The City of Pittsburgh took a collective gut punch last weekend as the Steelers suffered a 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars to end the season.
Beyond the more than 60,000 people who flocked to Heinz Field to sit in 20-degree weather and watch the loss live, around 20 million people at home invested about three and a half hours watching the game on television.
And when things didn’t go the Steelers’ way, fans unleashed a wave of anger.
People took to Twitter to criticize the coaching staff and players. A few days later, Mike Tomlin booted offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and to the delight of fans — especially the more than 4,300 fans that like the “FIRE Todd Haley” Facebook group.
But this tough loss shouldn’t directly affect fans sitting at home, right?
Steelers fans aren’t on the team — most have never even spoken to a player or coach. With the majority of them without a financial stake in the outcome, millions of Steelers fans personally felt sad, frustrated and angry to see the season end.
Why do these Steelers fans care so much? More broadly, why do fans across sports feel such a strong connection to teams they have very little tangible connection with?
One dominant theory explaining this behavior deals with psychologist Henri Tajfel’s theory of social identity — or knowledge of group membership combined with the emotional value of that group.
All people classify themselves and others into groups, be it something expansive like ethnicity or something as small as clubs at Pitt.
Our brains constantly place stimuli and people into different categories to help speed up mental processing. With built-in stereotypes about certain groups, it is easy to process the never-ending cycle of new information presented every day.
Equally as important, groups help improve members’ self-esteem. Being part of something provides a positive sense of self through interpersonal relationships and positive comparisons with other groups, according to Tajfel.
Applying social identity theory to fans, people group themselves as a part of the franchise and feel personally a part of the failures and successes of their favorite teams — success or failure can affect fans’ self-esteems.
“The aim of differentiation is to maintain or achieve superiority over an out-group on some dimensions,” Tajfel and fellow psychologist John Turner said in their 1979 paper.
Yet, group identities are complicated. Just one person can think of themselves in terms of their ethnicity, hometown, education level, career type or any number of categories in between. Even among Steelers fans, 4,000-plus people created their own “FIRE Todd Haley” Facebook group.
But what really connects people to sports teams? Very few would categorize themselves within the group of “millionaire” or “professional athlete.” Athletes aren’t who fans identify with, but rather the brand associated with each franchise.
Specifically, “demographic” and “membership organization” identities have been shown to have the strongest impact on group connection to sports franchises, according to research by Bob Heere and Jeffrey D. James.
Demographic groupings can include things like geography, ethnicity and gender, while membership organization can include factors like vocation, religion or political beliefs.
When examining the Pittsburgh Steelers, the organization immediately capitalizes on two of these identities — the City of Pittsburgh and the area’s historical connection to the steel industry. In turn, members of the community think of Pittsburgh and the steel industry when thinking of the Steelers, not rich athletes with whom they have very little in common.
The Rooney family even had this in mind when they first changed the team name from the Pirates to the Steelers at the end of the 1939 season.
Manufacturing group identities just through the name of different franchises is the norm throughout sports. Just think of the Dallas Cowboys, the New England Patriots or the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL.
The more social identities a team has in common with people, the more likely the people are to become fans. And often, franchises have no competition for fan support within their regional market.
There is generally one team per sport in markets working to draw fans — meaning that people are presented with connections to limited teams. As the only game in town for each sport, franchises can easily make connections with the nearby population just off of a few details like the team name.
Once a franchise makes this initial connection to people, it’s common for it to become a part of people’s identities because of the possible social identity benefits.
As a Steelers fan, going to Heinz Field last weekend not only provided the opportunity to befriend more than 60,000 other Steeler fans, but also offered the chance to flaunt superiority over Jaguar fans if the Steelers won.
Proving the power of sports identities, a 1992 study showed that people predicted better future performances for both themselves and their team after wins as compared to losses. A win or loss for your team can actually impact the way you see yourself performing in life.
Understanding the role sports franchises serve within a person’s social identity, it actually makes sense that sports fans feel a part of their favorite teams. A sports franchise can make a real difference in the self-esteem of fans.
So don’t judge Steelers fans as they spew anger and mourn the recent loss to the Jaguars. The players may have felt the immediate pain, but the social identity of the people of Pittsburgh suffered as well.