The Frontal Cortex

Team Loyalty

Matthew Yglesias advocates for the free movement of sports franchises, so that they can hop from city to city with ease and thus follow the movement of population:

Right now, the New York City Designated media area contains 6.5 percent of households. LA has 5 percent. Chicago has 3 percent. Philadelphia has 2.6 percent. Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta all have about 2.1 percent. And things taper off from there. But considering that New York City has a media market three times the size of large cities like Dallas and Atlanta (and especially considering that it’s nearby to the Hartford media market with 0.9 percent of the population) why doesn’t New York have three baseball teams instead of two? There’s no iron law written that the number of teams in a given area should be directly proportionate to its population. But it seems like a reasonable strategy to try. Except in baseball there is an iron law saying you can’t try this.

A clever idea, to be sure. But I think there’s a perfectly good reason why sports leagues tightly regulate and control the re-location of franchises: fan loyalty. Every thoughtful fan knows that, at some level, his or her loyalty is utterly irrational. My “team” is little more than a corporate logo and a bunch of overpaid athletes, most of whom will play for multiple teams over the course of their career. This means that the sole link between me and my team is geographic location: when I root for a team I’m really rooting for a city (and against whatever city my team is playing against). I can only assume that such loyalty exists for all sorts of deep, primal and Paleolithic reasons. A sports team is just a proxy for our tribal instincts, and if you don’t believe that then I invite you to attend a British soccer match. (For more on the social neuroscience of sports fandom, check out Jordan Grafman’s chapter here. He blames his subgenual cortex and related limbic areas for making him love the Cubs.) And then there’s this depressing fact, which shows how the Us versus Them psychology of sports can even influence our morality:

According to a 1999 study by psychologists at Murray State, a significant minority of fans–if guaranteed anonymity–would even support injuring an opposing player or coach.

This means, of course, that one should move a franchise with great reluctance. (Besides, there are plenty of examples – Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Red Sox, etc – where the tribal ardor of fans compensates for the smallness of the media market.) Yglesias’ plan would work if the allure of sports was simply the display of physical talent. But that only explains golf and perhaps March Madness. Team sports and the big leagues depend on a much more primitive set of largely geographic loyalties. (How many Lakers fans are there in Minnesota?) When we sever that loyalty, we see sports for what it is, and that’s seldom a pretty sight.


  1. #1 Lizzie
    May 17, 2009

    Do what extent do you think that sports fandom also appeals to our instinct and desire for narrative?

    For me, my fandom of my team no longer corresponds to where I live. I became a fan of the Boston Red Sox when I lived in Boston, and though I moved to LA three years ago I still follow the Sox closely (and subscribe to the service where you can watch the games over the internet).

    To me, the Sox are less about a city and more about a series of characters in a narrative. I stick to the Sox because they are characters I know. I haven’t become a real Angels or Dodgers fan in part because I don’t want to wrap my head around a whole new set of characters. Baseball in particular sets up a series of small narrative arcs in a steady stream of gameplay: pitcher vs. batter, baserunner vs. infielder, long fly ball vs. outfielder.

    The “characters” extend beyond the play of a single game,though–something the media cheerfully helps out with. To take more Red Sox examples: the feel-good story of Jon Lester battling lymphoma and then coming back to pitch a no-hitter against Kansas City. The somewhat tragic feel of David Ortiz’s hitting slump. The sensationalist fall-from-grace of Manny Ramirez and his positive drug test.
    For me, the Sox (and former Sox) are a group of characters, and during every game they enact their narratives.

    This also extends to team rivalries: Sox vs. Yankees, Mets vs. Phillies, A’s vs. Dodgers. These are fueled largely by the media and may be nonexistent among players, but can be vicious among fans.

    This gets back to the Us vs. Them mentality–we see “Us” as the good guys–“our” team, “we” won, etc. Beyond a tribal mentality, it allows us, the fans, to become part of the narrative, as we cheer wildly when overpaid men do something good on a field that may be 3000 miles away, or we despair when they fail catch a 2.5-inch ball hit in their direction.

    As Jonah said, all of this is utterly irrational, but because humans are both tribe members and compulsive storytellers, I think it makes perfect sense.

    Go Sox!

  2. #2 Chris Mewett
    May 18, 2009

    On tribalism and soccer, check out Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, which is outstanding (if anthropological/sociological rather than neuroscientific!).

  3. #3 Gabo
    May 18, 2009

    Don’t forget the totemism. Tribalism is identification with a group, but totemism involves a deeper kind of identification. The player is an idealized symbol for yourself. You become the player, in some sense; you are imagining that you are the player, and feeling a vicarious sense of failure or achievement.

    The importance of totemism to children was brought home to me when my 4-yo son told me that another child at school is a Power Ranger, and since he is Spiderman, it’s natural they’d get along. Spiderman is apparently my son’s totem at this time, mostly because someone bought him a Spiderman balloon at a parade two years ago, and this balloon tends to “watch over him” while he sleeps. The focus of totemism is learned early in life (sometimes randomly, apparently). Perhaps if I bought him a jersey and watched the Sox on TV, he’d totemize (yeah, looking this up, folks) Jason Bay.

    Which reminds me… where can I get a Jonah Lehrer jersey? But seriously, folks, it’d be so much nicer if my boy worshipped a scientist than a ballplayer or fictional superhero.

  4. #4 Thomas Ferraro
    May 18, 2009

    There was actually a lot of Lakers fans in Minnesota when they were winning NBA championships as the Minneapolis Lakers before moving to Los Angeles in 1960. Maybe still are, I know there are Dodger fans in Brooklyn…

  5. #5 Elizabeth
    June 2, 2009

    I do not know the economics of the sport world but I know that some smaller audience franchises struggle. I wonder if spreading the fandom would make sense. Instead of singular teams tied to three smaller cities, there would be a regional team which might play a third of their games in each city. Cities could probably fill their venues all the time if fewer games were being played (and people could stay home and enjoy their big screen viewing.)

    From another perspective, perhaps it would not be a bad idea to ‘regionalize’ sports in general as there really at too many mediocre teams out there. Yes, there will always be 50% winners and 50% losers, but when .500 game winners make the play-offs (that go on forever and ever), the excitement is not there. It seems that on the professional level, there are players just not able to compete. If all sports were ‘regionalized,’ there would be a reduced number of players, and only the true professionals would fill rosters.

  6. #6 Visualize
    April 14, 2010

    Yeah this makes sense, I am a Utah fan when in Utah and an Az fan when in Az, fan loyalty is a big deal.

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