The irrationality of sporting allegiances

In a comment to an earlier post on cricket, Marcus Ranum asked an interesting question about sports that I thought deserved a thoughtful answer.

I am interested why an otherwise rational person such as yourself, Prof. Singham, feels concern about a professional national team’s performance. What makes you feel connected to their defeat or victory?

It never made any sense to me why anyone cares about professional sports, other than tribalism or nationalism. How do you make an emotional connection between the little guys in the pictures, who are being paid to play a game, and “my team”?

I do enjoy occasionally watching professional sports because they are so super darned good. And all the weird musculature from the performance-enhancing drugs is kind of fun to look at. It’s the emotional connection that makes no sense to me at all.

I think Marcus may be crediting me with a higher level of rationality than I can rightfully claim. There are many things that I take an irrational like and dislike to, in the sense that I cannot justify them on the basis of a cold analysis and indeed do not even try to. Some things are just fun.

His question relates to professional sports in particular and allegiance to those teams. I will immediately concede that having an allegiance to a team, in the sense that one cares whether they win or lose even though there is no tangible gain or loss involved, is irrational. The only reason for such allegiance is because having one adds to one’s enjoyment of watching the game.

The things that one is passionately fond of when young are hard to shake off as an adult. As someone who as a child and a youth spent almost his entire free time playing, watching, reading, and listening on the radio about cricket, and developed a high appreciation for the subtleties and nuances of the game, my affection for the game remains strong. It remains one my sources of relaxation and pleasure, along with watching films and reading.

If one likes a sport, then it is at the professional level that one sees the highest level of skills on display. And having an allegiance to a team, however tenuous, adds spice to watching it because it gives one a vested, if intangible, interest in the outcome. So one picks a team based on some connection such as geography or other irrational link.

For example, I recently spent two days in California watching tennis. My daughter was playing for her club team in an amateur regional tournament and I was utterly absorbed because through her I had a sense of connection to her team even though I had just met her team members for the first time and may never see them again. The fact that they were members of my daughter’s team gave me enough of a link that I cared whether they won or lost this minor tournament and this added a level of tension that increased the enjoyment of being a spectator.

My connection to the Sri Lankan cricket team should be obvious since I was born there but it is not the only factor at play in choosing which team to root for in any given game. I tend to favor those countries that play the game in the proper spirit, which makes me like New Zealand. I have a soft spot for West Indies because though they have fallen on hard times recently, my formative years were spent thrilling to their combination of superb skills, frequently unorthodox play, and exuberant attitude. I also like underdogs and that varies from match to match. Sometimes these factors are in conflict for any given match. But since I really do not care all that strongly about the outcome, this does not matter. It is, after all, just a game and I enjoy seeing excellent play whoever does it.

I disapprove of hyper-partisanship where people are too quick to vent at umpires or other boorish behavior. Playing and watching in the best possible spirit is paramount. Sadly the professional level is also where poor sportsmanship is rampant and other negative factors such as cheating, drug-taking, and serious injuries become salient and if those are too great then I cease to be a fan. For example, I have turned away from American football because the danger to players is too great and the way that team owners extort cities is shameful. If negatives such as those or others become dominant in international cricket, I may abandon it too. The allegations of match fixing, for example, are a serious cause for concern.

So yes, my attachment to cricket is irrational. But I really don’t care. It’s just fun.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    It’s just fun.

    Oh, it can be agonizing. Just watching Leeds United or the England men’s football team is an ordeal for me if the game is close. Watching other sides play can be fun, and I can appreciate the play a lot more. But the emotional ties can be a source of great stress, and great joy. Irrational? Definitely. So is spending hours on end playing computer games. I’ve never understood that, but asking a gamer to explain their passion is as pointless as asking a sports fan to explain theirs. There’s nowt as queer as folk, that’s all.

  2. lorn says

    I’ve always assumed that fan loyalty was originally a matter of locality with local teams manned by local athletes assembled under a regional name. To cheer for the local boys, many of which are your neighbors, makes sense. Win, lose or tie they are our youths and are representatives of this area. It makes sense that with so much in common we would be aligned.

    Modern sports aren’t like that. The players are gathered from across the nation, and globe. Teams, and players, have little or no loyalty to any one city, state, or locality and will pick up stakes and move if the grass seems even slightly greener at any other location.

    Perhaps it is my mobile early life but the mercenary and profit seeking lack of loyalty shown to the fans by teams and players tends to put me off feeling any great enthusiasm or loyalty to the players or teams.

  3. says

    Thank you for the awesome answer!! It was much more than I expected.

    Your final argument, that your reasons are ultimately aesthetic, is the only one that makes sense to me. “Fun” is good.

  4. fentex says

    To cheer for the local boys, many of which are your neighbors, makes sense. Win, lose or tie they are our youths and are representatives of this area. It makes sense that with so much in common we would be aligned.

    Modern sports aren’t like that.

    I like Super Rugby but only because it still has the flavour of regional competition. The business is trying to turn it into a purely franchise orientated business with no regional loyalties but is facing stiff resistance from tradition in the countries that participate.

    I personally believe there’s no place at all for loyalty in professional sports. As soon as it is a players profession they owe no loyalty to anyone but their own fortunes and there can be no expectation of reciprocation. Which is why I’m firmly of the opinion that if you want to watch sports played for the spirit you should go to a local park and watch people playing solely for the enjoyment.

