The Biggest Online Fans are Sports Fans

The European Interactive Advertising Association recently released a study showing that sports fans are twice as likely to use the internet while watching TV than are ‘average’ internet users. As the report on this posted at Netimperative explains:

Over a third (36%) of all European internet users currently visit sports websites and these sports site users spend over 13 hours online each week, 10% more time than the average European and an increase of 27% since 2004.

These figures are set to ramp up as we approach a summer full of hot-to-watch events such as Euro 2008 and the Olympics.

Events such as these can act as catalysts for media change as fans adopt new habits and technology in order to follow their favourite sports.

What the article doesn’t address (although the full report may address it) is why sports fans would watch tv while being online simultaneously or what it is that they are doing while online.

Throwing out a little wild speculation, my guess is that watching sports is more tension-creating than just about any other kind of fandom, creating more of a need to connect with other people as you go through it. Surely it’s a fact (though I haven’t seen the data) that sporting events draw more live audience members than other kinds of fan events. I know that during the NCAA tournament, even I, the world’s lamest sports fan, found myself checking twitter continuously for the reactions of other KU fans to some really tense — and then tension relieving — moments.

But maybe it’s also about the statistics and the huge wealth of background knowledge about sports that’s out there which might be relevant at any given moment. “Wait, who’s this guy again? Let me check.”

I know there are some readers who know WAY more about sports than I. Any insights to share?

The study is also an important reminder for fandom scholars of how badly we need to take account of sports. I complain that fan researchers pay too little attention to music (which we do), but given the magnitude of sports fandom and new media, the topic deserves far more focus than it gets.

It also raises questions about the temporal elements of online fandom — what kinds of fandom drive what kinds of internet use? What makes people need to be online at the same time? What makes people log on as soon as it’s over? What makes people check in sometime in the weeks that follow? What has people logging on beforehand?

Live or Virtual? Even I Choose Live.

The internet is often cast as “the virtual” while face-to-face, or as one scholar better termed it, “body-to-body” communication is seen as the locus of all that is real and authentic. Having studied how people use the internet socially since the early 1990s, I’ve always been very wary of the whole concept of “virtual,” with its implication that what happens online is ALMOST real enough to seem like it’s real but can never really truly be Real. I know too well that for the overwhelming majority of people the overwhelming majority of the time, what happens online is just part and parcel of our everyday lives — no more or less real than a phone call, a memo, a newspaper or even … an in-person conversation. My own research is among studies showing that online interaction isn’t much better or worse than any other kind of interaction and using the internet in relationships doesn’t make them any better or worse.

My position is sometimes interpreted to mean that I think the internet can be substituted for face-to-face communication. I don’t think this. There is something special about shared physical presence that no medium can ever replace. The internet lets us build connections that we can later meet in space, it lets us maintain connections that formed in space, it gives us a way to coordinate how to meet in space. It supports face-to-face communication.

I’ve been thinking about this need for shared presence among fans lately in the wake of two things. First was the completely spontaneous way in which basketball fans in my town amassed downtown when the team made it into the top 4. I don’t know how many thousands came out on in a viral happening that night, but there were 25,000 — 1/4 of the town’s population — when they got to the final 2, and 40,000 when they won. When they had a parade over the weekend so fans could witness what my son described as the “terrible!” “worst ever!” “totally boring!” spectacle of the team sticking their heads out of convertibles, 80,000 people came. When the paper talked to the people who went to the parade they talked about “just wanting to see the players.”

I was a little tempted to sneer, but I totally understood.

Because the second thing that’s got me thinking about the importance of shared presence is the fact that I’m soon to go further than I ever have before to see a show by a band I love. Now this is coming from someone who logged tens of thousands of miles in the 1980s following REM, the dBs, Camper Van Beethoven, Dumptruck, Thin White Rope, Big Dipper, Love Tractor, and other bands I loved around the midwest. It’s even coming from the girl who said “yes” when a girlfriend called her up 3 years ago and said “fly to Denver, meet up with me, and go see REM.” Live music has always compelled me to come.

Back up.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while or know me, you know that a few years ago I fell very hard for the Norwegian band Madrugada. They have never toured the US. Last summer, their guitarist passed away and in addition to mourning what was way too soon a passing, I also selfishly mourned that I never got the experience of seeing them live. Two years ago I sat exactly where I’m sitting right now and looked at ticket prices on Expedia trying to figure out if I could get to London for their show there. I decided it was just too indulgent and didn’t go. I heard a bootleg. It wasn’t that great a show. But boy do I wish I’d gone.

