Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Why Sports Fans Have More Friends With Ben Valenta and David Sikorjak
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 390 of Live Happy Now. If you’re a sports fan or you know someone who is, you’re going to love today’s guests. I’m your host, Paula Felps. And this week, I have the pleasure of sitting down with David Sikorjak and Ben Valenta, authors of the new book, Fans Have More Friends. These two strategy and analytics experts are diehard sports fans, who set out to prove their hypothesis that being a sports fan leads to happiness. Their research proved them right. And this week, they’re here to talk about why cheering on your favorite team is doing more for you than you might have realized.
[00:00:38] PF: David and Ben, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:41] BV: Thanks for having us.
[00:00:41] DS: Thanks for having us.
[00:00:42] BV: Happy to be here.
[00:00:43] PF: Well, this is exciting because this is something we have not touched on at Live Happy, which is unusual. It feels like a lot of things we’ve looked at from so many different angles but not fandom. Sports are such a huge part of our culture, and I don’t think we’ve ever touched on how it really affects us psychologically. So I guess for starters, how did the two of you meet, and how did you decide to write a book about this?
[00:01:08] BV: Our relationship goes way back. We’ve been working together for, I don’t know, 10, 12 years. We’ve always been kind of collaborators and like-minded in how we see the world and have been working in the sports business in some way, shape, or form for the last, I don’t know, 8 of those 10 years and have constantly had some insight into – Or maybe the better way to say it is we had an intuition that sports fandom was all about social connection, and this came through kind of years of spending time with fans, of thinking about the sports business, of working in sports media.
At a certain point, I think we became convinced that that intuition was actually a truth, and we could elevate it to the level of an insight, something that kind of defined how people approached the space. At a certain point, I think we decided we should prove this out. We should sort of see. We should put our insight to the test and see if it really does hold water, if we really can define fandom as a social enterprise.
Eventually, we landed on – I think a testable hypothesis is what we’re looking for, and that’s where we got to. So the fundamental insight was that to be a fan is to be a part of a community. That’s a line that we landed on years ago, working for the New York Knicks. That stuck with us for some time. We decided that if that’s true, if fandom is all about community, if it’s all about the social connection, then fans would enjoy more robust social networks, more robust social infrastructure.
So the shorthand way to say that is fans would have more friends. So we set out trying to devise a way to reliably test fandom and compare it to the number of friends in one social network. What we found over the last several years and 30-plus surveys and tens of thousands of respondents is that it’s true. In fact, fans do have more friends, and that’s the title of our book, Fans Have More Friends.
[00:03:03] PF: So how long did it take you to go from an idea to a finished product?
[00:03:09] DS: To be a fan and to be part of a community was something that we coined back in 2016, where we got to the point where like, “Let’s test this out.” We’re seeing it come up in different contexts around sports over and over with different types of people, men, women, white, black, all sorts of people, younger and older. The same thing held that we were observing social relationships as the incentive for the devotional behavior of sports fandom.
We didn’t start testing this until – Devised a way to test this until the end of 2018. Then once we kind of landed on a method, it kept coming back. Fans have more friends. It’s not only that. The bigger fan you are, the more friends you have. The bigger fan you are, the closer you are to all your friends. The more you interact with those friends, the closer you are to family. Just every single – It kind of – This is what we thought all along. We never thought we would be able to prove it out in such a consistent and robust way, and it’s kind of held now for three years now in testing this.
[00:04:16] BV: Just to draw a line into that, like the way to think about it is the bigger fan you are, the more likely you are to have a positive healthy relationship with your mother, right? It extends a great aspect of your social life. So it’s not just that fans have more friends, as Dave points out. It’s that you have a close relationship and closer ties with your family, both as parent to child, child to parent, kind of working both ways throughout one’s life.
[00:04:39] DS: Just to give you an example on that, we ran surveys recently where if you have measured from non-fans, so basically the general population, and then rated them across the scale on how big of a fan they are, if you have children living out of your home, we ask if there are adult children, how close do you feel with child number one? How close do you feel with child number two?
