Think back to the earliest memories you have of being a sports fan. Maybe it involves a cushy couch and a Superbowl party. Or maybe it involves an oversized foam finger and seats at a basketball game. Whatever it is, try to remember how you felt about a team at that early age. Were you ecstatic when they won? Bitterly disappointed when they lost? Apathetic about everything but the foam finger?
Well, some tough news: those memories aren’t exactly correct (except probably the foam finger). Yes, they happened. But if you’re thinking back to a particularly early experience of watching sports, science suggests that you didn’t genuinely care about the team. You cared about your dad.
Team loyalty – that personal, often emotional involvement spectators have with a given sports franchise – is a surprisingly complex phenomenon. It’s often finicky and tends to drive behavioral scientists wild. It’s not easy to explain why some fans shift team loyalty when they move to a new city whereas many don’t. Or why certain sports seem to incite brawls between opposing fans more than others.
But a lot of research suggests that this intense bond, which can push fans to beat the facepaint off one another, isn’t actually genuine until late childhood. That is, it takes until kids reach the ages of 8 or 9 years old for them to develop an emotional, long-term attachment to a sport, team, or specific player. This usually lines up closely with the developmental milestone of concrete operational thinking, the phase where young brains learn from a specific experience to create a general principle.
So, what’s going with kids decked out in jerseys before then? Well, for the most part, they’re mimicking others. Sports fandom can be a deeply social experience, and children pick up on that early on. A 5-year-old doesn’t cognitively have an allegiance to, say, the New England Patriots, but they can clearly observe that family and friends do and can then take that as a cue to inform their own behavior. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, where sports fandom helps develop social ties, but social ties help develop sports fandom.
And out of all social connections that determine team loyalty, who seems to have the strongest influence? Dads. Certain data show that children turn to their fathers to figure out who to root for far more than they absorb loyalty from mothers, siblings, friends, teachers, and others.
In a study from researchers at Murray State University, for instance, a group of adults were asked who had “the greatest single influence” on their first choice to become a fan of a team. The researchers found that 38.7 percent of males and 31.3 percent of females reported that the greatest influence on sports fandom was their father. That’s a significant percentage considering how much dads trumped moms in the study. Males chose dads 14 times more often than moms, and females chose them five times more often.
Long before they have a real affinity for a team, children, regardless of their gender, strive to conform to their dad’s choices. And in some cases, it may also be an attempt to feel more connected to them. In a segment for an episode of the podcast Radiolab, several women said they chose their first sports teams specifically to get “couch time” with their fathers. While there’s limited research on the topic, it makes sense, at least anecdotally, that when a kid couldn’t care less who’s playing who on TV, hopping on the sofa and cheering for whoever dad likes is a strong way to bond.
So, the next time you’re watching sports with your kid, remember that they’re probably not there because of any genuine allegiance to a team. More likely, they’re there for you.