Dhoni hits a six. Virat scores the winning runs. Messi scores the winning penalty. The camera quickly pans to the joyous, crying, and jumping fans and continues to navigate between the happiness on the faces of the players and their fans. These are some textbook production 101s when it comes to sports broadcasting. While it might seem like mundane muscle memory or a tick on the to-do list for broadcasters, the psychology behind it is a bit more complex.
“Sport is more than just a game.” While this might seem like a clichéd statement, it is probably the most crucial when we talk about fandoms and parasocial relationships in sports. Parasocial relationships are a psychological relationship that pop culture/sports fans often have with teams and individuals, which borders on a sort of one-sided companionship. When it comes to parasocial relationships in sports particularly, the fan is the person who extends “emotional energy, interest and time”, and in most likelihood, the other person – in this case a player or a team – is unaware of their existence.
This feeling of love and belonging, this one-sided relationship, has been a key element for broadcasters, sports teams, and franchises to capitalise on. Organised sports like tennis, cricket, and football have been the harbingers of parasocial relationships, given the nature of the games, that on most occasions involve a gathering, organised by a community, played and supported by a group of people with a common purpose.
The fans invest emotional energy, and time, knowing very well that the players may never know of their existence or reciprocate the same emotions. That, however, does not deter them from feeling and living those emotions. The question then arises, why and what influences the formation of such relationships?
While there can be no ‘one answer’, there are multiple factors that are influential. On the outside, parasocial relationships can look like an extension of a fandom or a new variety of the same, and they stem from the need for validation, comfort, stability, and belonging. A paper by Courtney Smith on Parasocial Relationships and Fanfiction finds that on most occasions, parasocial relationships are formed as a result of the desire to identify with a fictional character as a way of escaping from the harsh reality that an individual might be living or going through.
Parasocial relationships can often form as a reaction to an unstable childhood, abusive household, or toxic relationships. Individuals who have been accustomed to social acceptance and validation growing up are less likely to associate themselves with parasocial relationships as their everyday life is not devoid of interactions that make them feel heard. However, if one is used to being shut down, pushed into a corner, and always ignored, a parasocial relationship is where one might invest their energy. The very fact that the relationship exists in a bubble where there are no expectations of reciprocation of feelings is a telling fact that it’s an attempt to avoid disappointment. Disappointment that is otherwise a common occurrence in most relationships.
If you meet great sexual success and social validation in your youth, you are unlikely to remain a faithful fangirl. You’ll become sensible and treat Shah Rukh as mere entertainment since you no longer need a distraction from reality. But if your teenage years remain harsh with little fun or friendship, Shah Rukh will remain an important source of social nourishment.Shrayana Bhattacharya
Parasocial relationships between sportspersons and fans do not just fill the validation and social interaction void. On a lot of occasions, they border on the fulfilment of sexual and platonic desires and needs. Parasocial relationships also help growing individuals and young adults, come to terms with their sexual identity as well as their sexual desires and needs.
Shrayana Bhattacharya, the author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, writes, “If you meet great sexual success and social validation in your youth, you are unlikely to remain a faithful fangirl. You’ll become sensible and treat Shah Rukh as mere entertainment since you no longer need a distraction from reality. But if your teenage years remain harsh with little fun or friendship, Shah Rukh will remain an important source of social nourishment.” While she writes this with respect to the fans of the Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, it applies to all kinds of parasocial relationships, especially with respect to sports. The one-sided platonic nature of such bonds fulfils a certain illusion, an idea of what ‘could have been’. Pop culture and sports have had a history of providing a sense of community and escape to people. There are studies and reports that have shown how these have played a major role in cultivating a strong sense of belonging among their participants.
Parasocial relationships form as a growing urge to hold on to something, something that is both beyond our control yet very much within us. It is far yet extremely close. Growing up withdrawn, scared, and doubtful of everything and everybody around, without a sense of self, home or stability, finding an anchor was a constant and tiring search for me. That search is what led me to find solace and an escape in cricket. Something that started as a search for stability and a sense of family as a child transformed into a unilateral friendship with a cricket team.
Many times people do not understand such relationships. Often ‘crazy fandom’ is the word that goes around and terms like ‘nerd’ and ‘geeks’ are casually thrown at people, to shame them when they try to articulate their parasocial bonding. Someone for whom this relationship is vital to the creation of their personhood, may find themself slowly trying to detach from these relationships, as a result of stigma, shame, and other people’s blatant ignorance. But in the most crucial low moments of life, they may desperately seek and hold on to these same relationships, for the unending and unrequited comfort and care that they provide.
What many may find themselves asking is that are parasocial relationships in sports good or bad? Just like in any other relationship, this too is hard to predict or categorise. On one side, parasocial relationships can provide boosts in self-confidence, a sense of belonging, an escape from loneliness, and a chance at a social expectation-free relationship. The flip side of this is that they can often border on obsession. There is a tendency to replace real-life relationships and interactions with parasocial ones as a distraction due to the comfort and predictability that they provide. This can lead to severe anxiety and a drop in mood when those expectations are not fulfilled by the team’s loss or bad performance by the player.
The glimpses of this flip side have been visible time and again, especially when one compares losses in organised sports with the spike in domestic and racial violence against minorities. For example, when on July 12, Italy was crowned the champions of the Euro 2020, and data showcased that domestic violence in the UK rose by 38% after England’s loss. Furthermore, according to data shared by the UK’s National Centre for Domestic Violence, incidents of domestic abuse rose by 26% when the English football team won or drew, compared to days when there was no England match. In India too, each time India has lost a match against Pakistan, we have seen players like Mohd. Shami, Arshdeep Singh, and Virat Kohli being trolled, and individuals from minority communities facing violence and attacks.
Our brains are typically hardwired to look at and attach hopes to something that provides reassurance, solace, and a sort of ease. And parasocial relationships are all of those and much more. Parasocial relationships in sports are a natural by-product of the consumption of sporting events. It’s something precious that an individual forms and holds on to. The only thing to remember though is that putting the sporting stars on a pedestal and expecting perfection and nothing less, is not always fair.
While many might argue that the inherent capitalistic society that we are part of looks at everything through a consumerist lens and the essence and charm of fandoms and parasocial relationships in sports remain lost in their brand positioning, these relationships can hardly be defined by such brandings. Every relationship formed between fans and the game and its players has its unique characteristics. Acknowledging, accepting, and claiming this only enhances it.
This article was originally published in the April 21, 2023 edition of In Plainspeak, a digital magazine on sexuality in the Global South and has been re-published here with consent.