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The thrill of victory depends on the fear of the agony of defeat


The Saskatchewan Roughriders play the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League’s Western Final this Sunday.

That simple declarative sentence contains a novel’s worth of angst for fans of the Riders (and possibly for fans the Stampeders, too, but I can’t speak about that, not being one of those LOSERS!…oops, sorry, did I type that out loud?).

Roughrider fans, often said to be the greatest in the country, are passionate about their team. They want them to win. They really, really want them to win. (Please, God, let them win!)

And yet, deep down, they fully expect them to lose.

This, science tells us, is precisely why they enjoy watching the Riders play so much.

A new study from Ohio State University has found that when sports fans watch their favorite  team play, they enjoy the experience most when their excitement is mixed with a strong helping of fear and maybe even a soupcon of near-despair.

The researchers studied fans of two college football teams as they watched the teams’ annual rivalry game on TV. They found that it was the fans of the winning team who felt at some point during the game their team was sure to lose who, in the end, felt the game was the most thrilling and suspenseful.

Or, as Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, puts it, “You don’t want to be in a great mood during the whole game if you really want to enjoy it…We found that negative emotions play a key role in how much we enjoy sports.”

For the study, which appears in the December issue of the Journal of Communication, the researchers studied 113 college students who were watching the 2006 football game between the Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Michigan Wolverines. Ohio State was ranked number one and Michigan number two that year, so added to the classic rivalry was the fact that the winner would go to the national championship game.

At halftime, Ohio State was up 28-14, but with 14 minutes to go in the final quarter, Michigan closed the gap to 35-31. With five minutes to go, Ohio scored, making it 42-31; but with two minutes to go Michigan closed the gap again to 42-37, and then made a two-point conversion to make it 42-39. A field goal would have tied the game, but Michigan needed to recover an onside kick…and failed.

From the researchers’ point of view, it was a perfect game. Not only did their team win, the game was close enough to cause serious doubt in their fans that Ohio State could hold on.

The students participating in the study (from Ohio State, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State) completed questionnaires ahead of time indicating which team they were cheering for and how committed they were to it.

They then watched the game on television, wherever they wanted, and logged onto a website during each of the commercial breaks (24 in all) to answer questions about how likely they felt it was their favored team would win, how suspenseful they found the game, and how positively or negatively they were feeling.

The results: negative emotions made for a more enjoyable game.

“You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state,” Knobloch-Westerwick says. “If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state.”

Naturally, participants who were fans of one of the teams found the game more suspenseful than those with no strong allegiance, but the intensity of fan commitment didn’t matter: “super fans” did not find the game any more suspenseful than less committed fans.

So, Rider fans, and Stampeder fans, too, if you really want to enjoy the big game on Sunday, you first need to convince yourself that your team stands a good chance of losing.

Fortunately, as a long-time Rider fan, I think I can safely say this will not be a difficult challenge.

UPDATE: In response to this column, I received the following email:

Dear Edward,

While snowed in at Rogers Pass in early Fall of 1988, I watched my first CFL game on TV as the Roughies took it in the shorts.  I remarked to my wife that the team in green needed some fans.  Journeying on to Vancouver, I went into a sports store and informed the salesman that I wished to purchase one of the green and white caps with the S on it.  “Oh, my gosh,” he replied.  “Why not get a cap of a winning team?”  “Give me the green one,” says I.   Well, guess which team won the Grey Cup the following year.

Of course, I place no special significance on my joining the legions of loyal ‘Rider fans.  But, the initial result was something to behold, eh?

Although we live seven months of the year in Reno, my wife and I own a condo in Canmore, and attend games in Calgary when the Roughies are in town.  Oh, do I ever get a kick out of the Rider Nation fans.  All their quaint, colorful costumes.  And the noise they make.  You would think we’re watching the game at Taylor Field.

Kent Austin did it again in 2007.  I went ballistic.  What a great victory for Saskatchewan and the fans.  Again this year, the road to the Grey Cup goes through Regina.  Go ‘Riders!

And, thanks for the great science columns.

Max Andrew


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