What we found for whether kids are at home or not, but it’s really the most acute for when you are an empty nester, the bigger fan you are, the stronger of a relationship you report having with each of your children.
[00:05:12] PF: Were you able to determine why that is? Because that’s super interesting because people – I mean, parents struggle like, “How can I be close to my children?” Now, it’s like go to games. Yeah.
[00:05:21] BV: Well, it’s really like the reliable rhythm of being a sports fan keeps you in constant connection. So I have three brothers. We all live dispersed around the country. I’m from Colorado, and my folks are still in Denver. The thing that we talk about most often is the Denver Broncos, right? That will anchor those conversations.
Now, that will unfold into how are the kids and how’s work and all that kind of stuff. But it usually starts with the Denver Broncos. Actually, this just happened. It’s the NFL trade deadline when we’re recording this. The Broncos made a big trade at the deadline, and my phone just lit up with text messages mostly from my family, my mom included, but a bunch of friends as well. When you start to see your fan engagement as that social connection, you sort of can’t unsee it. Then you begin to recognize, “Oh, this is actually the thing incentivizing my fandom, but it’s also the benefit of my fandom.” It results in more conversations. It results in more text messages. It results in more frequent interaction that is ultimately good for us and leads to strengthened relationships.
[00:06:27] DS: Build on the point is it’s like a covert way of just saying how are you doing. But sports just gives you many times over and over like your mom texting you have how’s it going and after a while could be braiding. But if it’s around sports, if the sky has something else, that conversation keeps on going, and it’s just a fluid back and forth, which is just more pleasurable for both parties.
[00:06:51] PF: That can even work if you are on opposing teams because I know in our house, there are friends who do not support the proper teams. When we’ll have it, it’s like that back and forth of like really just talking trash, but you feel closer. I mean, it really does kind of – It keeps you in contact, even though that’s the way that you’re going about it.
[00:07:11] BV: Absolutely. I mean, that’s the one thing we – The one question we get most often is like, “Well, what about the tribal nature of sports? What about rivalries and things like that?” What we find is that those things actually tend to make the experience of being a fan more engaging and more fun. That means that they animate those interactions and those connections in the same way.
In other words, like they make those conversations with those people more fun, right? When you’re talking trash, it’s all with a tongue in cheek. It’s all in good fun. We’re able to kind of play in this space that is ultimately very playful, and we can have that kind of conversation, that kind of interaction, which leads to just more intimate conversations down the line that aren’t necessarily about sports. It just kind of creates this space where we can bust other’s chops, and it’s all good.
[00:07:54] DS: There’s not many spaces where we can do that, where we could actually mock a friend, a family member, or a stranger because of sports affiliations. With sports, you actually have that permission to do it in a way that is just – It’s fun. It’s playful. It’s childish. All those things are really good.
[00:08:11] PF: What about right now? Because it seems everyone’s pretty sensitive to people who don’t agree with them. There’s a lot of polarization. There’s a sensitivity when someone disagrees with us. With sports, that disappears. Can you address that?
[00:08:28] BV: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, because it’s playful. Because it sort of seem to matter so much but not matter at all, that gives us that permission to not be so sensitive and to recognize that this is one space in my life that I cannot – I’m not taking these things personally, right? I’m not going to be overly sensitive. I can just go in there and have fun. I can receive the comments, and then I can take a lick in it. I can dole one out. It’s all good natured, and it’s all in good fun.
[00:08:55] PF: How can that help us? Or can it? Maybe I’m assuming. How can that help us in the real world? Because, again, there’s so much polarization. Is there a way that sports fandom can help us get past some of that?
[00:09:09] BV: Well, yeah. We addressed the notion of polarization, so we can get into that in the book. Before we get into the polarization piece, though, just to address the question kind of point blank, the way it can help us is we just have more interactions, right? So we have this safe space where it’s fun to interact, and that incentivizes us to get involved and interact. As it turns out, we’re social creatures, and those interactions, those connections are really good for us, right?
