The Psychology of Being a Fan Part Two: The Vicarious Fan

If you're like me and think this is the best therapy in the world, you're a vicarious fan.

If you’re like me and think this is the best therapy in the world, you’re a vicarious fan.


Psychology Today published the Field Guide to the Die-Hard Fan by Stephanie Booth[1] where she stepped through the many characteristics of a truly immersed fan: which, in short, uses the communal feeling of being a fan for social connection and a sense of belonging, feeling a sense of personal success through the success of the team, and using the sport as an escape from negative or stressful issues in their personal life. In the interest of full disclosure, I hit every marker she mentioned. She also wrote about the music fan. I hit all those markers too, and I wasn’t far off on the movie nerd category (I have four basic flavors to my wardrobe: Steelers, Penguins, Rush, and Star Wars). The bottom line, I’ve always concluded about myself, is that if I end up liking something then I REALLY like it. There are not a lot of shades of grey in my world. I’m all in or I’m all out. Maybe I should be embarrassed by my immersions, but I’m not (obviously). Maybe my husband should be worried about my mental well-being, but I think he is just happy I’m easy to buy for. And that’s a pattern repeated all over not only Pittsburgh, but also the world.

So, what do we fanboys or girls get out of it? Well, speaking strictly for me, as Ms. Booth pointed out in her article, “Superfandom may also be a coping strategy.” When I was visiting Pittsburgh for a Steelers game one year, I took in a Penguins game too. They got shut out by the Devils 5-0, but I came away hooked. The pace of the game was mesmerizing and the skill level those guys have is incredible. I jumped off the bandwagon I had been riding for years and became a legit hockey fan. Now it rivals football for my affection because when the puck is on the ice there is no time to think about life’s sorrows or pressures. There is only the fight for a vulcanized rubber disc. It is all enveloping.

Nothing wrong with that, right? The answer depends on how deep the fan dives into sports-as-therapy, because in a competitive world, it is all too easy to get the rug pulled out from under you. Hockey fans all over the continent felt that all too deeply the day after the Super Bowl. The silence was nearly deafening. Football was done, but there was no hockey to take its place, the league embroiled in yet another lockout. I remember thinking, “Well, this is it. I’m really going to have to learn to deal with my own stuff now.”

For the Steelers fan base, there has for so long been a sense that the city’s pride and reputation, battered badly by the collapse of the steel industry, was offset by the rise of the football franchise. As 153,000 jobs were lost in the mills during the early 80’s [2] , the success of the Steelers was a faint ray of hope and pride to hang onto. The city has worked long and hard to get past that and restore and reinvent itself, but that sense somehow that the sports franchises hold our collective self-respect in their hands remains.

I have finally realized that the danger of that “all in” attitude is when the teams are losing, which inevitably they will; the fans are left in the abyss, and that leaves them restless and angry. When our own sense of being is tied up in our fandom, we forget the very thing we’re watching is a “game”. So, for those of us who live vicariously through our sports teams, we should heed the words penned over two thousand years ago by Euripides, “The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life…”



[2] Hoerr, John P. (1988). And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-5398-6.


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