Happily unhealthy: A case study of sports fans

By Lindsey Woods

The fragrant, distinct smell of spicy buffalo wings, the familiar crack of a beer being opened, face paint and foam fingers can only mean one thing: It’s game time.

The game day activities many fans relish are undoubtedly unhealthy, but new research published in The Sport Journal suggests that poor eating and drinking habits may extend beyond game day.

According to the study co-authored by Daniel Sweeney, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, individuals who identify as sports fans consume more fat, fast food and alcohol on days they choose to drink than non-fans. They also eat breakfast less frequently, consume fewer vegetables and have higher Body Mass Indexes.

“The notion that [sports fans] are unhealthier certainly seems to make sense,” said Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fan Coalition. “But at the same time, I would say that would be offset by the fact that sports fans are more likely to engage in sports and physical activity as a result of enjoying whatever sports they do.”

Sweeney accounted for physical activity in the survey but found no significant differences between fans’ and non-fans’ exercise levels.

“When you look at the results, it appears that both groups aren’t getting the exercise they need, so that was an interesting finding,” he said.

There was no difference in several other factors Sweeney identified, including unhealthy snack consumption, smoking frequency and risk of contracting AIDS and other STDs.

To conduct the research, he sent a four-part survey to students, faculty and staff at UALR containing questions regarding levels of sports identification, health-risk behaviors and general demographic information.

Sweeney said he recognizes the limited nature of the study based on its sample size and range.

“[The survey results] would be hard to generalize to the larger U.S. population or other regions of the United States because some are healthier than others,” he said. “Maybe this is a Southern thing. The data was collected in the fall, so maybe it’s a football thing. Obviously, it would need more study with a larger population.”

While Sweeney’s results indicate that being a sports fan could be bad for your health and waistline, fans shouldn’t burn their jerseys or sell their tickets just yet. Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University, has done research that suggests sports fans who identify with local teams are more satisfied with their social lives.

“If you’re a fan of a local team, you have a built in social support group,” Wann said. “If you live in Chicago and you’re a Cubs fan, you’ve got all kinds of people you can walk up to on the street and say, ‘Go Cubs.’ It really gives people a sense of connection to others.”

Wann said that kind of connection through sports tends to decrease loneliness, increase social self-esteem and cause fans to have greater trust in other people.

Wann’s said in terms of physical effects of fandom, he would like to see replications of the study done by Sweeney in order to corroborate its results.

“The vast majority of literature out there suggests that fans aren’t lazy and are [actually] highly active people, but perhaps they do take some health risks,” Wann said. “We’ll have to see with additional research.”

Sweeney said his findings and Wann’s research could have several implications for marketing companies and team franchises.

“In order for a campaign or a series of ads to be effective, they really have to target a specific group and be relevant and meaningful,” he said. “Why couldn’t we do that with respect to marketing healthy lifestyles and get teams involved?”

Companies have always used studies like Sweeney’s for marketing purposes, but Frederick warns that because of sports fans’ psychological attachment to teams, using such information to increase sales borders on exploitation.

“I think that the larger issue for us would be the psychological effects of being a sports fan in terms of living and dying with the team,” he said. “It is something that teams, owners and companies take advantage of. Basically, they take our money.”

Sweeney said when companies and teams use this kind of information, it is just good business, which is essentially what sports are: businesses.

“It is a private business enterprise and we have to remember that,” he said. “Their mission is to make money, and it’s not to win games all the time. You can be cynical about it because of course they exploit it, but it’s about selling tickets.”

Sweeney added that he hopes his research will be used to improve the lives of sports fans through marketing. Advertising healthy lifestyles and having athletes promote gyms and healthy restaurants were a few of his suggestions.

“Fans are thinking, living beings,” Sweeney said. “If they choose to be exploited, good. But maybe we can get them healthier while they’re being exploited.”