We’ve talked a lot about so far fans have more friends, and they interact with those people more often, and they have better relationships with their families and so on and so forth. But it turns out that those connections have a meaningful impact on your wellbeing. So it’s not just that fans have more friends. It’s because of those friends, fans are happier. They are more satisfied with their life. They’re more optimistic about the future. They’re more confident in themselves. They’re more trusting of other people. They’re more likely to give to charity. They’re more likely to be registered to vote.
There’s this whole cascade of wellness markers that come out of this connection, and it’s partly because it’s fun, probably because it’s entertaining, probably because it’s all of those things. But the connection is what’s most important.
[00:10:15] PF: Did you find what the connection is between being a sports fan and having those tendencies?
[00:10:20] BV: The connection, I would say, is connection. Like it is that you’re just more plugged into the world around you. You’re more plugged in your community. You are more engaged in the world because you have all of these different touch points to draw on.
[00:10:33] DS: You saw a game with friends, and your friends will tell you about, “Hey, there’s this thing going on in town. You should go to it.” Probably you’re going to go or you’re out in the world, connecting with other people, and that’s how you learn about other things. You’re getting depolarizations. That’s how you’re exposed to people who may be slightly different than you. It doesn’t mean that you kind of adopt their views, or it shifts your views. But it just means you feel a closeness to somebody else that’s different to you.
That’s important, where – We talked about this in our book, and we mentioned there’s this feeling thermometer to kind of get into the polarization piece that is used in political science. They’re used in political science for years, and it measures how – It’s a 0 to 100 scale, and you’re taking the survey or asked, “How do you feel about Democrats with zero being cold and 100 being hot? Then vice versa, how do you feel about Republicans?” What we lay out in the book is the bigger fan you are, if you separate the sample out into Republicans and Democrats, Republicans have warmer feelings towards Democrats, the bigger fan they are. Democrats have warmer feeling towards Republicans, the bigger fan they are.
To be clear, the feeling is cold from opposing views. That’s the nature of our polarization. But the fact is, and we’ve read a lot about polarization in writing this book, and it often left us depressed. Like there’s no way out. We’re just growing apart as a country, as two separate countries, and we don’t talk to each other. What kind of the psychology teaches us is that in group and out group becomes more solidified. Therefore, we don’t talk. Therefore, we dislike each other more, more and more, regardless of how much we are into the politics of it.
But our contention is sports fans, and it actually gets us to mix those in groups a little bit. If you’re a Dallas Cowboys fan and you are a liberal that lives in New York, when there’s a lot of Dallas Cowboys fans here in New York, you know there’s other fans that are not – Don’t share the same views as you. You also know that it crisscrosses race and religion and education and income. You’re part of this one Dallas Cowboys tribe, and that actually has an impact on you. So that’s why we see the warmer feelings towards the opposing party within both kind of Democrat and Republican tribes.
[00:12:52] PF: That is so interesting. So how can that be used by individuals, if we start understanding that? How can we use this as a tool for trying to build a bridge?
[00:13:04] BV: Ultimately, that’s kind of what we’re advocating for is to, I want to use your words, use this as a tool. We all – There’s a lot of people who are sports fans. This cuts across a major segment of the American populace. So it’s a mainstream behavior that people are engaging with but not necessarily consciously aware of the benefits that they’re receiving because they’re fans. So what we want people to do is become aware of this thing as a tool.
Now, that tool can be used to mitigate polarization. It can be used to mitigate loneliness. But these problems that kind of befuddle us can be lessened, can be decreased, can be dampened by recognizing that that fandom is this thing in your arsenal that you can pull out at any time to create connection, to expand your worldview because it’s going to create the interactions with other people around you and create that engagement in the world that we were talking about previously.
