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Similarities and Differences Between Fandom and Intimate Relationships: How They Affect Communication

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Similarities and differences between fandom and intimate relationships: How they affect communication

Allison Ehrhart

Northeastern University


Loyalty, pride, and commitment are just three of the many abstract ideas that contribute to being a fan as well as an intimate partner. All of these abstract ideas can mean different things and represent different feelings in people. For some, sports fandom is a lifelong commitment and it takes work to maintain that fandom; similarly, intimate relationships are irreplaceable and necessary to a person’s well-being. Both sports fandom and intimate relationships manifest over time and need maintenance to remain strong. Strength gets fans and intimate partners through the bad times and passion keeps them around through the good times. Whether good times or bad, the ups and downs of sports fandom and intimate relationships affect communication and emotion. Fans and intimate partners alike have their own way of communicating with each other. Through communication about fandom and sports, intimacy can increase between those communicating and between fan and team. By interviewing sports fans and analyzing the literature surrounding intimacy, the purpose of this project is to explore the similarities and differences between fandom and intimate relationships and analyze how these similarities and differences affect fans’ communication.

Fan culture phenomenon

The fandom phenomenon is something I have seen from a young age observing my father’s connection with his favorite sports teams. Although his teams usually have a higher ratio of losses to wins, he has remained loyal to these teams for over 40 years. Due to the lengthy relationship between fans like my father and their favorite teams, it is interesting to see how sports fandom develops in the same way that intimate relationships do over time. Since the nature of community has become much more ‘imagined’ or ‘symbolic’, rather than based around place or proximity, (Crawford, 2009) it seems that fandom can be described as a community of people who do not have to be physically together to be a part of that community.

Team identification can be defined as the extent to which a fan feels a psychological connection to a team and the team’s performances are viewed as self-relevant (Wann, 2006). Identifying with a certain team also means altering personal identity to conform with the way other fans act. Identities are multidimensional always changing (Stewart, Zediker, & Witteborn, 2005) and so is fan status - as fans grow older and make more memories surrounding a certain team, the bond can change and get stronger. The fan identity, like personal identities, can be developed in both past and present relationships. Finally, fan identities can be either avowed or ascribed as well.

Being a fan of a certain team can also be considered as a subculture, which Crawford describes as sub-groups within wider culture of sports viewership (2009). With so many teams to choose from, it is not entirely surprising that almost two thirds of U.S. adults say they currently watch NFL football (64%), including 73% of men and 55% of women (Gorman, 2011). Based on these statistics, fandom seems to be an important element of American culture. Not only that, but Americans spent a total of 797.2 billion hours attending sporting events in 2005, or nearly 9.5 hours per person per year (Humphreys & Ruseski, 2008). With all of this time spent on attending sports, it seems that sports are an integral part of American culture.

                Another important element of American culture is consumption, which goes hand in hand with fandom. Humphreys and Rusiski (2008) identified three key areas of the sports industry: 1) activities involving individual participation in sport; 2) activities involving attendance at spectator sporting events; and 3) activities involving following spectator sporting events on some media” (2008). Humphreys and Ruseski go on to say that the sports industry brought in about $73 billion in revenue for the year 2005; this shows that the sports industry as a whole is a large and marketable portion of the population.

Intimate relationships and communication

Since people interact with so many other people, we tend to only have a small amount of relationships that are intimate. Intimate interactions within close relationships are what turns a friendship into an intimate relationship. Intimate relationships are characterized by feelings of warmth, trust, and deep friendship. The six benefits of friendship include: belonging in the sense of reliability, have a reliable network to count on, emotional integration and stability, communicating about yourself, assistance and physical support, reassurance of worth, and personality support (Duck, p. 254, 1991). Although a fan-team relationship may not be an actual friendship, it offers many of the benefits of friendship.

Guerrero, Andersen, & Afifi (2007) mention that intimate relationships are unique, contain depth, exist over time, involve high levels of positive emotions, and involve a high level of understanding. Uniqueness relates to the depth of interaction within a relationship; it is less superficial in an intimate relationship than with someone we just meet. Intimate relationships require effort and can unfold over months, years, and even decades (p. 281). Intimate relationships invoke numerous positive emotions such as love, an intense desire to maintain closeness; passion, which encompasses feelings of attraction and sexual arousal; interpersonal warmth, which invokes a sense of pleasantness, contentedness, and intimacy; as well as joy and happiness (p. 278). Understanding involves communicating the fact that one person is listening to the other and acting in an emotionally supportive manner (p. 282). Intimate relationships such as the marital relationship encompass all of these facets of intimacy.

The marital relationship entails the highest emotional highs and lowest emotional lows experienced in adult life and over 95% of Americans marry at some point in their lives (Cartensen, Graff, Levenson, & Gottman, 1996). This proves that almost all Americans experience what is possibly one of the highest examples of intimacy in life. Not only do spouses affect social networks, but they are a part of each others small circle of intimate partners (Cartensen, Graff, Levenson, & Gottman, 1996). Since spouses are such a pivotal part of one another’s social well being, it is not surprising that they can also affect their physical well being as well (Cartensen, Graff, Levenson, & Gottman, 1996).



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