Nothing Like a Cubs Fan: Acronym Soup and Fan Psychology

Is it April yet? For fans who spend the bulk of the Daylight Savings months consumed by baseball and the significant commitment its 162-game season demands, the offseason often brings with it a substantial sense of loss.  To fill the void, some reflect on the accomplishments and what-might-have-beens of the season past, while others look ahead with eager anticipation to the season to come. Some years, of course, the look back is sweeter than others, and the hype for the year ahead more grandiose. And the year after a postseason flirtation with destiny, two star players crowned with worthy honors, and the Manager of the Year working with a rebuilt roster? Well, in that case, hopeful revelers may find the wait for baseball to begin especially excruciating. I mean, 1985 is the Cubs’ year! Finally!

At least, that’s what it felt like then. Until, of course, the fantasized unknown became hard reality, and Rick Sutcliffe, Ryne Sandberg, Jim Frey, and company couldn’t get it done. Although the compelling justifications for hype back then did mirror the present in some ways, there is no meaningful comparison that can be made between the 1985 and 2016 Cubs. Every metric would likely favor today’s number one contender for the World Championship. But from a fan’s perspective, the similarities of the situation are eerie enough to serve as a reminder that the Faithful, if not the ball club, have been here before.

Yet, as much as that history makes matters at times more gloomy, it cannot dampen spirits in the magical period of “next year is almost here.” Certainly not when it appears all the puzzle pieces may be falling into place. For decades, psychologists have sought to understand sports fans: how self-identity is affected by team performance and what may possibly drive such continued loyalty in the face of failure. Cubs loyalty, to no one’s surprise, is in a class by itself. If all goes according to plan this season, one of the defining features of Cubs fandom will be forever changed. For now, I want to understand and honor the commitment by examining the psychological impact of loving this team.

Harry Caray said it in that feverish 1984-85 offseason (and certainly repeated it again and again): “There’s nothing like a Cubs fan.” From a psychological point of view, the only fans that came close once frequented Fenway, and they’ve since lost their credentials. To fully grasp the otherness, we need to first attend to the norm. Fair warning: there’s a lot of acronyms here.

When the seminal work on sport consumer behavior came out forty years ago, the mainstream relationship between a fan and their team was defined as BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory). In simple enough fashion, studies found that identifying with a team extended to fans a feeling of vicarious achievement, with self-esteem improving as the team wins. Over the next decade, the BIRGing concept evolved to include its opposite effect: CORFing (Cutting Off Reflected Failure). CORFing is fair-weather fandom at its finest, whereby fans try to preserve self-image by distancing themselves from association with an unsuccessful team. Clearly this polarized depiction of a fan’s mind and motivations wouldn’t hold up in many cases, least of all with Cubs fans. The Wrigley Faithful may BIRG with the best of them, but rarely, if ever, CORF.

In 2004, further research cited the unexplainable loyalty of Cubs fans as an impetus for expanding the current understanding and introduced the new hybrid concept of BIRFing. That’s right. It turns out that Cubs fans, given the degree of their steadfastness and lack of success, may be Basking in Reflected Failure. As distasteful as this sounds, the reasoning seems to fit. In the absence of winning championships, BIRFers are deriving a self-image boost from various other aspects of fanship, primarily faithfulness and camaraderie. The loyalty in and of itself becomes the source of self-esteem for a BIRFing fan, who views it as a positive human attribute, made even more valuable in defeat. BIRFing strengthens social bonds among like-minded fans, and becomes a badge of honor as unsuccessful seasons tick by. Better yet, BIRFing carries with it the continued prospect of paying off big someday. The sweet, sweet day that will become the ultimate “I told you so” for generations of believers.

So depending on how things are going, Cubs fans may BIRG or they may BIRF, but either way, they will bask in this team. That sounds pretty close. But a brand new study is now questioning the “R” that appears in all of those acronyms. Reflection indicates the external nature of the team’s performance in relation to the fan. Think “they won” versus “we won.” The new research theorizes that the most highly identified sports fans of today have moved beyond archaic forms of rooting for their team. Given the variety of ways and degree to which some fans now participate (attending games, watching on television, or following online, all accompanied by heavy doses of social media interaction), psychologists believe many feel they are making a direct, meaningful contribution to the team effort:

“…perceived direct connection to the team appears to provide them with a relatively logical explanation for celebrating the team’s success as if it is their own… for [fans] who have integrated the team into their self-concept to the point where they perceive themselves as part of it, there is no reflection…it may be more accurate to suggest that they are COATing, or celebrating our accomplishment together.”