[00:14:01] DS: Even if you’re at the airport and see somebody with an Alabama jersey on and you make a comment about Alabama, it’s a 10-second interaction. The science says you both are uplifted as a result of that interaction. You as a sports fan, if you’re conscious of what’s going on in the world, and you can go up to a complete stranger and talk about the Phillies and Astros game tonight, those interactions are really good.
We encourage – As Ben was saying, this was our motivation of if you’re a fan, lean into it. These are good things. It’s good for you, good for others, good for society. Realize that this is the impact of it, and it’s already happening. Now that you know it’s happening, lean into it more, and more good should come out of it.
[00:14:41] BV: I guess what that means is, specifically, recognize that sports can be the anchor to a interaction, right? So one thing that I’ve changed in my life is I will say yes to anything that comes my way that sports-related I will say yes, right? To where I was kind of like falling out of love with the fantasy leagues and the pick’em pools, I will now say yes. Let’s go do it. I realized that this is not a fatuous kind of obnoxious thing but actually something that’s really meaningful for my life, right? But I’ll also extend that invite.
So whenever I see some – I’ve even started going through my contact with my phone. If there’s somebody I haven’t talked to for a while, I’m aware of kind of like the teams that they follow. I’ll use that as a way into sending you that message. Hey, I saw so-and-so traded so-and-so. What do you think of that? Oh, by the way, it’s been a while. How you doing? Right? Or I’ll invite people over on a Sunday to get together. Whether I care about the game or not, it almost makes no difference. It’s just the device that gets people together, and then you’re reaping the rewards of that togetherness.
[00:15:36] PF: That’s great, and it’s interesting that you talk about fantasy leagues, things like that. So it’s not just straight up fandom for the game. It reaches well beyond that.
[00:15:47] BV: Absolutely. I mean, again, let’s just change how we think about fandom for the game and all these different activities. The activity almost doesn’t matter. It’s the activity that creates connection, right? My fantasy league with 10, 12 college buddies generates on a weekend probably 250 text messages on average, right? Those would, otherwise, not happen. If I see now that the fantasy league across whatever 24 weeks of NFL season is generating 250 text messages a week, like that’s a lot of interaction that I would have otherwise not had, if I didn’t have that fantasy league.
Now, all of a sudden, I’ve reframed how I think about and approach that entire enterprise, and it puts it in those terms. Now, I know it’s impacting my wellness. I know it’s actually causing oxytocin to be released and flow through my bloodstream. Like it’s changing how I see the world. If you’re aware of that and you can lean into it, then all of a sudden, you can really start to reap the rewards.
[00:16:39] DS: I can give another example, a more personal [inaudible 00:16:42]. We wrote the book and we’re – Ben and I talked about this. We’re living the book, so to speak, as kind of a – What we found is it’s like it’s telling us to think of things differently. So I’m a Yankees fan. The Yankees had a great start to this season, looked like a dominant team. Then in August, it all fell apart. It often left me depressed on days, and I would go into work and work on stuff and be angry about going home to watch the game or having to watch the game.
I have an eight and six-year-old boys, two boys who are obsessed with the games. Our family time, and my wife who is not a sports fan or who was not a sports fan, has now kind of signed up, as it is our best family time. Well, it’s seven o’clock. We are – The four of us are on the sofa. We are talking. They’re asking questions. We’re engaged in things. We are together as a family, watching this thing called baseball.
So like learning from the stuff that we’re writing in that book, it’s like, well, just forget about that and stop being angry about all the stuff that’s wrong with the Yankees and what’s right with the family engagement around it. We just have this beautiful time every night when the Yankees are on that, otherwise, would – We’d still have beautiful time, but it just wouldn’t be as kind of cohesive as sports has made it in our home.
[00:17:57] PF: Yeah. How does that bring it together? When you’re cheering together, when you’re bemoaning the loss together, how does that tighten you as a family unit?
