Growing up in a small town in Italy in the 1980s, Marco grew up watching football. But when he graduated from high school, his football days ended. In Italy you either play ball or go to school. You don’t do both. University sports, sports scholarships – that was not an option. Marco’s mother had instilled in him that education is important and sport is fun, so he went to college and pursued a double degree that would allow him to study the first two years in Italy and the second two years abroad.
For those second two years, Marco landed in Boston across from Fenway Park. That was in 2005. “I had no idea Fenway was such a big deal.” Although he was somewhat familiar with baseball, he had only heard of the Yankees. During his two years in Boston, he confessed, “I never went to the Red Sox.” He had too much on his mind to bother with sports. He shrugged: “I had to learn English first.”
At the end of his time in Boston, Marco accepted a six-month internship and then a full-time position at Merrill Lynch in New York. It was here that his true training in American sports began. “My original bosses at Merrill were both baseball fans. One was a Mets fan and the other was a Phillies fan, so naturally I became a Yankees fan to piss them off.”
The Yankees were doing well then, and Marco attended a few games with his teammates. But for a man whose sports rhythm was tuned to the constant movement of football, baseball seemed more like an “interesting social experiment” than an exciting sport to watch.
Then Marco changed work groups and found himself in the middle of a group of (American) football fans. In order to participate in their discussions, he started watching football. “Coming from Italy, I didn’t have much in common with many Americans, but I found a lot of appreciation for football players in terms of their physicality, the speed, the techniques. Although the game stopped a lot, it was a lot more interesting to me than baseball ever was .” Coincidentally, the Patriots were on fire that year, finishing their regular season 16-0. “I was interested in a team that could make history,” Marco said, “so I threw a Super Bowl party.”
Spoiler alert: The Patriots lost. But Marco had been driving the fandom flywheel in search of social connection with his peers. And it started spinning.
The next season, he added another fan activity: joining a fantasy football league. “It was a great opportunity for me to get closer to other people, to have something in common to talk about. It would also force me to pay more attention and understand the game better because the rules are complicated. ”
As the flywheel gathered momentum, Marco’s social connections grew and his fan base deepened. Watching NFL RedZone and managing a fantasy football team combined became a great way for him to learn more about the NFL in general. “It definitely makes you follow more and appreciate the sport more. Initially I played fantasy football throughout the season where you have a draft at the beginning of the year. It takes a lot of prep work and then weeks of maintenance, but that caused too much frustration from luck and injuries, so I switched to Daily Fantasy, where you get a chance to build your team every week. To do that, you need to become a much better observer of trends, and that made me more excited about certain players.”
When Marco founded his own company with a few colleagues in 2018, he immediately saw an opportunity to bring the group together: he founded a fantasy football league with them. He remained active in the Merrill Lynch league and the new league because together they allowed him to “network and keep in touch with a lot of different people.”
Meanwhile, Marco discovered that he and a work friend shared a passion that existed before he immigrated to America: golf. The two began discussing golfers, playing together, and inviting others into their conversations. As this additional activity sped up the momentum, friendships grew. Marco and his buddies started meeting to watch tournaments together on TV. Marco’s flywheel might have started slowly, but as it picked up speed it began to spin freely and his social connections blossomed.
Ultimately, Marco sees the benefits of the flywheel in his personal and work life. “When you become close friends outside of work, it’s easier to work together and work well together. When you become friends, you become more responsible to each other. They don’t want to let each other down.”
The intrinsic benefits of fandom
This flywheel we are talking about is not trivial. It doesn’t just pull you in to buy jerseys, watch more games, or deepen your sports knowledge (although it does those things). It pulls you in to initiate more social interactions. And that, we suspect, is the real win.
George Vallaint, lead researcher in The Grant Study, would agree. The Grant Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938, followed the lives of 268 men, all Harvard graduates, for 75 years and analyzed various components of their health and well-being. When asked in 2008, “What have you learned from the men of the grant study?” Valaint replied, “The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships with other people.”
“When you become friends, you become more responsible to each other. They don’t want to disappoint each other.”
Knowing that fandom enhances social interactions, we jumped at the idea that it could also increase fan wellbeing. We began studying wellness-related social sciences and incorporating measures of well-being into our own research. Soon the cascading benefits of fans’ rich social lives became apparent. Below, we highlight fandom’s impact on five wellness markers: Happiness, Contentment, Optimism, Gratitude, and Confidence.
To measure happiness, we borrowed a scale from the Pew Research Center, an organization that regularly measures happiness using a simple three-point scale: very happy, fairly happy, not too happy. Just over a third (34%) of high-value fans described themselves as very happy, compared to 25% of mid-value fans and 20% of low-value fans. More specifically, the bigger the fan, the more social interaction; The more social interaction, the happier the person. It’s the extra sociability that fandom inherently spurs on that leads to this increased happiness.
Next, we used a life satisfaction scale, also from Pew, and asked respondents to rate their satisfaction with life in three areas: their family, their community, and their personal financial situation. With this additional level of detail, we saw even more dramatic differences in wellbeing between non-fans and high-value fans.
We turned to Pew again to measure optimism and asked respondents to imagine what different aspects of their life would be like in a year’s time. These included general happiness, personal finances, connection to family, connection to friends, and connection to the local community. A familiar pattern emerged: the bigger the fan, the more optimistic about the future, across all areas of life.
Interestingly, high-level fans are much more optimistic than low-level fans about their connection to their local communities. Given that, we wondered if being loyal to a local team might foster that bond. But we found no evidence of this. The connection is not driven by an affiliation with a local team or that team’s relative success. Rather, the increased number of social interactions fans have forges stronger bonds with their local communities.
As an additional measure of well-being, we used the Gratitude Questionnaire, designed to measure people’s experience with gratitude. The bigger the fan, the higher the gratitude across the board.
The connection is not driven by an affiliation with a local team or that team’s relative success.
Eventually, it occurred to us that people with robust social networks and increased levels of happiness, contentment, optimism, and gratitude might also go about the world with more confidence. To measure fans’ confidence and self-esteem, we borrowed attributes from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, the most commonly used tool to measure self-esteem. We see once again that high-quality fans outperform all other segments.
This is the fandom flywheel in action. Driven by its feedback loop, the flywheel spins faster and faster with each additional activity, not only drawing fans deeper into their involvement with the sport, but also generating greater social connectedness that generates increased well-being among fans.
When we eliminate our preconceptions, connect the dots, and understand the logic underlying fandom, the connections between fan activity and increased well-being become clear. When used mindfully, this sense of well-being can transcend the lives of individual fans and positively impact entire communities.