Whether it is real life Oakland Raiders fans that dress in outlandish costumes, scream, and beat at the padding in the end zones in football stadiums for three straight hours, fans that think it is great idea to spell the name of their team across their bare chests in freezing temperatures, or the Seinfeld New Jersey Devils episode, fanatic sports fans are real or caricatured in popular culture.
Many have probably witnessed fan behavior at some point that leaves some shaking their heads. When I saw the cover of “Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom,” the picture of the fan on the cover intrigued me with the possibility that an explanation for such fanaticism might lie inside. After reading the book, I was not disappointed. George Dohrmann has written a thoroughly entertaining book on sports fandom.
The book is surprisingly insightful about the human faces behind the colored face paint and about the real people inside the elaborate costumes who roam the parking lots and stadiums across America or congregate at sports bars or homes to watch sporting events with fellow team fans, or in some cases, true fanatics.
Dohrmann traveled the country to interview sports fans that obsessively identify with their team. The book runs the gamut from the seriously disturbed sports fanatic to those who simply find a sense of purpose and transcendence in a community that might even be more important than the team.
The book’s opening and closing chapters are stories, one joyful and one moving, about the MLS Portland Timbers. Dohrmann meets a determined and devoted soccer fan that organized a four-thousand-strong cheering section for the fledging team that still exists today. The book ends where it began, with the Portland Timbers and Timber Jim, the official mascot of the team.
His daughter was killed in a car accident and he was left to care for his granddaughter Keiana. Only with the help of the fans and the team did he manage to cope with the tragedy and its aftermath.
In between are stories about the Viking World Order, a Minnesota Vikings fan’s group organized along military lines. In Illinois, Dohrmann talks with the parents of a five-year-old boy whose intense hatred of Tom Brady went viral on YouTube.
He meets a Colts fan that uses his elaborate game-day getups as a form of artistic expression. “Hell Hath No Fury Like a Fan Scorned” describes the fans that become unhinged when an athlete takes advantage of free agency and signs with another team for more money and the lengths they are willing to go to voice their displeasure. “Breaking Away” is a poignant story of why and how a fan stops caring about sports.
These chapters are character studies of real people who devote their lives, in many different ways, to their teams.
In addition to the fans, Dohrmann also talks with the academics in the field of sports psychology. Interspersed throughout the book is the research of a group of sports psychologists and sociologists whose scholarship helps explain the people and behavior Dohrmann writes about.
He reports on the latest research in sports psychology to help explain the answers to such questions as: How does fandom begin? What are its effects on everyday life? When does it go too far?
Surprisingly, many in the book have Kansas roots. Professor Dan Wann earned degrees from Baker University, Emporia State University, and a doctorate from the University of Kansas. He is a professor of psychology at Murray State University, and a recognized expert in the field of sports psychology.
One of his research associates is Dr. Julie Partridge, a Kansas State University graduate and psychology professor at Southern Illinois University. These professors are sports fans that enjoy studying other sports fans, and in some instances, behave the in the same peculiar ways as those they study.
One chapter titled “There’s No Place Like Home” introduces Ted Peetz, a Kansas State University graduate from Wisconsin. While going to school in Manhattan he searched for fellow Packers fans to watch games with.
Wherever he lived after graduating, he found Packers fans to share game days. Professor Wann describes this as “place attachment,” where fans gather for companionship with others from “home and enjoy the camaraderie of fans rooting for the home team.”
Dohrmann writes about his subjects with warmth and compassion, where others might have ridiculed them for their obsessive behavior. Superfans is genuinely funny at times but contains emotionally moving stories as well.
He shows us both the beauty and darkness that can result from what may seem to some as an unhealthy obsession with a team.
Bob Funk is a retired U.S. Marine and a retired high school principal.