Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding
By Everett Potter
Larry Olmsted’s new book Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding, will be released in hardcover on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Olmsted is an award-winning journalist and the New York Times bestselling author of Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It. He’s also a longtime contributor to Everett Potter’s Travel Report. I caught up with Larry to ask him about his new book.
Everett Potter: Larry, your last book was about food, so this seems like a big departure. Why sports fans?
Larry Olmsted: I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting topics and stories that have not yet been told, and this is a biggie. Spectator sports are the largest communal platform we have as a society, and billions of people identify themselves as “sports fans,” more than belong to any single organized religion or political ideology. In this country alone, nearly 200 million people call themselves sports fans in Gallup Polls, and that’s more than the total number of citizens that voted in our recent record-breaking election – for both candidates combined! In most newspapers the sports section is the biggest section, sports are the highest-rated shows every year on television, we have sports bars and sports radio, which you don’t have for any other kind of popular entertainment, and in many ways being fans is the biggest thing society has. Yet if you look at the spectator sports equation, more than 99.9% of the participants are fans, with athletes making up just a tiny portion. But there have literally been thousands of books written about sports, and no one has looked at the fans – until now. I asked myself, ‘If sports are so big, what does being a fan do to us, individually and as a society?’
EP: What did you find that might be eye-opening?
LO: Well, the news about being a fan is overwhelmingly good. But when I studied Hollywood’s portrayal, the TV and movie depictions of fans, they are almost universally stereotyped in a particularly negative way, overweight, drinking too much, putting sports before family and relationships, painting their faces, and in some cases acting like raving lunatics. But that’s not accurate at all. In general, sports fans are happier than non-fans, and have demonstrably better mental health, are healthier and exercise more, have larger social networks, stronger personal relationships and benefit from their passion for sports in many ways, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
EP: So, you think being a sports fan is actually good for us as individuals?
LO: Absolutely, I’m sure of it, because I looked at the scientific research, and hundreds of studies around the world have reached these same conclusions, and I show that evidence in the book. But it’s not just good for us as individuals. Sports fandom has many very positive effects for society as a whole. Just a few of the things I looked at that sports do is help communities and regions heal from natural and manmade traumas, like terrorist attacks, hurricanes, even the current COVID pandemic. Sports fandom has played a vital role in the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Rights movement, and LGBTQ Rights movement. Sports fandom has been shown repeatedly to make us a more tolerant, more democratic, and frankly a better society. Sports fandom has played an important role in international relations, diplomacy, and the peace process. When you start to look at the prevalence of sports fandom in history, it’s pretty amazing stuff.
EP: You mentioned the pandemic. Is the book tied to current events?
LO: Yes and no. These twin themes of healing and social progress have been around since the Ancient Greeks, and they resurface again and again, after Desegregation, after 9/11, after Title IX, after Hurricane Katrina, and so on. But the pandemic is unusual because it has been a worldwide phenomenon and it also was the first modern event that stopped sports everywhere. So, we got to see that effect and how badly they were missed and what happened when sports returned and how really vital a role they have played. If you just watched the Super Bowl, you heard a lot of things that were never part of the NFL before, the words Unity and Unify and Rebuild, over and over. The league’s social justice initiatives and $250 million commitment to fight systemic racism, moves that are being echoed in the other major sports leagues, this is all new. Along with the increased use of social media, we are seeing the rise of the activism athlete and the politically active athlete. Fantasy sports is another very new and very big element, with around 60 million people in the US and Canada regularly participating, and not so long ago it didn’t exist at all. So right now this feels like a special moment that is really connected to the themes in my book, even though when I started research 5 years ago there was no coronavirus.
EP: Who is your audience?
LO: Obviously I think any sports fan will really enjoy this and will find a lot of connections from their childhood, family or memories that they can relate to. I’ve done just a few radio interviews in advance of the release and already people are calling in and saying things like “My family is just like you describe in your book.” It’s also a great gift for any sports fan you know. But I think even non-fans will really be surprised and get a lot out of it. I’ve already had a few non-fan advance readers tell me how surprised they were at the huge role sports fandom plays in our lives, whether you watch or not. These positive effects of community, healing, unity, and social progress affect everyone, not just fans, and I think non-fans will maybe get even more out of it because these are issues they’ve probably never considered.
Click here to pre-purchase a copy of Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding by Larry Olmsted.