Sports versus all comers: comparing TV sports fans with fans of other programming genres.

Author:Gantz, Walter

Sports has been a programming staple on broadcast and cable television for decades. It regularly attracts the faithful and, with major events, draws audiences that other genres of programming rarely approach. Year in and year out, the Super Bowl garners the largest U.S. audience of the year, far outpacing any other single program. The Olympics and the World Cup draw unrivaled numbers of viewers across the globe, several billion over the course of the Olympics and perhaps as much as a billion for a single World Cup match (Bryant & Raney, 2000; Real, 1998). Because of its ubiquity on the television dial, the scope of the audience it attracts, and the apparent zeal with which many viewers watch sports, televised sports viewers and fans have been the subject of considerable scholarly inquiry.

With less frequent public recognition and scholarly scrutiny, other genres of programming attract and cultivate sizable audiences and, as with sports, a sizable number of fans. For example, prior to its final original episode in 2003, the television situation comedy Friends regularly drew viewers "still dying to know who [Rachel] ends up with--Ross or Joey?" when a decade had passed "after [the character] stumbled into the Central Perk coffeehouse after running away from her own wedding" (Peyser, 2003, p. 46). To be sure, there are other parallels as well. For example, stars of wildly popular shows such as Friends receive salaries that rival the biggest sports stars.

Fans represent an important segment of television audiences that programmers cultivate across genres, from sports to soap operas, situation comedies and dramas to adult-oriented animated programs, and from reality shows to afternoon and evening talkfests. At a minimum, fans represent a steady base of viewers that programmers and sales personnel collectively describe and package to advertisers and ad agencies. At times, fans are openly promoted and celebrated. For this, all one has to see is ESPN's self-congratulatory 25th anniversary campaign titled "The Season of the Fan" (Janoff, 2004), with on-air promotions "celebrating 25 years in sports with a salute to the fans."

Although scholars have examined fans for sports, soap operas, and reality programs separately, they have not looked for commonalities in fanship across programming genres. Do fans prepare for their programs in similar ways? Are they motivated by similar or disparate sets of motivations? Do they view and respond in similar ways, or is viewing and response unique to each type of program? In short, scholars have not examined the extent to which the fanship experience cuts across genres. This study was designed to make that comparison.


The term fan is routinely linked with those who follow sports. For example, the first meaning for the term provided by the Oxford English Dictionary (1996) states that a fan is "a keen and regular spectator of a (professional) sport, originally of baseball." Yet, the term, derived from fanatic, can and has been applied to those with a particular interest in performers, personalities, and programs, as well as athletes and sports teams. Along with athletes, celebrities have Iong had fan clubs and fan magazines and have been the recipients of fan mail.

At a minimum, fanship points to an active and interested audience. In all likelihood, fanship represents an array of thought processes, affective attachments, and behaviors that separate fans from nonfans, including nonfans who watch the same programming. Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) noted that fans are "those people who become particularly attached to certain programmes or stars within the context of a relatively heavy media use" (p. 138). Others have linked fanship with knowledge about the players, teams, and game or characters and plot in a program; active, participatory, viewing; concern about outcomes; and emotional responsiveness to the action and activity as it unfolds (e.g., Gantz, 1981 ; Gantz, Wenner, Carrico, & Knorr, 1995; McPherson, 1975; Smith, Patterson, Williams, & Hogg, 1981). Because fans tend to be heavy viewers, they have more experience and knowledge than nonfans .with the format and content of their favorite programs. In addition, because they are at least somewhat attached to the programs or stars, they may process information conveyed on these programs differently than nonfans. Indeed, recent studies (e.g., Hillman, Cuthbert, Bradley, & Lang, 2004; Hillman et al., 2000; Potter, Sparks, Cummins, & Lee, 2004) document that the level of fan identification has an impact on the level of self-reported and physiological emotional reaction one has to images of sports and sports-related news items.

