Last weekend, I found myself in a quandary that’s become familiar to more and more football fans over the last decade, one that pitted a lifetime of fandom against a pile of holiday cash.
The local NFL team is putting together what at this point can only be described as a [CLICHE ALERT] “playoff push.” They’re playing their best ball of the season, the other teams in the division appear to be falling apart, and they are [CLICHE ALERT] “in control of their own destiny.”
As someone who’s been rooting for this team for more than three decades, this is fun and it feels important to me in that way that only sports can. (Note to a certain subset of readers: Yes, I root for the team and want them to change their name. I can hold these non-mutually exclusive concepts in my head at once. You should try it sometime.)
On the other hand, my fantasy football team was… I know, I know. No one cares about anyone else’s fantasy football team. But bear with me.
My fantasy football team was in the first round of the playoffs, tops in the league in scoring and riding an 11-game win streak, but destroyed by late-season injuries and demotions.
This is a league that I’ve been in for about 15 years, mostly with friends from high school. We’re competitive about it without being insane—that insanity has been tempered by kids, spouses, real jobs, and all the other things that stand between a person and unlimited hours of nerding out on something. In practice, this means there’s a significant, friendly wager riding on the outcome of these fantasy games.
This creates an interesting dichotomy: The outcome of the actual football game on TV has no real bearing on my life, whereas the imaginary game that takes place only in the algorithms of my league’s host site has the potential to provide me with a direct, tangible benefit.
And yet, whenever the two outcomes were in conflict, I found myself rooting for the real professional team even at the expense of my own finances. This seems irrational at best, and borderline insane at worst. So I decided to see if I was alone, in the least scientific way possible: via Twitter poll.
A few caveats: I specifically asked Pigskins fans to respond, and they were riding the high of their team’s win (and their rival’s loss), so the playoffs seemed particularly reachable. The poll was retweeted by popular fan blog @BurgundyBlog, which means that the respondents were disproportionately fanatical. Perhaps most egregiously, I did not specify an approximate dollar amount won or lost in the fantasy league.
The gap between responses was wide enough to overcome even the poll’s enormous margin of error: Out of 374 respondents, 92 percent said that they’d prefer to have their team make the playoffs than “win [money] in fantasy.”
That means only 30 people chose the response that provides them with a tangible, financial benefit.
Eric Bateman summed up the general sentiment as to why: “Fantasy $ money gets spent but [Pigskins] glory… lasts forever!”
This a pretty straightforward facet of a Gladwellian pop-sociological concept known as Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRGing)—that is, the idea that people like to associate themselves with success. The classic example is wearing team-branded apparel after a team’s win. It’s one of those nebulous concepts that seems obvious when you say it, and largely pointless when you hear it described. The realization that I and 92 percent of respondents were choosing reflected glory over tall stacks of Yankee dollars seemed somehow significant.
It explains, to a certain extent, why defenders of the team’s name are so rabid. It explains why we keep coming back, year after depressing year, and still manage to take some joy when the team throws together a win streak that puts them on the precipice of the postseason. From a certain perspective, this simple, weird psychological quirk explains everything about being a sports fan.
It also all turned out to be totally moot, as my injury-ravaged fantasy squad totally choked in its playoff game, so there was no financial benefit to be had anyhow. And reflected glory is definitely better than no glory at all.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.
Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr