My Favorite Things: What Makes Sports So Popular?

Posted inCreative Voices

I am a lifelong sports fan.

That means that for about 70 of my 75 years I have enjoyed watching sports of all kinds. I’ve spent countless hours doing so. This makes me one of billions of people around the world for whom watching sports is a favorite pastime.

People who don’t follow sports, or even enjoy spending time watching sports, often have a hard time understanding their appeal. “Sportsball,” some non-fans mockingly call it.

I’m not talking about sports like track and field, figure skating, or gymnastics. I’m talking about competitive team sports, in particular football, baseball, basketball, and what we Americans call soccer.

Team sports.

Team sports present opportunities for people around the world to attach their personal identities to their teams’ performances…the successes or failures of groups of people who change from season-to-season but who consistently wear the same uniforms. No matter. We fans root for them anyway. The phenomenon is so common that sports fans even have a term for it: “I root for the laundry.

All of this became strikingly clear over as I watched the 2022 Qatar World Cup come to an exciting finish.

Last November and December, much of the world watched as 32 nations competed with one another in the desert for the quadrennial trophy signifying the best national “football” team in the world. I use the word “football” here because that’s what the rest of the world calls what we Americans call “soccer.” (We won’t drill down too deeply here into the word’s roots, nor will we touch the third rail of FIFA venue selection criteria or politics. Plenty of that elsewhere.)

Soccer has gradually grown in popularity in America over the last couple of decades, but still remains far behind the other three major professional sports: NFL football, NBA basketball, and MLB baseball. Now, there are college versions of both football and basketball, which are also very popular, but much more regional than at the professional level. (NHL hockey fans will harshly judge my omission of their sport; sorry, I love the game but it’s in another tier of U.S. fan engagement.)

I saw a game that was emotionally exhilarating for even the most casual sports fan.

The Qatar competition ended with two remarkable national teams facing off for the trophy. The Argentinian squad was led by Lionel Messi, a crafty 5’7” 148 pound 35 year-old veteran, probably playing in his final World Cup. France’s star was Kylian Mbappé, a 24 year-old who was a member of the defending 2018 World Cup champion French team. (Incidentally, Messi and Mbappé are teammates at Paris Saint-Germain, with club/country membership an aspect of the sport that befuddles many Americans!)

The two teams put on what is already being called the greatest World Cup final match ever played, and for some, the greatest soccer game ever played. I’ve even heard some experts call this the greatest sporting event ever played!!

I don’t know about that.

But I do know that the game (ultimately decided after a series of twists and turns that would make even the most credulous fan roll their eyes if portrayed fictionally), ended up with Argentina winning on penalty shootout kicks.

But, let’s take a step back for a second: what is it that makes sports so emotionally compelling for us?

I think the question of the emotional appeal of sports can be looked at from several points of view. The first, and most common, is that team sports are tribal contests/rituals. We identify with a team, whether it represents a country, a city, or a school, and invest a part of our identity…our self…our hopes of success and fears of failure, in the performance and achievements of these teams.

“This is my team!”

We won” or…oh no…

We were embarrassed.”

Sports turns me’s into we’s.

That’s because we gather with others of similar affiliation and passion, and engage in what is sometimes thought of as symbolic warfare against groups from other cities, schools or nations for the right to claim victory. That combat-like interpretation is both understandable and certainly a part of what makes sports so emotionally compelling.

But the spotlight that sports shines on individual performances in structured, competitive situations…games…is another part of what makes sports so appealing for so many people. One individual, in one moment, can make the difference between (maybe, a lifetime of?) triumphal exhilaration or inconsolable despair!

Like in the World Cup final match.

Argentina jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead over France on goals that almost assured them victory. Very few teams overcome two-goal first half deficits in World Cup contests. Even late into the second half, Argentina maintained their two to nothing lead.

Then, Kylian Mbappé demonstrated why individual performance in a collective context makes sports so attractive to us. Mbappé scored two goals, one on a penalty kick, another on a remarkable volley from 10 yards out to tie the match at two goals apiece. That meant extra time.

Extra time in World Cup soccer means two 15-minute periods of normal play in which each team has the opportunity to win the game. If the score remains tied at the end of extra time the match is decided on the basis of a penalty kick shootout. Soccer fans hate penalty kick shootouts! Shootouts are a way to decide a winner without matches going on and on beyond the point of player safety and top-level performance. Penalty shootouts are hyper-emotional by design (ask England fans about their reaction to Harry Kane’s skyed penalty kick against France!) but not as fully gratifying as a run-of-play game-winner.

But, wait!

World Cup fans were spared the dreaded penalty kick outcome (or so we believed), when Lionel Messi scored a goal in the first overtime period to give Argentina a 3 to 2 lead. Surely the Cup would now go to the South Americans!

But not in this match! Mbappé scored a tying goal on a penalty late in the second extra time!! That meant the game would go into a dreaded penalty kick shootout after all.

Penalty kick shootouts often make goalkeepers into Heroes. (All intensely emotional stories have Heroes, which means they also have Victims and Villains.) In this instance, Argentina’s goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, gets to wear the Hero’s laurel by virtue of saving two penalty attempts by French kickers, assuring Argentina a 4-2 penalty kick victory, and the World Cup. Billions of people all over the world sat transfixed by the match’s last hour of action, with all its (practically exhausting!) twists, turns, highs and lows.

This kind of intense emotional attachment makes commonplace things into favorites.

There is no emotional comparison between normal day-to-day life and the rollercoaster of exhilaration and/or despair of those last 60 minutes of World Cup action. The live television images of fans in the stadium and those watching in Argentina and France made it very clear that they were totally emotionally engaged in every moment. Many undoubtedly came away with lifelong emotional memories that will never be replicated.

And, this is one of the most compelling aspects of competitive sports: what’s happening is real; what’s happening is now; and what’s happening will never happen like this again. Those who watch are witnessing history made live.

This uniqueness raises the possibility that every sporting event could be a captivating, memorable emotional experience. Sports fans will always have a chance to see something happen (an impossible play!, a monumental blunder!) that elicits genuine emotions and feelings, sometimes joy and exhilaration, other times anger and despair. Intense emotional experiences are always possible in sports.

This contrasts sharply with the mundanity of normal everyday life. The possibility of this level of intense emotional engagement will continue to rank sporting events amongst our favorite things. Sports provide the most compelling real time experiences for billions of people all over the world, and guarantee their popularity for as long as people seek excitement.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Photo by Md Mahdi on Unsplash.