Studies have documented the benefits and pitfalls associated with fanship. Fanship is said to empower fans and generate passion and energy in them (Grossberg, 1992). An early and often-cited review of sports fan research identified three benefits of being a sports fan--escape, self-fulfillment, and social integration (Smith et al., 1981). Although their classic study was not limited to fans, Cialdini et al. (1976) documented the image-enhancing effects of having one's school win on the playing field. For a fan, the joy of watching one's team win may rival that felt by the players. On the flip side, for the fan, the anxiety and pain associated with pending games and undesired outcomes may be as great as those experienced by the players themselves. Fans experience an increase in cognitive and somatic anxiety as an important competition approaches; the effect is heightened among highly identified fans (Wann, Schrader, & Adamson, 1998). Deeply committed fans also are less able to separate themselves from their teams when their teams lose (Wann & Branscombe, 1993).

Although people frequently call themselves a fan of--or not a fan of--a program or genre of programming, fanship is likely to exist on a continuum, providing room for the hard-core fans that the media sometimes showcase and academics occasionally study (cf. Wann& Branscombe, 1993). Placement on this continuum, however, is likely to incorporate an individual's knowledge of, interest in, and exposure to the programming under consideration. Gantz and Wenner (1995), for example, defined sports fans based on self-reported knowledge levels, interest, and patterns of exposure to sports. Sports fans were those with considerably higher scores on perceived knowledge, interest, and viewership than their counterparts. The same should apply to other forms of entertainment programming.

Fanship for Sports

A wealth of studies have examined sports fanship. Gantz and his colleagues conducted a series of surveys to investigate the motives and behaviors associated with TV sports fans (Gantz, 1981, 1985; Gantz & Wenner, 1991, 1995; Gantz et al., 1995). In his earliest investigation, Gantz (1981) found that, although some viewing motives (such as to thrill in victory) seemed unique to certain sports programs, most motives for viewing sports cut across sports. He also found that fans often prepared for the televised game beforehand and were emotionally aroused and quite active while viewing, often yelling in pleasure or displeasure as the events transpired. Gantz and Wenner (1995) found that fanship made a difference in the audience's viewing experience of televised sports. Fans were more likely to prepare for a game by following reports about it beforehand, were more strongly motivated to watch for the intrinsic pleasures associated with watching, to be emotionally involved and overtly expressive while viewing, and, for better or worse, to have the game linger on after the final whistle was blown.

Hocking (1982) and Eastman and Land (1997) examined how people watch sports, whether they watch alone, in groups, or at the stadium. Location mattered. Those who gathered at sports bars to watch sports sought the social interaction and sense of community those settings provided. In addition to letting them participate in comfortable rituals (and drinking), shared viewership at bars legitimized their fanship and established them as real, serious fans.

Wann (1995) proposed and validated a scale tapping fan motivations. Consisting of eight motivation sets, the scale addressed fan eustress (i.e., positive arousal), self-esteem, escape, entertainment, economic, aesthetic, group affiliation, and family needs. A follow-up study found that fans who preferred sports in which individuals compete alone reported higher levels of aesthetic motivation, whereas those with a preference for team sports had higher scores on the eustress and self-esteem subscales (Wann, Schrader, & Wilson, 1999). Lines (2000) suggested a motivation framework composed of personal, social, and emotional dimensions. Sloan (1989) found that the affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses of sports fans were similar to those of athletes.

At least with sports viewing, gender makes a difference. Differences between the genders here may start at an early age. Young children have different motives for watching mediated sports. For girls, mediated sports gave them access to a male-dominated world, let them talk about sports with others if they wished, and look at men's bodies without being questioned about it. For boys, mediated sports provided a common ground and sense of male identity (Lines, 1999, 2000).

Most studies examining gender differences in sports viewing have focused on adults. Gantz and Wenner (1991) found that, compared to women, more men responded like fans, even controlling initial levels of interest in sports. Men were more strongly motivated to watch televised sports and indeed spent more time watching those programs. Gantz and Wenner suggested that social norms, expectations, and responsibility might contribute to the gender differences they found. Gantz and Wenner (1995) followed up with a study of male and female sports fans. In this comparison, gender did not affect motivations...

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