Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fanning The Flames Of Fanaticism

For various reasons, I have taken some time recently to contemplate the psychological components of being a professional sports fan and specifically, an American fan of pro cycling. While I have not conducted any clinical research, I consider myself a 30+ year-old, passionate case study and am fairly confident in the validity of my conclusions. I will begin by examining some concrete traits and then move on to the more intangible elements of perception. And we all know that perception is reality, right?

As always, there is room for interpretation in this process and while I have attempted to maintain a certain level of objectivity, it should be acknowledged that my personal feelings on this subject have been developed over many years of informal data collection. I say informal because I was rarely graded or paid for my efforts, but in reality I have pursued knowledge of the sport with equal or greater vigor than any educational or occupational pursuits. Additionally, since the overwhelming majority of my experience with this subject has taken place within the United States, it is also important to note that my conclusions are based on the unique experience of following a largely European sport from an American cultural perspective.

One of the primary elements of the typical American cycling fan or “U.S. Cycle Racing Advocates and Zealots for Entertainment and Excitement (U.S.C.R.A.Z.E.E.)” is the physical connection to the racers. This is important when distinguishing an “average” European fan versus the typical American fan for a number of reasons. Due to the widespread cultural importance of cycling in many European countries, there is a level of interest which transcends the boundaries of individual participation and extends into the general public far more so than in the United States. In the U.S., the majority of fans are cyclists themselves and have an inherent appreciation for the act of cycling. As such, there is a strong identification with the riders as like-minded people with similar interests and behavioral patterns.

Danish National Cyclocross Champion Joaquim Parbo recently commented on this phenomenon after having spent the last few seasons in Boulder and participating in many U.S. events. Essentially, Parbo claimed that while there may be more spectators at European races, the fans of cycling in the States are far more respectful and understanding of the riders because they are often cyclists as well. He followed this statement with stories of wading through cigarette smoke, beer, hecklers and the more “average” sports fans at European events. Sound familiar to anyone?

In this respect, the typical European cycling fan may be more similar to the typical American Football fan who probably never even played the game but is able to find entertainment in the sport in a more “common” fashion. Anyone who has been to a major professional sporting event in the U.S. can infer what I mean here but for clarity – I am not exactly praising the motives, vocabulary and hygiene of the “common” American sports fan. Is there a European equivalent to the Oakland Raider Nation?

Anyway, at this point it will be helpful to identify the basic reasons that people become fans of a sport to begin with. The driving forces that make people sports fans, have been studied by psychologists, such as Dan Wann at Murray State University and they generally attribute people becoming fans to the following factors:

Entertainment - Sports spectatorship is a form of leisure. “Except for all the Donkeys who run alongside the riders in the Mountains. That’s got to be pretty hard when you’re that drunk.”

Escapism - Being a fan gives one an excuse to yell at something, an activity that may be constrained in other areas of one's life. “What other sport allows drunken spectators to yell and spit right in the face of the athletes as they perform nearly inhuman feats of strength and endurance?”

Euphoria/Stress - Fans experience euphoria during moments when play is going well for their team, and stress when play is going against their team. This generates pleasure. “Two of the happiest days of my life were when LeMond beat Fignon in 1989 and when Landis made his comeback in 2006. Two of the saddest were when Hamilton got popped in the Vuelta and when Floyd cracked in the yellow jersey. Don’t even get me started on the Giants and Niners.”

Aesthetics - Some people are fans simply because they appreciate the aesthetics of the game, such as the precision or skill of play. “Bike racing may be a little hard for some people to appreciate but generally speaking, guys like things that go fast and crash a lot and ladies like hairless dudes in tight shorts. There is obviously a lot more to it than that – but we are talking about Americans here.”

Family Bonding - Fans going on a family outing to watch a sports event form a psychological bond with one another as a family. “This is where the future of cycling in America is going to come from. People who grew up in the LeMond/7-Eleven/Armstrong eras are starting to have lots of kids. And many of them have a lot of money to spend. Would you rather have a child that races bikes or plays football?”

Self-esteem - Fans identify with their teams to the extent that they consider themselves successful when their teams have been successful. “I have always been fascinated by the strength of this phenomenon and am certain that much of the Lance Armstrong Effect was purely a result of his dominance in the Tour as a proud, flag-waving American. Regardless, there is a palpable confidence which comes from supporting a winner. Unless, of course, you happen to be from France.”

It is clear from this academic analysis that actual physical participation in the sport itself is not high on the list of motivating forces for becoming a fan. Interestingly, professional bicycle racing provides all of the driving factors listed above but has not grown in popularity to the extent that it has been able to draw in casual American sports fans. The Lance Armstrong Effect was the closest we have come to having non-cyclists comprise a significant portion of American cycling fans but since his retirement, many of these followers have left the sport behind largely because they were following a personal interest story rather than bike racing.

And here is where the perceptual element of being a cycling fan in America gets tricky. If you are like me, the L.A. Effect was appreciated for its presentation of the sport to an audience that would otherwise never have taken an interest but at the same time, it generated a mild resentment for the occasionally blatant “Band Wagon” followers. I wrote an article about this a while back that kind of sums up my thoughts on the whole deal.

