Why fans behave badly and how they impact the game
With a new NFL season underway and MLB playoffs around the corner, here’s how spectators influence players, for better or worse.
This has been the year of fans behaving badly.
Across numerous sports and even musical events, spectators seem to have been collectively losing their minds lately — running onto numerous fields of play, causing cycling pileups, shooting fellow spectators and throwing objects at performers.
This is worrying news for the Denver Broncos. Following a disastrous 2022 season, with 12 losses, a fired coach and bewilderingly poor play from their new star quarterback, the team doesn’t need more distractions.
RED spoke with Shawn Worthy, Ph.D., a sports-psychology expert and professor in the Department of Human Services and Counseling at Metropolitan State University of Denver, to ask two questions: Why do sports fans misbehave? And how might they instead help their team secure more victories?
Is it fair to say this has been a banner year for fan misbehavior?
Unquestionably, we have seen some truly bizarre and incomprehensible conduct from spectators in recent months. Let’s not forget: One fan actually assaulted Dinger, the Colorado Rockies mascot, this season. That’s someone punching out a purple dinosaur.
There seems to have been a particular surge of fans directly (and physically) engaging with sports stars and even musical performers. Why is that?
One reason might be the exponential rise in people’s level of identification with their hero figures. These days, many celebrities and sports stars share a huge amount of detailed information about their personal lives on social media. That means if you follow them, you’ll know what they eat, how they exercise, even their daily routines. Gradually, you can start to feel like you really know them and are actually a part of their life.
If you then add in a live venue plus alcohol or substance abuse, then you have a recipe for the worst kind of overfamiliar behavior.
Speaking of which, last week two fans ran onto Coors Field during a baseball game and knocked over a star player while trying to get a photograph with him. What were they thinking?
Only they truly know. But it’s worth asking, when someone goes to such extreme lengths to interact with a star player, whether there might be a mental-health issue. Several disorders involve a kind of delusional thinking where someone imagines they have a relationship with a famous person.
Additionally, some people will do the craziest stuff purely so they can post about it later and grab some social-media attention.
Despite six consecutive losing seasons, the Broncos still sell out every game. Does such enduring fan loyalty have a beneficial effect?
Absolutely. And what’s more, that’s a provable phenomenon. During the Covid outbreak, scientists studied the top European soccer leagues to see whether playing in spectator-free games might have any impact on the traditional home-field advantage. After closely scrutinizing the results, they discovered a significant reduction, sometimes by more than 50%, in home-field advantage throughout the highest levels of the game.
So there will always be a definite, measurable advantage to having a stadium full of loud fans bellowing their support for you.
However, NFL fans are also famously expressive and quick to criticize bad play, aren’t they?
There’s a reasonable expectation among fan bases of a basic standard of professionalism from their team. As a player, you’re getting paid a huge salary and fans are paying a lot to see you, so when you don’t live up to those basic standards, they absolutely have a right to share their disappointment.
But in such cases, are fans justifiably expressing themselves or actively damaging their own team’s prospects?
Probably a bit of both. I was at the notorious home game against the Texans last season where, following numerous false starts and delay-of-game penalties, thousands of Broncos fans started sarcastically counting down the play clock. And I’ll admit: I was one of those shouting.
In those situations, hearing the boo birds does make the players feel bad and might also negatively affect their play. But if those players have any sense of character, that should give them a much-needed shot in the arm and the determination to fight back.
Some NFL stadiums have proved notoriously difficult for visiting teams. What kind of tangible impact can supportive home fans have on games?
Whenever the home crowd drowns out a visiting team’s play calls with the enormous noise they generate, as fans of the Seahawks and Chiefs famously do, that’s inarguably affecting the game. Then there’s the Broncos supporters’ “in-com-plete” call, which follows each and every failed pass by visiting teams. I think that kind of slow-motion public shaming can really get under the skin of visiting players and ruin their concentration.
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Never mind the opposition — how much do fans influence the referees?
Of course, all the referees are professional and impartial. But like the rest of us, they are also social animals and susceptible to persuasion. And in truth, there aren’t many external factors stronger than 70,000 people booing and screaming that you’ve just made another terrible decision. At some point, that’s likely to have an unconscious impact on even the most well-trained professional.
Finally, what specific things can Denver Broncos fans do at games this season to help their team regain morale and bring out the best in players?
What they always do: Be loud. Cheer long and often. Wear so much blue and orange, it lights up the stadium. Be assured: The players will definitely notice — and especially once things start to turn around, they will drink in all that positive energy.