Men and spectator sports are one of those age-old pairings, marked by some sociobiological link that drives them to ESPN like moths to a flame. And now in the heat of the NBA Finals, the attraction grows along with a group that popular culture is calling “sports widows,” or spouses who have essentially lost their men to game-day oblivion. This isn’t to say that women don’t watch, or enjoy, sports; but the WAY in which men watch is gender distinctive, according to the expert. And understanding it just may ease some tension at tip-off.
It’s one of the most stereotypical depictions of men in today’s society: perched on the couch, remote in hand, taking in “the big game.” The spectator status of this sports fan in no way implies passivity; it’s often supplemented with hot-blooded criticism of the officiating and high-intensity applause following clutch plays (even if it falls only on hi-def ears).
In truth, there are few scenes more passionate and primal than a sports fan
in his post-season glory. And there’s something remarkable in that men are notorious for forgetting anniversaries or the location of their wallets, yet they can recite the season stats and career history for the entire starting lineup. A phenomenon, really.
While this observation might reinforce gender stereotypes, it is rooted in fact. Men account for 66% of football fans, 65% of baseball fans, and 74% of men’s basketball fans, according to research conducted by the sports leagues. They also comprise over two-thirds of audiences for professional tournament events like the NBA Finals or the World Series. So, suffice it to say: men like sports.The Homme Team
There are a few underlying reasons for man’s affinity for athletics. According to doctor of psychology and clinical hypnotist Nancy B. Irwin, it’s a combination of both nature and nurture. “There are certainly biological predispositions (generally) for males to be naturally more action-oriented as well as competitive. This is due to evolution. Back in the cave days, the gender who was larger and hairier was the appropriate one to fight off the wild beasts or enemies.”
It’s true, testosterone is the culprit
. So, while we have since replaced those wild beasts with inflated animal hide, Dr. Irwin maintains that “the drive is still in the primordial mix.”
Society also plays a role in developing this behavior. Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist and president of the International Sports Professionals Association, explains, “We add on the facts
that boys are socialized from the crib onward to be more competitive, and then we have this layer of ‘nurture’ that adds to men being more attracted to sports. In subtle and not so subtle ways we give men from birth messages that they ‘have’ to compete. Little boys are expected to be physical, rambunctious, wild, after all: ‘boys will be boys.’”Off-Sides
When it comes to the gentler gender, the game changes a bit. Women like sports too, of course, filling in the remaining percentage of televised sports fans. But considering our biological and psychological differences, our approaches to fandom often stem from different innate emotions. For example, I’ve often found myself feeling sorry for that opposing team member who just missed the game-winning shot. The sympathy is lost on my significant other. But that’s the enemy
, is his matter-of-fact response. This reiterates man’s natural inclination to isolate emotion from mission. Presumably, it’s the same quality that, at one time, made men seem more suited for combat: the ability to compartmentalize.
Similarly, I do not get nearly as emotionally invested in the success of my favored team. Whereas a win or loss can drastically affect a man’s mood, a woman’s response tends to be more in the vein of c’est la vie
. This, too, ties into the female’s traditional role as collaborator, lifting the morale in the wake of battle.Going Deep
Social and biological factors aside, there are several psychological reasons that draw men to the game. “There is always
a latent reason why men embrace sports. And by latent, we may define that as unconscious and include secondary gain,” explains Dr. Mayer. “Sports help define a man’s masculinity by providing role models that may otherwise not be accessible for them in their household or community. Even when these role models exist, sports play an important role in development by providing identification with ‘hero men’ and idealized men who have different qualities than the men they see at home, school or the community.”
The qualities exhibited by today’s athletes run the gamut from admirable (determination, philanthropy, team work) to questionable (corporate greed, infidelity, violence); so idealization or imitation should be a matter of fan discretion. And then there are those qualities that are not so easily emulated, like physical build and actual athleticism. Culturally, we put a high value on these qualities because they are so rare.
This brings up another point: men like watching sports even if they can’t play them. Just because you weren’t born with Lebron’s athletic prowess doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate his jump shot and perhaps even fantasize about yourself in the paint. Here’s an obscene comparison: spectator sports is like the pornography for the unrealized athlete; you’ll probably never do it, but watching it sure is fun. Mars vs. Venus
As with viewing porn, which is also more prevalent among men, many women don’t understand the fascination. Particularly if the woman does not enjoy it (watching sports, that is) it can evoke similar emotions of neglect and even jealousy when the game becomes priority.
