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Self-esteem of sports fans is linked to their team, research shows

Winning or losing not only changes how fans dress, but also how they talk about their team

An illustration of a gold trophy with confetti around it. You can see someone's face in the reflection who is smiling.
(George Wylesol for The Washington Post)

Sports fans, especially at the World Cup, use their clothes and colors to show their team identity. But it is not just apparel; fans’ self-esteem and sense of belonging are also tied to their team, researchers say. Fans may have no direct contribution to match outcomes, but they feel each win and loss as their own.

If their team wins, fans wear team colors the following day and brag about how “we” won the day, a behavior researchers have dubbed “basking in reflected glory,” or BIRGing.

But if their team loses, fans cast off their team jerseys and talk about how “they” did not perform as well, thereby “cutting off reflected failure,” or CORFing.

These behaviors are “all interconnected, and they all have to do with self-esteem,” said Jonathan Jensen, associate professor of sport administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

How a team’s win or loss reflects on the fan

A 1976 study first described BIRGing and CORFing.

Almost 40 years later, Jensen and his colleagues sought to replicate that study. They surreptitiously monitored — with approval of the institutional review board — how many of over 200 students wore school-affiliated apparel during roll call for each class, throughout the college football season at seven universities.

The researchers found that if a student’s football team won a game, it more than doubled the odds of the student wearing the team’s apparel in the following class. Winning also more than tripled the likelihood of wearing more than two articles of team-branded clothing. This BIRGing effect also diminished for each day that elapsed since the game.

Conversely, a loss significantly reduced the odds of wearing team apparel by more than half and reduced the odds of wearing two or more articles of team clothing by over 70 percent.

These findings tally with the original study, Jensen said. Sports fans “choose to wear the apparel to signal to members of both the in-group and out-group which team they’re affiliated with, and they’re doing so to boost their own self-esteem,” he said.

Winning or losing not only changed how fans dressed, but also how they talked about their affiliation to the team to signal whose side they are on.

“It’s that notion of yes, wanting to be part of an in-group, but also a desire not to be a part of an out-group,” said Andrew Billings, executive director of sports communication at the University of Alabama.

In one study, Billings and his colleagues used machine learning to analyze more than 7,000 geo-tagged tweets made during 2018 World Cup matches pitting England against Croatia and Colombia to analyze BIRGing and CORFing in real time.

They found that English fans tended to bask in reflected glory when England was leading or victorious, increasing the use of pronouns such as “we,” “us” and “our” to show their affiliation with the soccer team when their team scored or saved a goal.

In contrast, the fans used pronouns such as “they,” “them” and “their” when England trailed or lost. Interestingly, fans still BIRGed when their team was ultimately defeated by Croatia, probably because the team still made it to the semifinals — an accomplishment for England in the World Cup.

“It's really about how sports becomes a conduit for feeling a part of the in-group or being part of a group membership,” Billings said.

There are hints that these sports matches can affect fan physiology as well as their sense of self-esteem and belonging.

Researchers collected the saliva of 21 male fans watching the 1994 televised World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Italy to measure their testosterone levels before and after the match.

After Brazil won the match on a penalty kick, their fans’ testosterone increased, while the testosterone of the losing Italian team fans decreased.

(Interestingly, the Italian fans were also less willing to provide salivary samples the day following their team’s defeat; one Italian postgame sample was also contaminated with blood and couldn’t be used.)

But just because a team you are cheering for wins does not mean you will BIRG for them, especially if your team was an unexpected winner.

“You might hold off a little bit, because, you know, there’s always generally a next game” which your underdog team may well lose, Jensen said.

Fans may decide to hold off their enthusiasm and cut off future failure, or COFFing, as a way to mitigate a blow to their self-esteem in the future.

Case in point: the U.S. men’s soccer team.

Soccer is not a steady part of American culture, so there are still many “sampling or casual fans” who may not appreciate how impressive it is for the U.S. team to draw against England and instead be ready to write them off when they lost, Billings said.

COFFing occurs in the political sphere, too. When a candidate who was not expected to win wins, fans and supporters of that candidate were less likely to display their campaign buttons and affiliation.

“The magic bullet for everything tends to be sustained success, where you say, this is something I want to invest my time in,” Billings said. “And for that, you don't just want one glimpse of success, you want to feel like there is decent hope for future success.”

Social affiliation from sports is important — to a point

Studying the behavior of sports fans can help explain how people react to political elections, brands and other types of affiliation, Jensen said. “Everybody has self-esteem and ego,” he said.

“Honestly, I don’t think that sports are very different,” Jensen said. “And I think how you might respond to actions that happen in the real world can be very similar to how you might respond to … a game.”

Sports is another mechanism for social affiliation, and Billings says that sports affiliation is on the rise, partly because other bonds across society have splintered — music, popular culture and politics.

Sports offers a level of clarity to sharpen these affiliations and offers consistent metrics about which group succeeded or failed, Billings said. “There’s a lot of conflict in sports, but there’s also a lot of conflict resolution, at least in terms of the scoreboard,” he said.

There are, of course, potential downsides to becoming too invested in a sports team, such as when your affiliation with the team becomes stronger than the people around you, Billings said. “We’ve heard cases around here where people have skipped their son’s or daughter’s wedding because it was happening during an Alabama football game,” he said.

While there are social and health benefits to being part of a group, having too much of your self-esteem wrapped up in a sports identity can subject it to the whims of athletic fortunes.

“Sometimes when you put too many eggs in the sports basket, you are leaving your mood up to athletes or teams that you have no control over,” Billings said.

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email BrainMatters@washpost.com and we may answer it in a future column.

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