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Fans. It has certainly been strange watching games over the past year in empty stadiums or arenas. Into that void, the COVID-19 pandemic still keeping numbers low at events, comes a book about fans and fandom.
It’s called Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding, and it is written by award-winning journalist and best-selling author Larry Olmsted.
On the phone from his home in Vermont, Olmsted talked about how a couple of T-shirts started the ball rolling on the book, which came out in early 2021, published by Algonquin.
About eight years ago, he was at a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, and saw a couple with two children, roughly around five and seven years of age. The kids were wearing T-shirts “with obscenities on them directed at the New York Yankees.” Olmsted was bothered by it, and started thinking about the effort the parents would have went through for the shirts, as they obviously wouldn’t have been from the team store.
The image stuck with him. “I thought, well, maybe there’s something about sports fandom that makes us bad people or makes us crazy—and that would be interesting, because so many people are sports fans,” he recalled. “I dove into the research with that gut feeling, and quickly realized that that was totally wrong, that the data suggests that sports fandom is overwhelmingly beneficial. And I have since come to realize that there were 45,000 people at the game that day, but I only noticed these two, and I noticed that because they were the outliers.”
With a “very varied” background in writing, Olmsted was a sports fan, would go to the occasional game, but was not obsessive. Personally, he’s a skier and a golfer, and those are sports he has been called upon to write about as well.
When he started looking into why fans are the way they are, Olmsted was surprised that it had not really been written about in a populist way. “I went to Amazon, and looked at the lists. I mean, there’s more books on greyhound racing than there are on fans. It’s crazy,” he said, noting that it makes even less sense when you starting doing the numbers. If you took everyone playing in major league baseball, in total, they wouldn’t fill Yankee Stadium. “You look at the spectator sport world as an equation, 99.99% of the participants are spectators. All of the players, all of the coaches, all of the team staffs represent an insignificant portion of the couple of billion people worldwide who are into spectator sports. The fans are the vast majority, yet they haven’t really been looked at it.” He did, of course, read some of the classics of specific fandom, like Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, the 2005 fan book where author Warren St. John traveled with fans, and Nick Hornby’s soccer-mad Fever Pitch.
By his estimate, over roughly a five-year period, Olmsted talked to 400 fans, and around 700 people in total, including experts on the subject, team executives, politicians, city planners—so many interviews! Reluctantly, entire sections were dispatched from the manuscript, including a look at how arenas and stadiums affect cities, bringing up the whole issue of public funds going to rich owners for their toys, and a fun chapter on romance in sport, like baseball teams that offer marriage proposal packages. (They may return in a sequel, who knows.)
There were plenty of academic explorations of fandom to consider, including a hockey-specific study that measured a fan’s brain while watching the sport.
Olmsted has no problem admitting he had trouble with comprehending some of the work. “Especially for the mental health aspects, a lot of psychology research, which is really heavy duty scientific papers that in many cases, I had trouble reading, especially the math—they explained how they get all these baseline parameters, and it’s beyond my math skills, I didn’t realize that psychology researchers had to have such math skills, until I did this book,” he chuckled.
Then there are the subjects that he can handle, and has written about in countless publications, from USA Today to Playboy, and his book, Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, was a New York Times bestseller. “A lot of the other stuff, things like the civil rights portion, things like that were a little bit more in my wheelhouse of comfort, talking to historians, sociologists, and then, of course, fans. There were sort of several different categories of people I spoke to and looked at. On the one hand, the psychologists were the most difficult for me, but on the other hand, they have the hardest data. A historian has an opinion versus results.”
Covering so many sports, the question arises, Are hockey fans different than other fans?
Olmsted is not a hockey expert, but gave it a shot, noting that it is from an American perspective. “It’s just harder to become a hockey fan. As I point out, the reasons for being a fan of a particular team, in many ways, particular sport, are like religion, the two big factors are where were you born and what your parents follow.” We have seen the NFL rise to the top of the sports heap in the U.S. and hockey is down the list, so, without someone in your household as a hockey fan, it’s unlikely you’ll become one until much later.
Yet Olmsted notes that he heard from many people that “hockey is the best game to watch in person of the major sports. Personally NFL football is my favorite sport, but I’d rather watch it on TV than go to a game. It’s a better experience whereas hockey’s the opposite.”
The biggest hockey section in Fans is grouped in with how sports can help heal. He focused on the tragedy to triumph inaugural season of the Vegas Golden Knights. Through his years as a freelance writer, Olmsted has spent plenty of times in Las Vegas, figuring he’s been there more than 50 times. He knew the Knights would be special, since, at the time, it was the biggest market in the U.S. without a team in one of the four big sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL).
“So it was already a really big deal,” began Olmsted. “And then nine days before their first game, you have this horrific, worst mass shooting in American history. So it was kind of a perfect storm. And then just I was able to go out there, which I can’t do for something like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, they’re too long ago.
“Then the stories I was told were so moving. ... This woman tells me about not being able to leave her home and being saved by the Knights. Well, some people dismiss sports as frivolous or entertainment, but I can’t because it’s part of the fabric of society and a vital part of our lives.”
In the end, Olmsted hopes that Fans finds a bigger audience than, well, fans.
“If you’re a sports fan, and you read my book, you are going to find something you can relate to, something might might remind you of going to a game with your grandfather, whatever it is, but I want like the non-sports fan to realize that the world is a better place that they live in as a result of sports fandom -- whether they make fun of it, whether they ignore it whether they ever watch a game.”
For more on Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding see, www.sportsfansbook.com
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