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October: Official Sports Superstition Awareness Month?

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
October 7, 2013

It’s October, and we’re officially a few days into the designated month for ghosts, superstition, and fright.

While most of this scary mindset focuses on Halloween, of course, it’s also a great window to examine the wacky world of sports fandom and the weird, twisted, and sometimes unhealthy effects that extreme passion for a favorite sports team can have on its fans.

Being a passionate sports fan can sometimes bring out the best in a person, spurring creativity, and fostering patience and loyalty. But all too often, we hear of situations where it brings out the worst.

What starts as trash talk ends in violence—bombings like the one experienced Friday at the Athens fan base of Greek soccer club Panathinaikos, or recent deadly stabbings of stadium goers whose only crime was wearing the wrong teams’ jerseys.

While these incidents are tragic extremes, even casual fans can get caught up in the emotional pitch surrounding sporting events. And no sport brings out the fear, loathing, and superstition among its fans as much as the National Football League.

Does the NFL stress out its fans? ComPsych Corporation, the world’s largest provider of employee assistance programs, founded by Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, recently attempted to find out.

ComPsych Corp. is based in Chicago, a city that has had more than its fair share of sports superstitions and bad luck lore. One only has to reflect on the history of the Chicago Cubs—their Curse of the Billy Goat, the Bartman incident, and the fact that they haven’t won the World Series since 1908—to realize the Windy City might be ground zero for sports fan stress.
Last month, ComPsych conducted a stress pulse poll among its U.S. customer companies on the effects of NFL fandom on employees. Here are the results:
Are you an NFL fan? If so, where do you fit on the “fan-o-meter”?
19% I watch some games, but I’m indifferent as to how my team does
23% I’m somewhat interested/invested in how my team does
43% I’m very interested/invested in how my team does
15% I think about it frequently/feel anxious and stressed about how my team does
*319 total respondents, margin of error calculated at +/- 3.5%.
“This is an example of stressors/workplace distractions that employees face every day,” Chaifetz emphasized. “The more emotionally invested people are in their team, the more anticipatory stress can become a factor.”
Emory University used a social media metric to monitor NFL fan behavior.
As noted last month by the Wall Street Journal, Emory University professors Michael Lewis and Manish Tripathi monitored Twitter after 2012 regular season NFL games and logged whether the tweets mentioning an NFL team in that team’s hometown were positive or negative. They calculated ratios of positive to negative tweets for the three days following each win and loss to produce a “fan volatility rating.” The higher the number, the more unstable the fan base.
According to the study, Oakland Raiders fans “hate-tweeted their way to the title of ‘Most Unstable Base in the NFL,’ with an index of 47.” The Dallas Cowboys, who finished the 2012 season at 8-8, had the most stable fan base, with a score of 4.8. Somewhat surprisingly, the Steelers and Patriots weren’t far behind the Raiders, with respective volatility ratings of 46.5 and 44.
The “results could reflect fans’ expectations,” noted Tripathi. “The Steelers, for instance, entered last season coming off a 12-4 record, but staggered to an 8-8 finish. The Patriots, three-time NFL champions in the 2000s, lost at home to Baltimore in the AFC title game.”
More light-heartedly, over the last couple of football seasons, sports marketers have integrated fan superstitions into creative advertising and marketing campaigns.

Bud Light’s “Superstition” campaign, introduced in September 2012, relies on fan-centric marketing to support its league-level NFL sponsorship. Its TV ads highlight myriad fan superstitions, from wearing lucky socks to arranging beer cans in a certain pattern in the refrigerator and averting eyes from a crucial play.

“Every fan has rituals, we’re just trying to be part of that,’’ Bud Light Vice President Mike Sundet told AdWeek.

This season, Bud Light has added the “Superstitions Machine.” The real-life machine is controlled by fans digitally on every Monday night and will “bring their superstitions to life in order to bestow luck on their favorite teams,” according to the company.

On the college football side, financial giant Discover’s most recent Fan Loyalty Poll results found that 20% of college football fans won’t wash their T-shirt during a winning streak, to avoid jinxing their favorite team. The first Poll of the 2013-2014 season from Discover also found the same number of fans, 20%, admit they’ve gone more than two weeks without washing their game-day apparel.
As the Bud Light ads say, “It’s Only Weird if it Doesn’t Work….”

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