I’ve been through the good times and the bad.

I’ve been through relegations and promotions, championships and wooden spoons. I’ve done it all.

When I use ‘I’, I mean we. And when I use ‘we’ I mean they.

They are the sports teams around the world that I follow.

In places as far flung as Colorado in the Rocky Mountains, to Leeds via Canberra and Melbourne, I have vested interests in a number of sports teams, most of whom are in places that I have close to no ties too.

When I started following the Denver Broncos in America’s National Football League, the only thing I knew about Denver was a classic joke in The Simpsons.

When I started following Leeds United in the English Premier League, I didn’t even know Leeds was in Yorkshire, or where or what Yorkshire was.

In both cases I felt drawn to a team for reasons that I can’t really explain and follow them to this day, alongside 6 or 7 others.

How and why do everyday people, often thousands of miles away from the place of origin for the team they so passionately follow come to have such an investment in these teams?

In a recent broadcast of The Morning Edition on NPR, social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam discussed a number of theories of the psychology of sports fans with host David Greene.

Chief among them was the act of bonding and a personal relationship with the players. The bonding occurs when we become connected to our teams through family, friends and a shared identity with other fans. Often these loyalties are built upon the shared feelings of those around us.

The personal relationship thrives on this connection. Vedantam goes on to mention Boston area psychoanalyst Howard Katz and his explanation to Vedantam that humans have mirror neurons that become active not only when we do something, but when we watch someone else do something. This would indicate that sports fans “deeply identify” with the people playing the game. Basically, when we watch our team play, it’s like we’re playing the game too.

In his book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, San Francisco-based journalist Eric Simons reveals that when it comes to sport, recent psychological theories and research indicate that your brain perceives the connection you have with a sports team as a very real relationship.

In Simons’ own words:

“In a very real sense, the sports team becomes a part of you. You just feel like whatever success it achieves is a personal success, and whatever failure it has is a personal failure. You can’t cut the team off without cutting off a part of yourself. Even if the team is losing, you have so much of yourself wrapped up in it that you can’t just walk away. To do so is to give up on a part of yourself.”

I recently spoke with Justin, a huge football fan about why he supports teams the teams he does, Manchester United and the San Francisco Forty Niners.

He told me that he started following both teams when he was a young kid, and at the time both teams were very successful. They were on TV more than other teams and were winning more trophies. As a child, winning has a deep attraction. Why go for a terrible team in an obscure place when you can go for the team that wins Championships and other trophies.

“Being young and impressionable you just go with the flow. When I first saw the Niners (play) it was in the Joe Montana era so they were always being talked about and were super fun to watch.”

Location plays a large part in the local sports fandom. With the exceptions of Tasmania and the Northern Territory there are teams in the AFL and NRL in every state of the country, and many of the major cities have multiple teams in the top competitions, such as the Swans and Giants in the AFL and all the Sydney teams in the NRL.

That would seem to indicate that there is a team for everyone when it comes to local competitions, with proximity, birthplace and family playing a large part in who we support, as detailed by Vedantam.

Regarding overseas teams, success would appear to play more of a part in whom we choose to go for as opposed to location, but that would also seem to depend on age.

When I started supporting Leeds in 2001 at the tender age of 20, they weren’t winning Champions Leagues titles or the Premiership. Although somewhat successful, they hadn’t won a trophy since 1992 and not long after financially imploded followed by relegation in 2004. They’ve since spent 9 years struggling in the lower leagues with not a lot of hope in sight.

So with that in mind, why do we continue to follow teams even when they suck?

Coors Field fans

Most of the teams I follow are exercises in futility. Between the Melbourne Demons, Canberra Raiders, Colorado Avalanche and Rockies, Denver Broncos and Nuggets and finally Leeds United there haven’t been a lot of success since 1998. Yet I stick with them.

We again look towards Eric Simons and his assertion that we create relationships with the teams we follow. When we’re in a relationship that’s providing us with no joy, it’s difficult to extricate ourselves from it. We don’t want to ‘hurt’ the other party, even it’s a relatively faceless entity.

Can the same be said for a team that consistently fails or has little or no success?

I feel we can only really speak for ourselves in the matter. Only you know how you feel about the teams and how you identify yourself to them and with them.

For me, these teams are a huge part of my life. I’ve traveled overseas and seen the Broncos play in Denver at (the then named) Invesco Field and the Rockies at Coors Field, a full mile above sea level. I’ve been to Leeds and sat in the stands as my beloved United played at the legendary Elland Road while they played Liverpool and Huddersfield Town. My investement is significant.

I’ve had moment of ecstasy and agony. I recall scaring my wife to death as I leapt of the couch screaming as Tim Tebow threw an 80 yard touchdown to Dreymarius Thomas in overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2011 playoffs. I also watched with a breaking heart as Rahim Moore took a bad angle on a sure interception against the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 playoffs and the resultant touchdown sending the broncos out of the playoffs.

I come back every year come rain hail and shine for that emotion. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully explain why I care in the slightest about 52 men playing a game every Sunday for 4 months in rarefied air.

But when they win I win. And when they lose I lose.

And I keep coming back year after year.


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