Ben Schellenberg, assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and recreation management, has launched a study into the experiences of Jets fans. The study consists of a survey where Jets fans are asked questions about how hockey influences their social life and feelings of harmony, as well as charting their obsession at three points in the season — pre-season, mid-season and end-of-season.
Schellenberg has experience conducting research at the intersections of psychology and kinesiology. Specifically, he has an interest in social psychology and its applications to both athletes and sports fans.
Schellenberg hopes to test the data he is collecting against a couple of general models of motivation. One of the models that Schellenberg will use to assess the data is the dualistic model of passion, which posits that passion is demonstrated in activities that allow people to define themselves. Within this model, passion develops into either harmonious or obsessive passion. Obsessive passion occurs when one feels surrendered to the activity, whereas the fan remains in control when experiencing harmonious passion.
Schellenberg also hopes to apply the team identification-social psychological health model to the data. In this model, team identification leads to the creation of social connections and an improved sense of well-being. This sense of well-being can reinforce one’s desire to identify as a fan.
“A big part of [being] sports fans, especially those who are highly identified, is that being a fan of a team, that becomes part of your identity,” Schellenberg said.
“It becomes part of who you are.”
This is especially true in Winnipeg. Since the return of the Jets to Winnipeg in 2011, fans have demonstrated their devotion through traditions like whiteouts, yelling “True North” during the national anthem and pouring out in the street for playoff appearances.
“I think being in Winnipeg is the perfect place to study sports fans,” Schellenberg said.
“I think this is a fantastic area because there’s so many people who are fans of one team — the Jets.”
Because Schellenberg is studying only one team, it is possible to analyze how the team’s on-ice performance over the course of the year may affect fans’ passion for them.
“If the Jets are winning or losing when we’re collecting data at the same time points, some fans might be more even throughout their experiences — high or low — whereas other fans might be more reactive to how the Jets are doing at that moment,” Schellenberg said.
Schellenberg speculated suspending sports during the pandemic restricted fans’ ability to connect with others in their established and ritualized way.
He also found passion type could be an indicator for coping strategies during the pandemic sports shutdowns. Schellenberg studied the effect of the NBA’s shutdown in March 2020 on harmonious and obsessive fans.
“The more obsessed these fans were, the more distressed they were during the period of time when the NBA was suspended due to the pandemic,” he said.
“They’re more distressed, they use more things like more alcohol use to cope with the fact that their favourite sport is no longer being played, whereas the harmonious passionate fans were doing much better.”
Sports unite Canadians from all walks of life. People seem almost as interested in understanding the phenomenon of sports fans as they are in watching their favourite teams.
Schellenberg said he is surprised by the media attention that this study is receiving.
“I do research with athletes [and] students,” Schellenberg said.
“[But] the media have only contacted me about my research that we’ve done with sports fans.”
The Winnipeg Free Press published an article on the study in September. CBC Radio’s Up To Speed with Faith Fundal also interviewed Schellenberg.
“The media attention with this specific study is just sort of reinforcing this sort of idea that I’ve been having that people are really interested in research of sports fans,” Schellenberg said.“So that’s sort of giving me some more motivation to continue.”
The media attention is due in part to the fact that fandom seems to defy logic. Die-hard fans support their team regardless of the outcome.
“A couple of times I’ve been contacted by media outlets in Toronto asking me, you know, ‘Why are these [Toronto] Maple Leafs fans […] still Maple Leafs fans?’” Schellenberg said.
“‘Year after year, they’re disappointed, but they’re still Maple Leafs fans.’”