The Psychology of How a Fan Becomes a Superfan

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Editor's Note:

What’s a healthy amount of attention to invest in your favorite sports team? In his new book Superfans, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor George Dohrmann profiles the particular breed of fanatic whose enthusiasm becomes inseparable from their identity.

In 2003, Geoff Gass was in his late 20s and living in Chicago, and he was feeling unmoored. Chicago was his home but Gass had grown up in a suburb of Minneapolis, and he felt torn between those two places. One night while cruising the Internet, Gass stumbled upon He had been a fan of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings since he was a boy, but not a zealot. He began reading posts on that website, and he soon realized it was a community of people like him, displaced Minnesotans.

Quickly, Gass became one of the site’s most frequent posters (about a thousand posts a year) and eventually its administrator. He also became, as a result, a much bigger fan of the Vikings. A good portion of his life became devoted to that NFL team. Social gatherings included mostly fellow Vikings fans; every Sunday during the season he religiously watched the team, traveling home for some games. In short, he went from a casual fan to what could be a called a superfan.

Gass’ story is one of many in my book, Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom, that illustrate how people become more strongly attached to a sports team. Most Americans have a team that could be called their “favorite.” But for many, that casual fandom turns into superfandom.

When and why does that typical occur?

For David Garza, another Minnesotan, the moment came around 2000. He had got out of the Army and returned to St. Paul, and he was unsure what he wanted to do for a career. He missed the orderliness of the military and felt adrift. He would stay that way until he and a friend formed the Vikings World Order, a now 200-strong fan group so organized that members are given rank, as if in the military. (Garza is a five-star general.)

Seahawks fan Wendi Bromlie went from being aware of that Seattle NFL team to living and dying with every game after she got out of an abusive relationship and longed for something stable in her life. Ted Peetz has lived in five different cities and in each has sought out Green Bay Packers fans to watch games with, so in need he is of connecting with people who share his Wisconsin roots. Michael Hopson, a well- known Indianapolis Colts superfan who wears elaborate costumes to games, only became an obsessed fan after he lost his job and moved to a new city.

The social psychologists to whom I spoke assigned lofty-sounding explanations for some of this behavior – David Garza displays a national propensity toward tribalism; Geoff Gass and Ted Peetz have place attachment; and more – and talking those researchers deepened my understanding of fan behavior overall. But in simple terms, the reason many people go from casual to obsessed sports fans is that they arrive a transitional moment in life. Perhaps the just moved to a new city, so they seek out fans of a team from their hometown. Perhaps they recently lost a job and have more time on their hands. Maybe they got out of a relationship and need a new social circle. A binding thread among many of the superfans in my book is that their fandom ramped up at times when they felt a void
in their lives, a need.

Do fans every get to a transition point that leads them to reduce their obsession, where they go from superfan back to mere fan?

It is rare, but it happens.

A few years ago, Geoff Gass became much less of a Vikings fan. He was too busy to devote so much time to the team, and he became concerned how his obsessing over the Vikings would be perceived. Why? Because he and his wife had a daughter. He reached another transitional moment and so he let go of one of his identities and enhanced another.

No longer a superfan, Gass is now a superdad.