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National Post: Psychological ramifications of COVID-19 on sports fans

March 20, 2020 — 

As The National Post reports:

There is no template in which to work off.

As for sports? We can all agree that what happens with a puck or ball is secondary to everything else taking place in the world today. COVID-19 has brought the globe to a virtual standstill. Sports are of little concern, and rightly so. Yet they do have a place in all this.

Everything from the National Hockey League to the English Premier League – and your daughter’s house league hockey – has been put on pause. For many sports fans who live and breathe sports day in and day out, their sudden non-availability is far from inconsequential.

We spoke with Dr. Ben Schellenberg, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba, about what effects COVID-19 might have on the sports fan and sports viewers.

Dr. Schellenberg’s research focuses on people’s favourite activities. He has focused most extensively on the construct of passion, examining how people’s experiences are affected by the extent to which their passion is harmonious and obsessive.

Additionally, he is a self-proclaimed sports fan and a gifted volleyball player who was nominated as a Canadian university male athlete of the year back in 2008.

This is obviously an unprecedented time in the world, with so much uncertainty surrounding our health and daily routines. The uncertainty extends to sports fans and viewers. What psychological impact might COVID-19 have on the sports fan?

One of the main reasons that people like to watch sports and support teams is that it can be an escape from their lives, from the everyday pressures of life. This is a very stressful situation, so this would be perfect for sports fans to escape by watching sports at home. Well, that can’t happen anymore. If escape is your reason for being a sports fan, this could be a potentially very stressful time for you.

Another motive or reason people are sports fans is because it allows them to connect with other people. They can talk about the sport with their friends and their family. They can watch games together. They go to bars to watch games with other fans. That can’t happen either. For various reasons, that is not happening any time soon. So, if being connected to other people is a way to be a sports fan, this also could be a pretty tough time for you.

Do you have any thoughts on what this current situation might compare to, or is this something that stands completely on its own?

I think sports is something that people have in their lives and it serves a purpose for them. It serves a very, potentially important purpose. For some people, it’s a very, very fundamental purpose, and for others it’s not really that critical for them. But if sports serves a very important function in your life … this will be more impactful for you then if not.

You’ve got your avid sports fan, your general sports fan and your passive sports fan. Is this something that impacts people on various levels?

Research on passionate motivation has identified two varieties of passion that people can have for an activity, in this case being a sports fan. The first type is a harmonious passion. These are when people love to be a sports fan, but if they need to take a break from a game to do other things instead, they have no problem doing that. They have no problem skipping a game for other things in their life. So, it’s very much in harmony with other things in their lives. The second component is called an obsessive passion. This is when the passion comes to dominate your life and you don’t want to skip a game, and if you have to skip a game to do something else, you’re thinking about the game you just skipped while doing whatever you’re currently doing. So, it’s almost as if the activity sort of controls you in a way. You’re obsessed about it, essentially.

We did a study back in 2013 when hockey fans were facing something similar, which was the (NHL) lockout. This was a time when they couldn’t watch their sport, hockey, and they didn’t know when it was going to come back on. So, similar to what fans of all types are facing right now. We found that it really mattered, the levels of harmonious and obsessive passion that you had, when predicting how people were responding to the lockout. The more obsessed you were, the more this was a very stressful situation for you. Obsessively attached fans reported higher levels of stress. They had to cope in various ways with the lockout. There was even some evidence that suggests they used more drugs and alcohol specifically to cope. They were doing things like turning to religion to cope. They were doing as much as they could to cope with the situation. In comparison, harmonious passion wasn’t related to stress appraisals or any type of coping strategies. Really what mattered was the level of obsession the fans had towards being a hockey fans.

If the situation that fans are facing today is similar to a lockout, and in many ways it is, we would predict that it really matters how obsessed these fans are, in how it’s going to impact their lives.

Given your background and the research you’ve completed regarding the 2013 lockout, what’s your level of interest in what’s happening today?

Right now, my position is, I’m in the boat with everybody else. At this point, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what’s happening, like everybody else. If this was like a lockout situation, I’d be following this and planning some research. I’m completely fascinated by what’s going to happen and how fans will react and adapt to this whole situation.

It seems to me that this could have the potential to become very serious for some sports fans. Is that fair to suggest?

I think there are many ways to cope with this. Normally, if you’re a hockey fan and there’s no hockey being played, you can cope by watching other sports. That can’t happen. It seems like everything is stopping. There’s a limit to the alternative activities that fans can engage in. But being a sports fan has so many dimensions to it. There are many ways you can be a sports fan that don’t necessarily involve watching the game. There are off-season transactions, free agency, all that kind of stuff goes into it. There are always ways, especially now when things seem to be completely shut down … YouTube has all the highlights you’d ever want to watch. Re-living the glory days, this might be a good time to do that. There are also countless books, audio books, podcasts about sports. Those don’t seem to be stopping. They can be accessed electronically. You don’t need to leave your home to get them. There are still a few openings available for people to be a sports fan.

When and if sports return, do you see people being hungry for their return, or do you see the potential for the current pause, however long that might be, creating disinterest or apathy among sports fans?

I don’t know. I would assume that some fans can’t wait for it to begin, especially if the seasons become more condensed and we’re seeing more bombardment with games that are happening. Or with hockey or basketball, if playoffs start right away, this could sort of jump-start people’s interest. There might be occasion when people do really do other things than watch sports – and learn that they like these activities and maybe they say, ‘you know what, maybe I don’t need to watch so much hockey on television. Maybe I am interested in reading e-books or watching movies.’ It really is difficult to say at this point what’s going to happen.

A lot of great unknowns, right?

I think this sort of sports shutdown is going to keep things in perspective for fans. Sports will let you know every so often that sports is just sports. It’s just a game. This is one of those situations.

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