The counterpoint to COATing would then be FASTing in the event of a loss, or failure to achieve a shared triumph. Rather than rejecting or turning away from affiliation, it is a simple acknowledgement in the team community that without a shared victory, there is nothing to collectively celebrate. The study found that, based on the first person pronouns (we, us, our) and emotional language utilized, participants viewed themselves as part of the team, win or lose. Even though the research setting was college football, one only has to peruse the CubsNation, FlyTheW, WeAreGood, and similar twitter hashtags to believe this level of fan identification is alive and well at Wrigley.

For COATing and FASTing fans, the thrills of victory and pain of defeat are theoretically shared, with everyone in the community having an important role to play. At first glance, the concept seems ludicrous. Only the players performing on the field actually achieve the victory. But then, credit is always simultaneously awarded to the manager, coaches, administrators, and support staff for their contributions. Where is the line? Today’s most passionate fans are technologically enabled to dedicate new levels of time, energy and attention to the players. Compared to the pre-Internet nameless, faceless game crowds, the player-fan relationship has clearly changed. With social media removing traditional barriers, fans now represent an ever-present and personalized blanket of emotional support. Not to mention the monetary support that facilitates everything. It’s no surprise that many feel they have earned a share in success.

As it turns out, the historic core of BIRFing fans may have begun this psychological “R”-dropping long before the arrival of tweeting millennials at the Friendly Confines. To solidify loyalty and boost confidence after the 1985 season of destiny that never was, John McDonough established the Cubs Convention, the first of its kind in baseball. Understanding the fans’ need to connect on a personal level to maintain affiliation in defeat, McDonough explained that the convention, “humanized the game. It broke down those barriers of the players being unapproachable. Winning and losing was not an issue.” Thus, Cubs marketers have been nudging the Faithful from “I’m a fan of the team” to “I’m a part of the team” for thirty years.

The good news is, wallet impact notwithstanding, the psychological effects of suffering with and loving the Cubs are surprisingly positive. Avidly rooting for a team as a result of deep, emotional attachment can actually be beneficial for mental health. Studies have found that fans who are intensely interested and highly identified (who feel they are part of the team), are less prone to depression, have higher levels of self-esteem, and have improved feelings of belonging compared to non-followers. For some, the team experience even fills the same psychologically supportive role as family or religion.

Even more intriguing, the particular aspect of unwavering loyalty appears to bolster emotional resilience. The abilities that Cubs fans have developed to explain and adjust to failure, consider multiple explanations for a loss, and distribute the blame appropriately are all emotionally protective attributes that can be wielded in other areas of personal life. Most importantly, fans of historically losing teams have great coping mechanisms and know how to recover their emotional investment by returning quickly to a state of hope. It’s like psychological Pilates. Jake Arrieta would be proud.

Thus, according to their unique psychology, the question, “what have they done for me lately?” is unlikely from a Cubs fan. But for any out there who may fleetingly wonder in the throes of a fresh disappointment, the answer is: quite a lot. As some may have long suspected, the research shows that the past century or so has been a character-building experience. Generations have emerged stronger of mind and spirit as a result, passing those same emotional qualities on to the next.

It comes out everywhere. The other day my sons were working on a jigsaw puzzle. With just two pieces remaining, the toddler picked them up from the floor, handed them triumphantly to his brother, and I began to clap. In the panicked realization of all that could go wrong between holding the final pieces in his hands and actually fitting them into place, my preschooler exclaimed, “no celebrating yet!” No celebrating yet, indeed, young Cubs fan.

1985 was not the year. Neither was 2003 nor 2008. There are no guarantees. This much is certain, however: whatever 2016 has in store, the Cubs Nation can handle it. Together.

Lead photo courtesy Aaron Doster—USA Today Sports.

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