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Researcher, author discusses science of sports fandom

Researcher and author Andrei Markovits turned his sociological microscope on himself to try to understand what motivates sports fans.

Researcher and author Andrei Markovits turned his sociological microscope on himself to try to understand what motivates sports fans.

Markovits is the author of books including Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States, Gaming the World: How Sports are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture, and Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Markovits, whose academic day job is being the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan, spoke about how some sports - particularly team sports involving some form of ball, or ball-like object - have a cultural influence that extends far beyond the people who play the game.

"My wife worries that if Manchester United loses, I'm unbearable until Tuesday. What is my relationship with Manchester United? I rarely even travel to Manchester, except to seem them occasionally," Markovits said. "When you think about it, it's totally meaningless. There is not utility in this -there is no importance. [But] your emotional investment in these hegemonic sports is huge."

Most sports have small followings made up people who play them, used to play them, or are otherwise directly involved in them, he said. But what he calls hegemonic sports create followings of emotionally-invested fans and can even influence the language they speak.

"Languages are heavily sportized. American English is heavily baseballized, [while] British English is heavily cricketized. In Spanish, there is a lot of bullfighting expressions," he said. "This is the world of hegemonic sports culture that penetrates all aspects of society. Who in Canada doesn't know who [Sydney] Crosby is?"

To meet his definition of a hegemonic sport it must have a deep cultural influence and fans must follow it -including all the details, statistics, player trades, etc. -even when the sport is out of season.

Different sports have different degrees of influence in different countries and, in some cases such as Australia, even within different regions of the same country, he said.

And while female fandom is on the rise "it's very clear it's a gendered world," he said.

"The emotional investment for men is so much more, but the pain [when their team loses] is also so much more," Markovits said. "When I was a kid, every English soccer games started Saturday at 3 p.m. Why? Because the factory gates closed at 2 p.m.... and that gave them time to get to the game. For it to become part of the hegemonic sports culture, you have to have a large group of working-class men."

However, these sports do create a mixing place for people of different social classes within society, he said.


Of the sports to achieve hegemonic status around the world, almost all are played during spring, summer and autumn, he said. Most winter sports only receive major public attention during the Olympics.

"Most winter sports are only followed once every four years, and they are followed for one reason only [nationalism]," he said. "They are quadrennial events motivated by national pride."

But while events like the Olympics -and likely, the 2015 Canada Winter Games in Prince George -will make individuals stars, there is little evidence to show that fandom for these other, largely amatuer sports, increases after the Games.

"Even the unimitatable Michael Phelps. The guy has 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold," Markovits said.

While Americans are interested in Phelps, his success in swimming has made little difference in Americans' interest in swimming as a sport, he said.

Of the winter sports, only a few have achieved hegemonic status.

"Speed skaters in Holland are rock stars," he said. "And in 1972 [hockey] transformed itself from a Canadian fraternity to a global culture. It's big in Sweden, and of course it's huge in Russia... [but] the U.S. and Canada are the core."

The 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR was like the moon landing or the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, he said.

"To Canadians of a certain age, everybody knows September 1972," he said. "I would argue this is the beginning of the internationalization of the game."

While the NHL was once almost entirely comprised of Canadians and Americans from the northern states, it is now the most international of the major North American sports leagues, he said.

"[And] more and more U.S. players are coming from North Carolina, California, Florida... We could have a Gretzky from Florida."