    A possible exception is international competition where team membership is strictly limited to citizens of the nations in question where one can simply enjoy the partisan competition.

  5. says

    Rob Grigjanis:
    I’ve never understood that, but asking a gamer to explain their passion is as pointless as asking a sports fan to explain theirs.

    Good point. I normally answer that question as, “It’s more fun because it’s pointless.” Since there is nothing at stake (usually!) there can be conflict without malice and experimentation without loss. One thing that -- even as a gamer -- has always fascinated me is the confusion some players have between in-game wealth and real-world wealth. I believe it’s some kind of trained-in response in most people. I believe that the “watching your local team play” is, probably, as well.

    Some aspects of any game -- whether it’s a computer game or a sport -- I can explain easily: it’s fun to do something well. Whether it’s throwing a frisbee or shooting online space pirates: exercising skill gives us little shots of pleasure. I have often wondered if someone getting a similar shot of pleasure from watching Tiger Woods (is he still a thing?) hit a ball into a cup could be a result of mirror nerve activity.

  6. i swear I'm not an imposter says

    As a former athlete who enjoys video games and thinks professional and national (sports, competitive gaming) fandom is fucking stupid, Rob Grigjanis is comparing apples to oranges.

    It is trivially easy to explain why one enjoys playing any kind of game, traditional, video, or sportsball.
    What is not easy to explain is why one gives any shits about a specific star craft (and I guess it’s DoTA now outside of Korea) player or team, or justify console war bullshit being anything other than dumb, or some Rando Calrissian from mississippi who threw a rubber egg for millions of dollars too many years in green bay, or shit teams who has never been good like the other two major sports in wisconsin, or why all that caring leads to petty ass hatred of teams from neighboring states, or why the US suddenly cares about football (not handegg) when 11-15 people they’ve never heard of beat several groups of 11-15 people from not ‘murica.

    I like kicking a ball or trying to hit middle school kids or my wife with a shinai, or knocking down stuff with a heavy sphere, but I don’t, and don’t understand why, I should give two shits about a team I will never play on or against nor did I cheer for anything other than good kendo when we were fortunate enough to attend the WKC last year, nor why anyone should care about bowling when they aren’t in temporal proximity to doing it.

  7. mnb0 says

    “It’s the emotional connection that makes no sense to me at all.”
    Must emotional connections make sense? Exactly the irrationality of a sporting allegiance is what attracts me. My motto: the worse the argument to root for a team or athlete the better. That means that I don’t take it too seriously.
    Still it will give me joy if the Pistons qualify for the play offs for the first time since 2010 or so, to mention an allegiance of mine that doesn’t make any sense. But since I entered that I allegiance I enjoy basketball a lot more.
    What I have “discovered” is that both rooting for and rooting against a team or athlete increases the fun. When Cristiano Ronaldo, a character I dislike, loses I feel fine. I also felt happy when FC Twente became champion. I am sad now though, because the club might cease to exist this year. I consider turning to female football (soccer), though I cannot help enjoying the sheer beauty Messi, Suarez and Neymar provide.
    Most fun is to watch a match with someone who roots for the opposing team. It provides a good opportunity for banter and silly jokes. Rationality only gets in the way afaIc.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    @6: As a former soccer player who thinks people should enjoy whatever turns their cranks as long as no-one gets intentionally hurt, I don’t give a toss what you think is fucking stupid.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @7:

    I cannot help enjoying the sheer beauty Messi, Suarez and Neymar provide.

    Provided Luis keeps his jaws shut!

  10. i swear I'm not an imposter says

    @8: Because petty tribalism amongst humans never led to anything bad. Crank turning is one thing, the shit that gets started over who has a better crank or fallaciously associates themself with a better crank turner is something we would do well to leave behind. Sports antagonism is a bedfellow of bigotry.

  11. says

    Sports antagonism is a bedfellow of bigotry.

    I’ve always suspected it as a training ground for authoritarian followers. Wouldn’t it be interesting to give the authoritarianism survey to everyone attending a sporting event?

    Basically, the “kill them, they’re the other team” is the root of nationalism.

    I first started to think this way when I was accosted at the airport near Penn State because I was wearing a U Mich jacket someone had given me (I did a talk at the CS department…) -- the guy was really wound up and red-faced and yelling at me. I called for security and the DHS guys went over and calmed him down, then told me that he was a football fan. um… Yeah that was when I started to think “there’s something wrong with these guys.”

  12. Rob Grigjanis says


    Because petty tribalism amongst humans never led to anything bad

    You might as well say “being human never led to anything bad”. We actively look for groups to join (often while proclaiming our individuality and specialness), and this almost inevitably leads to hills being climbed, flags planted, and feces hurled. And in these groups, there are always arseholes who take it to the extreme, and make the news, or at least someone’s anecdote. And outside those groups, there are folk who say “See? If everyone just climbed down from that hill, things would be better.”. And old farts like me just larf. Good luck with that.

  13. naturalcynic says

    Then there’s curmudgeons like me who think that it’s a real shame when Notre Dame plays USC that one of them is going to win

  14. StevoR says

    @11. Marcus Ranum : “.. DHS guys went over and calmed him down, then told me that he was a football fan. “

    You know what fan is short for right? Fanatic.

    Sometimes people do go over the top in whatever they are fanatical about -- but that can and does include politics and science as well as sport and art.

    Its basically giving a shit about the shit you care about really.

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