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The psychology of a fan: TDR talks with an expert

As Baltimore basks in a purple glow ahead of the Ravens’ Super Bowl appearance Sunday, The Daily Record discussed the psychological impact of citywide “Public Displays of Fandom” with Dr. Stephen McDaniel, who studies sports and entertainment marketing and the psychology of sport at the University of Maryland, College Park. (Responses have been edited for length.)

Why are many people compelled to publicly display their support for a sports team? What is the impact on the individual of doing so? 

Jimmy Grubbs, special effects technician for AET Image Engineers working the projection booth at the Capital Funding Group in Baltimore County. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

You could probably say that the emotion related to winning is a vicarious experience. But also, many of us now live in places that we’re not from or necessarily live in communities where we feel strong connections to people around us. What’s one thing that instantly connects us to other people? It’s if you can say, ‘Hey, I’m a Ravens fan’ or ‘I’m a Terp.’ And all of a sudden, instead of you being one faceless person in a sea of people, now you have this sort of de facto family that rallies around this sports team. You could also argue in terms of our psychological needs, we do need to be entertained. We do need things that make us happy.

Why is it socially acceptable for people to show intense support for some sports, like football, either by putting lights on buildings or painting their bodies during games? 

We like to see ourselves as highly evolved, and in many cases, this is happening in major metropolitan areas where there are sports teams. But if you look at the behavior, face-painting or putting on costumes, it’s actually very primitive. It almost allows us as adults to regress. And in our lives, where we are often professional, button-down people with stresses and responsibilities, these games allow us a certain type of escapism.

Why is it enticing for companies, as organizations, to show their support for a team? 

You can be a member of a community as an individual, but it’s important as a business to be a member of the community. You want the people who are your patrons to think of you as a strong Baltimore institution, whether you’re a bank, an insurance company or some other kind of organization, you want to be thought of as part of that community. So you definitely don’t want to exclude yourself from this celebration and identification. It’s the very reason why companies play millions of dollars to put their signs up at the stadium. It’s the very reason why companies pay Ray Rice or Joe Flacco to be their spokesperson.

Some company executives say lighting their buildings in purple boosts employee morale. Do you think it does? 

If you’re the leader of a business, you want to motivate your employees because the more motivated and happy they are, they more cohesive they are and, arguably, the better your business performs. Companies pay tons of money to have consultants come in and do what’s called team-building. And now here you have this sports occurrence that just drops right in your lap. So if you can harness that through the local team’s success, why wouldn’t you? Whether you’re wearing a purple jersey to work or whether you see your building emblazoned in team colors, it’s symbolic. So if you’re leaving at night and you see those colors, those colors have positive psychological meanings to you. Just that little touch could have some positive effects on how your employees feel.

Putting purple lights on buildings has become more popular over the years – why is purple fever so contagious? 

A lot of it is about competition. These things sort of become social conventions or business conventions as far as the expectations. Whereas before you could have just put up some purple lights, maybe now your lights have to show the image of a raven. And then the question becomes, well, if company A is doing it, but company B is right downtown, why aren’t they doing it too?

Why are sports able to facilitate citywide bonding among people of diverse backgrounds, and why is that important? 

Things like the Super Bowl almost take on this quasi-religious quality. If you think about Super Bowl Sunday, many times you’ll see people at Super Bowl parties who might not even be fans. I think it transcends team identity to become community identity. It’s not just about being a Ravens fan; you’re a Baltimore fan. You’re from Baltimore. And that goes back to these buildings putting up the purple lights. This is a rallying thing for the community.

– Alissa Gulin

Related story: Purple haze settles in as businesses reflect Ravens excitement