“Loyalty to sports teams definitely can impact a relationship,” says Jed Hughes, sports psychology and leadership expert and advisor to five Hall of Fame coaches. “The movie Fever Pitch
told the story of a career-driven woman (played by Drew Barrymore) who falls for a man-boy (played by Jimmy Fallon) obsessed with the Boston Red Sox. Much of the conflict in their relationship arose from his passion for his baseball team and his fellow Red Sox fans and her feelings as an outsider.”
It’s not uncommon for this tension to bubble between partners who have a different perspective on the issue. But don’t chock it up to a loss just yet. There are many benefits to being a sports fan, and compromising with your sports fan, that might make game day a little easier on the both of you. The Pros
It’s not just an excuse; watching sports is good for you, and can also be good for your relationship when practiced responsibly. “Sports are a coping mechanism. We cannot forget that fact,” says Dr. Mayer. “They take us away from the realities of our every day, and sometimes strenuous lives. In this regard they are very, very effective and accessible, even if you can’t attend to the games in person. Sports as a coping mechanism can help keep social order and stability.”
And this stability may translate to the home. Maintaining healthy methods of stress-relief could help avert stress-induced arguments or low libido, thus fostering a more peaceful, positive and even sensual relationship.
Another plus of getting your “sports fan” on; it has shown to encourage one’s confidence. According to Hughes, “A major psychological benefit of team loyalty is being part of something bigger than ourselves. Fans want to associate with winners. That's why you see so many people wearing Yankees hats and Michael Jordan jerseys. It increases self-esteem.” For men (and perhaps some women), representing a favorite team is akin to wearing a designer shirt or sporting a new hairstyle; you feel like you are portraying a better version of yourself or tapping into some greater influence. It’s a case of self-assurance by association.
Furthermore, the heat-of-the-moment fervor of an intense game could help men tap into emotions that they are, by-and-large, reluctant to explore. Hughes explains, “While men tend to be the less demonstrative gender, they do tend to wear their passion on their sleeves when it comes to their sports teams.” Exercising their sensitivity muscles could promote more expression in their relationships.
And, no, this does not mean showing encouragement with a foam finger and a rally cap. No ‘I’ in Team
In addition to benefiting the “superfan” in the relationship, sharing a love of sports can be an effective fortifier for the couple as a whole. Sitting down to a game is a good excuse to take a break from our busy schedules and enjoy some time together.
Dr. Irwin reiterates, “Sharing a passion is always great… Sharing a favorite team or player can be a strong bond between people, like being of the same faith or from the same hometown.” These common denominators give us fuel for conversation and a stronger foundation on which to build a lasting friendship with our partner.
Leah Jantzen, life coach and author of How To Score With Your Man by Being a Fan
, has built an entire business around the idea that a woman can strengthen her relationship by partaking in the fandom with her guy. She offers several tips on the fine art of watching sports, together. “First, pick a sport,” she suggests. “You don’t have to follow all of them…please, that would be a daunting task. If your husband prefers football, then get ready to learn some serious grid iron action. If he likes all televised sports, pick the one you’re more interested in.”
Once you’ve chosen your sport, it’s his turn to compromise. “Make it fun—for you,” Jantzen says. “Instead of snugging down in a dirty sweatshirt and munching Doritos, see if he’s willing to nosh on cheese and crackers, wine instead of beer
. Make game night a date night, and you’ll be on your way to building a bond, not a wall, between you and your guy.”
Ultimately, his post-season commitment to the television does not have to interfere with your commitment to each other. As long as he’s giving you and Tom Brady equal attention (and vice versa!), a little spectator sport could be a positive use of both your time. You, him, and the game… now that’s
a winning trifecta.
Mayer, Dr. John. "New Pitch - The Psychology of Sports and Gender (NBA Finals)." Message to Kimberly Walleston. 07062012. E-mail Interview
Irwin, Nancy B., PsyD, C.Ht. "New Pitch - The Psychology of Sports and Gender (NBA Finals)." Message to Kimberly Walleston. 07062012. E-mail Interview
Jed Hughes via John Mooney. "New Pitch - The Psychology of Sports and Gender (NBA Finals)." Message to Kimberly Walleston. 07062012. E-mail Interview
Jantzen, Leah. "New Pitch - The Psychology of Sports and Gender (NBA Finals)." Message to Kimberly Walleston. 07062012. E-mail Interview
Duncan, Margaret Carlisle, Ph.D., et.al. “Gender Stereotyping in Televised Sports.” The Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. LA, 1990.