Finding greater good in sports fandom: one fan’s raison d’être

Ryan Chen
Ryan Chen
Jan 30, 2017 · 5 min read
Jonah Hill as Assistant GM Peter Brand (partly based on Paul DePodesta, then assistant to A’s GM Billy Beane) in the film “Moneyball”

Why are sports fans sports fans? What brings sports fans to care so deeply about a group of people, who they most likely will never interact with in any meaningful way, carrying out tasks with no inherent meaning?

For many sports fans (myself included), fandom begins practically alongside conscious thought. As a kid, you root for the team(s) your parents/close relatives root for and/or the local team(s). There’s never any question that your favorite team is Righteous and deserving of Good Things — championships, players receiving individual accolades, etc. It doesn’t quite matter that professional teams are profit-driven businesses or that players move between teams frequently (for 1946–2011, NBA players played an average of 2.21 seasons per team and for 2.51 teams in a career). You root for the team unconditionally because that’s what you’re supposed to do — it’s part of what makes you a good fan.

Then, as people grow older, many find this view of sports to be overly simplistic and tribalistic (this Onion article gets to the heart of the absurdity of sports fandom of this sort). So, why are we still sports fans? Is being a sports fan a valuable use of time, physical and mental energy, money, etc.? As I’ve grown older, I’ve continually asked myself these questions about my own sports fandom. Of course, there are many great answers. Some examples:

  • Sports can be a vehicle for social change, in part due to its meritocratic nature (at least compared to the rest of life/society at large)
  • Sports can uniquely unite a community of people from varying socioeconomic/racial/religious/etc. backgrounds
  • Sports can serve as an escape from people’s everyday struggles
  • Sports celebrate a pinnacle of human achievement just like top restaurants, art museums, and iconic buildings
One of baseball’s greatest ever, Jackie Robinson, was also hugely influential in the Civil Rights Movement

Because I’ve always been mathematically and scientifically inclined, I gravitated toward quantitative analyses of sports as I became aware of them. Since starting graduate school at Stanford in 2015, I started to do some of my own sports analytics work through the Stanford Sports Analytics Club (shameless plug for my work here).

But, coming back to the previous question, if I’m already questioning the value of being a sports fan, then what does that say about these much more extensive expenditures of time and energy in sports analytics? For the reasons that I listed above for the societal importance of sports, do analytics help advance those aspects?

Certainly, as with using analytics in any industry, gaining a competitive advantage has inherent value in terms of winning more, making more money, etc. But, can I (Silicon Valley cliché alert) make the world a better place through sports analytics?

After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that, yes, sports analytics can make the world a better place. I don’t think this conclusion is actually all that far-fetched. It comes from a slightly different aspect of the importance of sports that I didn’t mention above (and that fewer people seem to talk about): especially since so many people follow sports, what people say about sports both reflects and inspires the nature of discourse about topics at large, from personal decisions to issues of societal importance like climate change, healthcare, etc.

You don’t even have to look too hard to find the influence of sports in everyday life — just look at the myriad sports metaphors that pepper our language (e.g. “down the home stretch,” “cover all the bases,” “step up to the plate”). By extension, it’s not too hard to imagine that the way we think about topics in sports might color how we think in general.

Here’s an example: in my opinion, the still-significant attention the “how many championships has he won?” heuristic garners in debates about player quality is an unfortunate reflection of the level of nuance and complexity people are willing to consider. It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that this sort of thinking is correlated with the prevalence of the “it’s unseasonably cold right now, so climate change must not exist” argument. Both use the simplest/most-readily-available evidence to make a sweeping conclusion.

More generally, if I can be more introspective, forming opinions about sports gives me a window into the nature of my opinion-forming processes in general — my logic, my values, how I synthesize information, etc. Maybe this is just indulging one of the snobbier aspects of my love for all things Aaron Sorkin, but one of the reasons that I find certain talking heads in sports so irritating is not just that I disagree with their viewpoint, but also that they set the bar for sophistication so mind-numbingly low at times. Importantly, as mentioned above, this low bar can and inevitably does leak over into the debate on issues with greater societal impact.

“We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country.” — Leo McGarry in “The West Wing”

So, what can we do?

If we accept the premise that discourse about sports reflects and affects discourse at large, then the role sports analytics can play in society becomes clear. If sports analytics can help raise the level of discourse in sports, we’ll likely reap benefits as a society in the quality of debate about civic issues too.

With recent events, we’ve already seen the adverse effect of an increasingly post-fact world on the sophistication of the conversations we have about important issues. In this climate, insisting on things like quality journalism and evidence-based decision-making becomes even more crucial. Maybe I have delusions of grandeur about the impact sports and sports analytics can have in this space, but I truly believe that the large magnitude of public attention to sports is a platform and opportunity to shift the way people think about all aspects of their lives.

Admittedly, this is an obscure reason to follow sports, far flung from the vast majority of sports fans. But, in these strange times, I refuse to acquiesce to a world that doesn’t value facts, logical and quantitative reasoning, and intelligent debate. I often find myself thinking about whether the things I spend my time on can/are actively combating this sort of world. I think sports analytics can be part of this vision. If we can infuse analytical thinking and nuance into even something as raw and primal as sports (athletes can be construed as modern-day gladiators to some extent, after all), we have a good chance at becoming a society of more sophisticated thinkers in general.

At least for this work, that’s my raison d’être.

Addendum: I suppose this post also implicitly challenges me and practitioners of sports analytics to make our work not only incisive, but also accessible to typical sports fans. The sports analytics world at large doesn’t actually have too much of a problem here because much of the work is presented to people who largely don’t have deep quantitative backgrounds (e.g. GMs, coaches, athletes), but it’s certainly something to keep in mind.

Ryan Chen

Written by

Ryan Chen

@Stanford MS&E PhD student, @StanfordLive jack of some trades, sports analytics dude @StanfordSAC & @16WinsARing, @UMIOE & @umichsmtd alum