Before his death, they had almost finished a record. The remaining members finished it, put it out, and more or less announced the end of the band saying it didn’t make sense to go on as Madrugada without Robert. Seemed fitting. But the record is good. Really really good. And they were a band that loved to tour. And you could listen to that record and hear the songs calling to the men who made them “you have to play me live, you know you have to, you know it, you know it.” First they played one show, invitations only, for 500 people and 30 fans (they had a raffle, 10,000 entrants in only a few days). It was hard to imagine that with that taste they could really spend the summer cooling their heels in their urban apartments when there were festivals all over Europe. A few weeks later they announced they were going to tour after all.

Sit home again on account of “it’s too indulgent”? Not an option.

It took an absurd amount of juggling and coordinating, but in a month I’m going to see them 2 nights in a row in Denmark. The next week I’ll give talks in Copenhagen, Toronto, and Montreal then go camping with the family. One might question my sanity.

But what I keep thinking about when I ponder my motivation for going so far out of my way to see them, especially in the wake of Robert’s unexpected passing, and when I think about all those basketball fans in the street, is that being together in person with all your attention on a passion so important to your sense of what makes you you, is such a powerful way to affirm LIFE. To celebrate the fact that we are alive in the same time, the same space. We are alive together.

I found Madrugada on the internet. I met the people who’ve invited me to speak in Copenhagen and in Toronto on the internet. I’m grateful for the chance to see them in person.


I may not be much of a sports fan, but that was one unbelievable basketball game and to be able to down a three-point shot with 2.1 seconds left and pull KU out of a 9 point deficit to a win just makes me say: “Mario Chalmers, you are my new hero!”

And it makes the people of Lawrence — 40,000 of us in a town of less than 100,000 — do this:


I’ll take it!

As they say round here, ROCK CHALK!

Can’t Beat Dancing in the Street

KU won Saturday night, which you either know or really don’t care about in the least. I watched at home on TV. I live close to downtown where people had been hanging out in anticipation of the game in bars & restaurants all day long. The split second the game ended I heard a tremendous roar and it just didn’t let up until well after I’d fallen asleep.

I grabbed the family and we headed downtown to check out the scene.

KU Wins!

It was a nonverbal ritualistic primal phenomenon. Thousands of people in blue KU shirts (“I’ve never seen so many people wearing the same shirt” said my son), barely talking, just walking up and down the streets and sidewalks with no particular destinations screaming, hooting, hollering and high-fiving. And smiling smiling smiling. And even in their chaos, so nice, saying “excuse me” when they bumped into you and being extra nice to the kids.

I felt far more like an observer than participant, especially since I’m a good deal older than most of the revelers and because I just don’t identify with KU basketball in that personal way. But it was impossible to deny the pure collective joy that filled the town.

The internet is great for information pooling and network building, and it does alright at collective emotion, but there is simply no substitute for sharing physical space with other people feeling the same thing. It builds, it magnifies, it takes on a life of its own. It allows people to TOUCH. This is why fans will always create opportunities for collective face-to-face experience. And why they will use technology (mobile phones were the obvious interpersonal coordination devices last night) to create more opportunities to share their fandom together in space.

The most coherent comment I heard anyone make on the street last night? One young man says to his friend “I am SO happy right now!!!”

Here’s hoping KU win tonight!

Go Jayhawks!

Some of you (particularly the Americans among you) may have noticed that there’s this little athletic ritual this time of year called the NCAA basketball championships and that a little ballclub from the University of Kansas called the Jayhawks are in the Final Four.

It seems negligent for me not to say anything about it here :) especially when two of the team members have been my students.

I can get excited about basketball in moments such as this, but basically I’m a lousy sports fan. Sports just don’t do much for me, and when I do get emotionally invested I find the stress of the game more painful than pleasurable (will we win? 16 second left and they have the ball and the best shooter in college basketball? agh! they shoot! agh! they miss! YES!).

Still, when a game ends and you can hear nothing but car horns honking in celebration for the next several hours, it’s hard not to get caught up in the joy that is exuberant local fandom.

Especially when you look at Facebook, and find that friends who no longer live here have promptly changed their pictures to KU flags or Jayhawks. When you look at Twitter and find alumni friends in other cities writing “omg! omg! omg!” during those last 16 second of the game.

When my local paper published pictures of fans celebrating downtown after the victory, my first instinct was to post the link to Facebook, knowing that our alumni who are not here would want to feel that connection to Lawrence, Kansas. As a journalist for the Topeka paper described it:

Lawrencians didn’t attend the actual game, but they certainly made memories. The celebration was something the likes of which I’d never seen, and might never see again. And amongst all the madness, it seemed like fans were behaving. Sure, there was sloshed beer and shouting, but there were families smiling and strangers embracing. (source)

And my remote friends did appreciate the link. They couldn’t get downtown, but at least they could browse the pictures and imagine what it felt like. And they could do that within hours of the victory when the intensity of emotion was all still there.

All of which makes me appreciate the many little ways in which the net can facilitate people’s sense of connection to geographic place and how fandom can invigorate and keep those place-ties alive well past one’s time living there.