MURRAY, Kentucky – Dan Wann drives us from his office building on campus to somewhere in town for lunch. Sorry, to THAT place in town for lunch as he sees it. Oh, and I gotta try dinner. And I have to leave room for cake. He recommends the dumplings first because I asked. He knows this place and this area and I trust him.
So I order what he orders. Even the “soup and dumplings”.
“If you see me spill my soup because my hand is shaking, don’t worry,” I say, “my hand has been doing this my whole life.”
“At least you have an excuse,” he jokes, and we laugh.
I appreciate Wann’s perspective.
In so many ways.
That’s why I’m here, why I recently drove more than 300 miles southwest of Cincinnati to see him. I do what I do as a sports fan coach because of what Wann did. He also knows his way around when it comes to sports fans.
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Maybe better than anyone.
No wonder ESPN called him “Dr. fanbase.”
Wann is a psychology professor at Murray State University and specializes in researching sports fans. His work is among over 1,000 references cited in the 2019 book he co-authored with Jeffrey James, Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Fandom. It’s a bible to me.
When I was exploring the idea of coaching sports fans three years ago, Wann was kind enough to talk to me on the phone. I asked him what the fans are struggling with… what they want… and what they want more of. He can’t remember anyone asking her. Marketing questions focus more on a team’s concessions, restrooms, and other gaming experiences.
“You could be like a sports psychologist for fans,” Wann said. “You can do sports education for fans.”
He spoke more generally. He knew I was a coach and would approach it as one. That’s exactly what I thought. I knew coaching fans would be unique, but little did I know these questions would also be new.
And now, three years later, I’m meeting Wann in person for the first time and I feel like a student reconnecting with a teacher who made a difference. The work he shares with the world through sports fans helps me to help them.
I can talk to him like I can’t talk to anyone else. I share with him some of my experiences. I tell him how I explained my Bengals fandom for the rest of last season, and the impact of the gatekeepers, and how this gave me insight to help others define fandom in their own way.
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I tell him how the Castellinis have infuriated Reds fans, from Phil’s “where are you going” to Bob’s lack of transparency and accountability to the team. I tell him how much empathy and communication can mean to the fans until the team wins again. I say Cubs fans wanted the same thing from their owner after Tom Ricketts cited ‘biblical’ MLB losses, deconstructed his team and then joined a bid to buy Chelsea football for billions.
when will it get
Like me, he was a fan at first. We knew what it was like to follow a losing team. Coincidentally the same.
He’s from Kansas, I’m from Chicago, and we both grew up around Cubs fans in the late 1960s — although he did it to mock his older brother, who, like their father, was a fan of the rival St. Louis Cardinals and there grew up in Southeast Missouri. Wann says this in his book to explain team identification and fan socialization. The human touch is a spoonful of sugar to help academic speaking come down.
When is engaged. And open. The book clearly states that the study of sports fans is a relatively modern pursuit, and it is difficult to infer too much from isolated studies or articles. I looked at some of them. He was spot on.
I tell him over lunch that I understand now and that I can imagine how awkward it must be when everyone wants him to comment briefly on fandom, but the answer isn’t that simple. He says he once felt his discomfort as the words came out of his mouth.
Still, he believes that sports fandom is overwhelmingly positive, and I agree. The connection to the team and its fanbase can be strong, like family. Most fans don’t get violent because of fandom. But our level of connection can affect how we think, feel, and behave. When research something like that.
The stress of the game and the pain of losing can bother us more than we would like. As is managing time, money, balance, other fans, relationships, team decisions, and more. I help with things like this, not to make someone a better fan, but to improve the experience so we can keep our passion without losing ourselves.
We don’t have to be perfect.
When Dan and a woman who used to sit right behind him at Murray State basketball games started texting, she asked him if he liked NASCAR. In a 2020 radio interview, he said he replied, “No, I like sports.” He now tells me he also joked about what NASCAR stands for. And the answer was…silence. “You think I know better,” he says now, knowing full well that a joking message wasn’t enough.
Michelle came back to him. She was an Ohio State grad and liked Buckeyes football, but he hated it, so on a real date, a stroll across campus, she showed up in an Ohio State Championship hoodie.
Dan and Michelle have been married for five years now, and Dan has even started enjoying Ohio State Football as well. Life goes like that sometimes.
As serious as Dan Wann is about what he does, he’s clearly trying not to take himself too seriously. I appreciate that about him. We talk, laugh and enjoy the food for two hours and I’m glad I followed his example. Again.
As he drops me off on campus, I thank him for lunch and tell him that he and his work have inspired me to do what I do, and that I can’t do anything I do without him could. He thanks me and seems genuinely touched.
That’s why I trust Dan Wann.