In this respect, bicycle racing in the United States is kind of like your favorite band or TV show that hasn’t really gotten popular yet. There is a certain sense of pride that we are among the few individuals sophisticated enough to follow this marginalized sport/band/program without it being crammed down our throats by the mainstream media. As such, there is often a resulting desire to determine the “real” fans from those who have hopped on the Band Wagon of rising popularity. For example, I loved the first couple Black Eyed Peas albums but after they started getting popular, I moved on and let the Fergie Generation have them.

The L.A. Effect was a perfect example of this phenomenon as the development of the New Lance Fans began to overshadow the Old Cycling Fans in both visibility and commercial value. No matter how good that NRC race or early season Semi-Classic was, it just can’t match the broad marketability of a group of cancer survivors on a charity ride. And just like Bridging The Gaps is a far better song, My Humps is the one that made the BEP’s millions of dollars.

There is no denying that the Lance Armstrong Effect took the sport of cycling in the U.S. to a point of cultural importance which it likely would not have reached otherwise. For this, I believe most fans are truly grateful – despite the fact that we now have a former bike racer as tabloid fodder. But here lies the problem as well.

Cycling fans in the United States have historically been part of a small but extremely passionate group. When the sport grew in popularity (albeit somewhat artificially inflated by the L.A. Effect) during the Texas Occupation of France, many of the long-term followers rebelled against the resulting spotlight. I cannot speak for everyone, but it seems that many fans had difficulty accepting that their beloved sport had “sold out” to a certain extent. Perhaps those fans forgot about the old Taco Bell ads that Greg LeMond did, but still, it was odd recognizing that the sport had grown beyond the confines of VeloNews and into the realm of US Weekly.

At this point, I feel it may be necessary to acknowledge that the average cycling fan in the U.S. identifies with the riders – not necessarily other fans. This is important in that it is almost entirely opposite of the experience of average fans in other sports. The next time you go to a Football, Baseball or Basketball game, take a look around see how many people have absolutely no interest in the action taking place in the competition. There is a social component to the typical American sports fan which often elevates camaraderie (and inebriation) over competition and the sport itself.

It is also far easier for the average cycling fan to identify with Christian Vande Velde or Carlos Sastre than it is for Joe Sports Fan to identify with LeBron James or Tom Brady. Most of us are not 6’9” and even fewer of us have dated Giselle Bundschen. Therefore, many cycling fans are almost over-protective of many professionals because there is a sense of kinship that does not exist in many other sports. The life of pro football, baseball and basketball players is so foreign to most of us – both physically and financially – that they almost cease to be human. As a result, the treatment of these athletes by their fanbase can range from complete idol-worship to complete disdain and criticism.

This final point is worth looking into in greater detail and I will expand on this premise shortly. But in the meantime, I will offer a few internal dilemmas:

I want cycling to grow in popularity. But…I want it to be popular with people I like and respect. Unfortunately, I often do not like or respect many of my fellow Americans.

I want cycling to get to a point where it can be discussed intelligently and critically, similar to the broad range of coverage styles of “ESPN-level” sports, where there is little concern about offending the hyper-sensitivities of any particular fanbase. But…I also want to continue defending the sport as a whole. This may seem contradictory but I feel that by both defending and criticizing the sport of cycling, there is an opportunity to promote the sport and make it more intellectually stimulating as well.

I want cycling to be given the respect it deserves in the United States for making headway in the Fight Against Doping while all of the other sports have stuck their heads in the sand. But…I also want the topic of cheating to remove itself from all of the mainstream coverage of the sport. Even though cycling has been more proactive against doping than any other sport, it will continue to be cast as a venue for cheaters simply because efforts are being made to successfully catch them.

Again, I will delve more into these issues in the future. Now…off to Beijing where cycling is a big fish compared to events like synchronized swimming and archery. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.


Baublehead said...

Very well said. Very well.

One question for you. Are you gonna have a post about how Pro cycling and the UCI are splitting ways? You always seem like you're on top of these things.

Anonymous said...

It has long been known that women (especially) will enjoy a football game much more if they know the QB just married his HS sweetie or the kicker just went thru something very personal. Once there is a "relationship" the whole response changes for the better (usually). I found this to be true. I enjoy watching cycling more when I know about the teams and the "stars". This year was more of a challenge with the Tour because I had to learn a lot more about the newer riders. But, now that it's over, I am once again fully invested. We react more when there is a crash or amazing victory when we know who they are. Thanks, Phil, Bobke and Paul!
They are so good a highlighting people. So I'd venture to say cycling is really a relationship sport - for the Teams and the riders. And seriously, relationship is what life is about.
Great piece Dr. Jeru.

Sebastian said...

I've always felt that bike racing in general is better approached through narrative than in real time. That is, you often get a much better sense of how a race unfolds by reading a well-written piece of journalism that draws out, highlights and explores the decisive moments and the unspoken tactics of a race than by watching the whole five hours live from start to finish. Track cycling is a live spectator sport, but most of the great road races were started by newspaper men and designed not to be watched live but rather followed in print. Does this make sense? Or am I just trying to rationalize the fact that I'm a grad student who doesn't own a TV?

BeastGP said...

Brilliant post! Such is the ironic dichotomy of our existence.

I think that there is an accelerating factor involved in the connection with the pros that elevates us above the fans of other sports because we are closer to our heroes than they are. This feeling feeds itself.

Even though (as I'm typing this) I recognize this probably isn't all that accurate (my wattage is probably closer to Joe Shmoe than Tom Boonen) - my inner core doesn't actually believe the rational thought.

Again, well written!