after all.

Super teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid have turned into huge money making corporations of late, opening their stadiums and museums in a guise to show off previous history, memorabilia and trophies but it was primarily done to increase revenue. FCB museums receives an average of 1.5 million visitors per year and Madrid an average of 1 million visitors. It is too simplistic to believe that fans monetary contribution to a club is all that is required from them.

But many fans view themselves, not as spectators or financial donors, but as integral participants of the group. As we already know fan support and their financial contribution (or lack of) has a direct impact on the game itself. La Liga is proceeding behind closed doors and without the presence of any fans. In order to counteract the lack of fans, noises recorded from previous games will be played. Suggesting that fans are an integral element to the sporting experience. An extreme example of fan involvement is during the second half of Roma – Lazio derby in 2004 Ultra fans instructed Francesco Totti of Roma to abandon the match or they’d kill the players. The match was subsequently abandoned.

Regardless of the manner in which we began supporting our chosen teams we still receive numerous psychological benefits. They contribute to our identity however they do not make up the entirety of our identity, as we are a culmination of the groups we are involved with. So the next time your team is losing and you’re frustrated, remember at least you’re enhancing your wellbeing at the same time, it’s not all bad.

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