Why the Super Bowl Matters

On Super Bowl Sunday, one team will claim victory and the other, defeat. But psychologically, many of their fans will wind up winning -- no matter the score.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
4 min read

Sure, there are those really great $2 1/2 million commercials. That really bad half-time show. The fill-in-your-own-adjective commentary. But the main reason why most of the 90 million faithful will watch sport's biggest event on Sunday is to root.

They are fans. And that means come Monday morning, many will be joining the turf-trodden players of Super Bowl XL in either nursing their wounds or champagne glasses -- if only metaphorically.

In one city and beyond, millions will joyously celebrate a victory claimed as their own, perhaps earning more arm strain than their gridiron warriors from high-fiving strangers and patting themselves on the back. In another city, millions of others will feel the sting of disappointment, envy, hurt, and perhaps feelings of abandonment from their team's loss.

But if history and science hold true, most of these devotees will eventually emerge as winners -- no matter the score.

"There's no doubt that a lot of sports fans are so involved that the team's performance literally becomes their own. They're going to feel the same elation from a win or sadness from a loss that is felt by the athletes, sometimes even more intensely," says Daniel Wann, PhD, author of Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators, and a leading expert in the field.

"But for the most part, whether their team wins or loses, sports fans are more psychologically healthy than those who don't follow sports. Because in the long run, it's not really the performance that matters, it's the connection to the team."

His studies over the past two decades indicate that all things considered, ardent sports fans have lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem than those who don't follow sports. Most of his research has been on college students.

"If you're a Jayhawks fan and going to the University of Kansas fieldhouse for a game, I promise you, you cannot feel depressed or alienated or lonely," says Wann, a Kansas grad and professor psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky. "If they lose, you'll be sad for a day or so. But on a day-to-day basis, you will be happier because you feel this connection to other people in your immediate surroundings."

Blame it our primal nature. "Sports fandom is really a tribal thing," he tells WebMD. "We've known for decades that social support -- our tribal networks -- is largely responsible for keeping people mentally sound, whether it's our religious organizations, our business or vocation affiliations, our communities, or our families. We have a psychological need to belong.

"And these days, people don't live within walking distance to 20 members of their family like they did 50 or 100 years ago. People don't go to church as often as they used to. So one option -- although not the only one -- is sports fandom. By going to a game, or even watching it, you get that sense of tribalness, of community, of a common bound you can embrace."

When the "tribe" wins, the joy can linger for months. When it loses, its remote-holding members usually recover quickly -- typically within three days.

Perhaps that's one reason why the myth of the "football widow" is largely that -- in reality, affecting less than 1% of married women, says Wann. "For the vast majority, sports fandom is good for a relationship. It has a positive impact because it gives couples something to do together, or it has a neutral effect; he watches the game while she plays with her friends. Rarely does it have a negative impact."

Of course, it can. "If devotion to your team is interfering with other aspects of your life, like if you're missing your children's school play or not showing up for work because you want to watch a game, then you have a problem," says Wann. "Still, those cases are few and far between."

What's more likely to occur is a lack of devotion shown by fair-weather fans.

"Unfortunately, there's a regrettable tendency among some sports fans to take credit for the victory in the language they use, by describing the outcome as 'we won' while distancing themselves by saying 'they lost' when describing a defeat," says Robert Cialdini, PhD, of the University of Arizona, who pioneered research on sports fans behavior in the 1970s. "We find that these fair-weathered fans who try to distance themselves after a defeat typically have low self-esteem."

And true fans? Others studies show that many experience the same hormonal and other physiologic changes watching a game as athletes have while playing. When it's the thrill of victory, the pride of their tribe's victory is proudly displayed. Psychologically speaking, it's known as "basking in reflected glory" -- a term first coined by Cialdini.

"They actually feel the joy of the victory because we want to be associated with positive things, both in eyes of others and in our own perception of ourselves," he tells WebMD. "We want to be connected to that victory -- that success -- even if we have nothing to do with it."