[00:18:06] DS: Well, it gives you something else to talk about, and it’s great that you bring up the loss because we often – Another question we get is, well, is this true for winning teams that you’re happier, as opposed to perennial losers. It works. It works both ways. You can celebrate together, which is great to commiserate and find the occasion to do something together and celebrate. It’s also great to commiserate. Yankees lost. When I get together with Yankee fans, I – We all want to like vent about it, and like venting is good. Like in other things in life, you keep it in, and you boil inside.
With sports, we all vent, and it’s actually just like a positive release, and somebody else is listening on the other end and understands and gives examples of it. There’s not much stuff that we can vent and do that stuff and have that kind of dialogue so freely with other people, whether it’s somebody close or a complete stranger.
[00:18:56] BV: You know, Paula, the way to think about it I think is you’re going on an emotional ride together, and like all of those components are important. The emotional aspect amplifies the togetherness and vice versa. But ultimately, the celebrating, the commiserating doesn’t really matter. It’s just the fact that you’re going on this ride together.
[00:19:14] PF: I love that. I love that. One thing that you talk about is the importance of passing down fandom in your family. Two questions related to that is like why is that so important, and then how do you do that?
[00:19:26] DS: Well, the first one, I think the reason it’s important, we talked a little bit about the impact that this can have on your relationships with your children or your parents, kind of going both ways. So I think just recognize like in the data, what we see is that relationships are improved or the likelihood of relationship being improved are correlated with fandom. So basically, it’s just a way of trying to kind of stack the odds in your favor to ensure that you have a close relationship with your children or with your parents. Because, again, you come back to just the cadence of communication increases, and that’s ultimately good for relationship.
The way to do it, Dave and I are kind of like working through this right now. We both have young kids. My son is just kind of getting into it, and he calls every sport on TV baseball, whether it’s baseball or not. He calls every team the Los Angeles Rams, even though the Rams only play football. But it’s getting them into the space where they can use sports and create social connections around sports, right? Like that’s, I think, ultimately, what you’re handing to your kids is a tool that will help them socialize, right?
We see. We just did some polling with teens that this all holds true with 13 to 17-year-olds. So if you’re a highly engaged sports fan as a teen, you’re going to have more friends. You’re going to be happier. You’re going to do better in school. You’re going to have closer relationships with your family. It’s not so much the fandom that’s doing anything there. It’s just the fandom gives you a way to connect with people, and the connections are good for us.
If I think about my kids, like one of the things that I want for them is to have close friendships. I think that that’s an important to a fulfilled life. By giving them fandom, by kind of indoctrinating them in this school of fandom, what you’re doing is giving them a tool that allows them to connect. It increases the likelihood that they will have more robust friend networks, if they’re fans.
[00:21:08] DS: One more thing of it kind of goes back to the playfulness of sports fandom. There’s not many things as a parent with kids that it doesn’t matter. Like there’s not an expectation. You have to do these things for school or even if you’re playing in a sports team. Or did you work out? Did you prepare? Did you think about these things? It’s all freedom sports fandom, and it creates a playfulness within the family that is highly beneficial.
[00:21:31] PF: You also say that it can help us build confidence in other people. I found that interesting. What mechanism is at play there to make that happen?
[00:21:40] DS: Well, it’s all the same mechanism at work, right? You’re interacting with people, and you will then kind of view them more positively. So we have several questions that we ask around. How trusting are you of other people? Do you typically trust somebody when you meet them? Or do you not trust them? So as you can predict, that the bigger fan you are, the more trusting you would be of that person, whether you’re meeting a stranger.
It really just comes down to your interacting with more people, and that exposure to other people [inaudible 00:22:10] them. You’re not always on guard in these interactions because you’re happy to walk up to a stranger and talk about the Cowboys. Again, that’s good for you. We see this time and again, and then we measured it further in confidence in institutions. How you feel about whether it’s the police, the military, religious leaders, the news media, professors, scientists. We see with that that the bigger fan you are, the more confidence you have in those institutions.
[00:22:39] BV: I think one way to just sort of sum up everything that Dave just said is a line that we include in the book. Actually, we quote Brene Brown, who I would assume, Paula, you’re familiar with.
