Die Hard Sports Fans Leave A Lifelong Legacy

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


Long before Bruce Willis starred in the movie of the same name, the phrase “die hard” was first used by British officer William Inglis after being wounded fighting the French in 1811.  “Die hard 57th, die hard!” was his command to his troops in the 57th Regiment.  Little did he know that over 200 years later, his battle cry would be used to describe today’s sports fanatics. 

While not risking their lives for their favorite team, these die-hard fans take loyalty to a whole new level.  A researcher at Duke University, known for its own Cameron Crazies, just released a unique perspective of what it means to be die-hard, by reading their obituaries!

As a public policy professor, Charles Clotfelter is fascinated by the intense connection forged between individuals and a sports team identity, especially at the college level. It can become "a sign of the people's affection, and a source of pride, even a kind of patriotism," he said.

To identify the true life-long fan, what better place than in their obituary? If your loyalty is so well-known to your family that they mention it in your obit, you have left no doubt that you bleed your team’s colors.

"Accounts such as these, written to celebrate the life of a loved one, suggest that the decedent's interest in this college team was no casual thing, but rather a noteworthy source of identity," writes Clotfelter. "To refer to these individuals merely as fans of college football or basketball is surely inadequate. These were true believers."

Clotfelter and his team of researchers scanned 1300 obituaries that referred to a college with a unique team name, like Badgers or Longhorns.  Examples of references to their teams included:

  • "Throughout his adult life, [he] was a dedicated Ohio State football fan. He owned a scarlet and grey 'Buckeye Van' which he drove to the home games. The license plate on [his] van read 'SACK MI.'"
  • "She will be watching March Madness from the heavens, where she will be cheering on the Blue Devils of Duke and her beloved Coach K."
  • [He] was an independent thinker in all aspects of his life. This was no more evident than in his remaining the only Wolverine fan in a large family of Buckeyes."
  • "She enjoyed family traditions, knitting and Penn State football."

By comparing this group with obituaries with those of people with similar geography, age, occupation, college attendance, etc., he found some interesting characteristics of the super fan:

  • They are a rare breed; only about 2% of published obituaries referenced a team affiliation
  • Three times as many men as women were die-hard fans
  • Loyal fans were twice as likely to have attended college than the general population, although one third of the super fans never attended college at all.
  • Only one-third of the die-hard fans attended their favorite college but most lived in the same state.
  • Fans of UCLA, Connecticut and Texas A&M lived closest to their schools while schools like Notre Dame and Nebraska had fans dispersed across the country.

Professor Clotfelter summarizes the study, recently published in Social Science Quarterly, in this video.

Together, these fans create a special connection to the campus community and deserve more attention as civic supporters, according to Clotfelter.

"It's my belief that commercial sports are a core function of universities such as these, even if it is not in their mission statements," he said. "Being a fan represents an authentic cultural tie. To call big-time college sports commercial is accurate but incomplete. It's the truth, but not the whole truth."

The connection back to Lt. Col Inglis isn’t too much of a stretch for this fan regiment.  Face-painting, uniform-wearing, yell-screaming armies go into battle with the same all-for-one loyalty. Just leave the weapons at home.

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Apr 21 2015

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