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Fans behaving badly

June 23, 2005

bad fan

Illustration by Randy Morrison.

You're at the ballpark with your family watching your favorite team. You and your children are having a good time. And then, there he is: that one fan in your section who begins to behave badly. Not just badly -- obnoxiously. It can ruin the experience for everyone within earshot.

A professor in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business has been researching the phenomena of the "dysfunctional fan," and his findings provide interesting insights into the mind-set of these individuals. Kirk Wakefield, chair of the marketing department and associate professor of marketing, has co-authored a paper with Daniel Wann of Murray State University on this topic, which will be published in 2006 in the Journal of Leisure Research (Vol. 38, No. 2).

"Dysfunctional fans pretty much don't like anybody," Wakefield says. "They're not the kind of people you want to hang out with, unless you're one of them."

In randomly surveying ticket-paying fans (i.e., not students) entering the stadium at two major collegiate football games in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Wakefield found highly dysfunctional fans share these traits: male, less education (up to two years of college), lower incomes (less than $50,000), younger (average age of 33), single, live in apartments and have no dependents.

They also are more likely to associate consuming alcohol with enjoyment of the event, blast referees, be critical and complain verbally about stadium food service, show significantly higher levels of sports media consumption (including calling in to sports talk radio, visiting team Web sites, engaging in sports chat rooms, writing letters to the editor) and be involved with their team in some way throughout the week, not just on game day.

"These fans also attend more away games," Wakefield says. "They enjoy the confrontation of being in the minority. They seek out that kind of confrontation."

These are behaviors that often indicate other social or emotional problems, Wakefield says. "These highly identified fans usually have other issues in their lives. The individual's self-esteem is so fragile that anything that reflects badly on the team, such as a player's poor performance or a controversial call by officials, reflects badly on them."

The occurrence of bad fan behavior is nothing new in the sports world, Wakefield says. "It may be that we hear about it a lot more now, but it's not so new."

What may be different is the general lack of respect between athlete and fan. "There's a lack of respect from the fan to the player and vice versa that you didn't see in years past," he says. "Our society is just less respectful."

Also, increased urbanization leads to increased anonymity. "You're one of 60,000 in a football stadium. You think, 'I don't know this person, I can do whatever I want,'" Wakefield says.

Steps are being taken at collegiate and professional levels to address these concerns. The National Basketball Association issued a Fan Code of Conduct early this year and posts it throughout arenas and on programs. The University of Colorado began a "Competing with Class" campaign in November 2003, which includes strict scrutiny at gates for alcohol or other potentially harmful items. The Boston Red Sox management posts a phone number to enlist fans to help identify abusive ones by calling from the stands on their cell phones. Major League Baseball and the NBA limit alcohol sales late in the game.

Wakefield does not know if dysfunctional fan behavior is more prevalent in one sport than another, but he says that fewer than 5 percent of fans in any athletic event are highly dysfunctional. And, he adds, almost 98 percent of the time, such behavior is fueled by alcohol.

"Ninety-five percent of the fans are fine," he says. "It's that one bean-head who's acting like a fool who's ruining it for everyone else."

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