[00:22:48] PF: Most of our listeners are.
[00:22:49] BV: I would – Yeah. I guess we’re playing to the right audience here. But she has a line that I love, and that resonates with us and really encapsulates a lot of what Dave was just saying, which is it’s hard to hate people up close. The idea –
[00:22:59] PF: I love that.
[00:23:00] BV: Effectively, what we’re saying is fandom puts you in a place where you are connecting with more people, both intimate connections, relationships, family, close personal friends, etc. But also just strangers on the street, right? You’re going to have those interactions with the barista because she’s wearing the Dodgers hat in Los Angeles, and you can have that brief 10-second interaction about the team that’s going to impact your day. But it also exposes you to other people, right? It just kind of like helps build that muscle of connecting with other people.
Ultimately, that’s the thing. That exposure is the thing that changes your worldview. It creates that sense of trust in other people, it creates that sense of confidence in other people, and it just sort of broadens your perspective on the world.
[00:23:39] PF: I like that. This is so well researched, and that’s what’s interesting too. How difficult was it to get research on this, put this all together?
[00:23:47] DS: I mean, this is what we do, the research and fielding surveys, conducting focus groups, doing ethnography. So we feature a lot of people in the book that we tell stories about, and those came about. We met them in focus groups. We conducted ethnography, so I wouldn’t do – We went into homes with people, with the games with people, with the sports bars.
I mean, this is what we do. So we enjoy doing it. We felt like early on, we had an interesting thread to pull on. The book is about just continually pulling on the thread. Fans have more friends. Their measures of wellbeing, it leads to a broadened worldview. All these things just came out through the research that we conducted.
[00:24:28] PF: Very interesting. So this is a terrific book. We’re going to tell the listeners how they can find you, how they can find a copy of the book. As I let you go, what is it that you hope people take away from reading this book?
[00:24:42] BV: I hope that they take away that they should lean into their fandom. If they’re fans themselves already, lean into that. Embrace it. I think maybe more broadly, we take kind of a step back. It’s really to – We want to reframe the conversation we have around sports fandom. I think the current cultural conception of sports fans is sort of the obnoxious face painter bro, maybe a little drunk in the stands and making you feel uncomfortable. That person does exist, and that thing does exist.
But when we focus exclusively or we frame our conception of fandom exclusively around that person, we miss all of this other connection that’s really good for us. So what we want to do is get people to recognize, “Oh, this is actually really good for me,” right? I can lean into it. I can enjoy this. I can use it as a tool. But I should lean into it because it’s going to impact my life.
Dave on his line earlier, being a sports fan is good for you, good for others, good for society. We want people to recognize that. That’s the ultimate takeaway here.
[00:25:37] PF: I love it.
[00:25:38] DS: It’s available for anyone, everyone, young, old, male, female. Sports crosses everything.
[00:25:45] PF: Yeah. There’s a few sports out there that you can choose from. You can find one.
[00:25:48] DS: We have a lot here. Yeah.
[00:25:51] PF: Well, I thank you guys so much for sitting down with me. I just – I love this topic. I love the approach that you’ve taken and the way that you’re opening this door that just really hasn’t been walked through yet. So thank you so much for the work you’re doing and for sitting down and talking with me about it.
[00:26:05] BV: Thanks, Paula. It was a lot of fun.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:26:11] PF: That was Dave Sikorjak and Ben Valenta, authors of the new book, Fans Have More Friends. If you’d like to learn more about their research, follow them on social media, or buy their book, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
A reminder that November is gratitude month, and what better way to show your gratitude to others than to gift them with a plate of homemade treats. The Live Happy Store has a brand new giving plate, which you can fill with your favorite treats and share with a neighbor, your kids’ teacher, a coworker, or anyone else in your life whom you’d like to show appreciation to. The poem on our Live Happy giving plate encourages them to continue spreading the joy by doing the same for someone else. You can check it out right now in the Live Happy Store at store.livehappy.com.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. And until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.