How to Keep Sports From Making You Miserable

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I was meeting somebody for a drink after work last week but was running a little early, so I sat down on a bench in City Hall Park in lower Manhattan, pulled out my phone and checked how my Oakland A’s were doing (if you’re drawing a blank, it’s a baseball team; “A’s” is short for Athletics).

They were beating the Toronto Blue Jays 4-0. I looked over the scoring summary and noticed that every run so far had been either scored or driven in by light-hitting catcher Jonathan Lucroy.When I texted this thrilling news to my son, he responded, “huh.” I toggled back to the game and the A’s had scored again, with Lucroy driving in the run. This news got an “lol” from my son. I got up and started walking again but stopped outside my destination to look again, at which point I learned that shortstop Marcus Semien had mucked things up by scoring the sixth run, although Lucroy did cross home plate a few seconds later to make it 7-0. This merited a “shoot.”

It was a moment of baseball bliss (not to mention father-son bonding) in a summer during which the A’s have afforded many of them. The team is doing that thing it has done every few years during the nearly 21-year tenure of general manager Billy Beane: that thing where an unheralded, mostly underpaid assortment of players starts winning game after game after game. But I’m not here to write about “Moneyball,” the book and movie that put Beane on the business-conference speaking circuit (I have in the past). I’m here to write about sports and happiness.

In a working paper released this spring, University of Sussex economists Peter Dolton and George MacKerron make the case that the two are not compatible. Soccer fans in the U.K., they found, report much bigger declines in happiness after their team loses a game than gains in happiness after their team wins. As the Washington Post's Wonkblog put it in the headline of a post that summarized the study, "British economists prove it: Sports destroy happiness."

The study is a testament to the inventiveness of modern empirical economics. Dolton and MacKerron used data from the Mappiness iPhone app created by MacKerron and Susana Mourato of the London School of Economics, which pings users a couple of times a day, asks them how they’re feeling, who they’re with, where they are and what they’re doing, and also figures out their approximate location from the iPhone’s global positioning system and a noise-level measure. They sifted the Mappiness data to identify soccer fans and figure out which teams they probably supported, then scraped the internet for game times, scores and betting data (to indicate which team was expected to win). Really, it is all quite impressive.

I nonetheless find it hard to believe that  sports truly does destroy happiness, at least for most fans. This is partly for the list of possible reasons that Dolton and MacKerron include at the end of their paper, such as mismeasurement and the pleasure derived from “being in a tribe.” But it’s also because I would guess that most people who follow sports are smart enough to do it in ways that don’t leave them utterly bereft when a particular team loses.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson outlined one approach in May, that of rooting for teams that, you know, win:

Rooting for winners is more than acceptable—it’s commendable. Fans shouldn’t put up with awfully managed teams for decades just because their parents liked those teams, as if sports were governed by the same rules and customs as medieval inheritance. Fans should feel free to shop for teams the way they do for any other product.

Thompson to some extent inherited his fair-weather fandom from an uncle who indoctrinated him at an early age as a supporter of the incomparably successful New York Yankees. But while I don’t think he’s wrong about the merits of rooting for winners, there are diminishing returns. Dolton and MacKerron found that the happiness boost from a win is smaller and the happiness decrease from a loss greater if your team is expected to win. I can attest from personal experience that the mood at home football games at the University of Alabama, which is expected to win pretty much every time, is weirdly tense and dour.

There is a way, though, to get mostly good vibes out of sports without forgoing underdog victories and abandoning childhood loyalties. Let’s call it nonbinary fandom. In my (Oakland A’s-centric) experience, it consists of three main elements:

  1. Assemble a portfolio of teams. My attachment to the A’s stems mainly from the fact that I grew up near Oakland, but it didn’t hurt that my first years as a fan coincided with three straight World Series triumphs. When A’s owner Charlie Finley subsequently jettisoned most of the team’s stars and the A’s fell to 63-98 in 1977, I turned my attention across the bay to the San Francisco Giants, who weren’t great but were at least better than that. When the A’s started winning again in the early 1980s, I went back to focusing on them. When the two teams met in the World Series in 1989, I favored the A’s (who won in an earthquake-interrupted sweep), but I was thrilled when the Giants won their first World Series in 76 years in 2010. This is a variant of fair-weather fandom that, like Harry Markowitz’s portfolio theory, involves not picking one best team but two or more teams that will presumably be good at different times. It’s not foolproof, and to some extent I was just lucky in picking two frequently if not overwhelmingly successful franchises. But if you come to a sport without any childhood allegiances, as I did with Premier League soccer upon moving to London in 2000, you can be strategic about this. For various reasons, I chose perennially mediocre West Ham as “my team,” and I will surely be over the moon if they ever win anything significant, but I quietly adopted much-more-successful Liverpool and somewhat-more-successful Tottenham as backups.
  2. Root for players, not just teams. Being an A’s fan has long entailed watching beloved players go on to riches and success elsewhere. In the 1970s, when Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and other A’s stars left for bigger-spending teams, I was offended by this. Since then, and especially since Beane took over as general manager in 1997, I’ve gotten used to it, as have most A’s fans. When former A’s players return to the Oakland Coliseum in an opposing team’s uniform, they usually get a warm reception, not boos. I wrote a column in 2015 arguing that Beane’s frequent personnel changes had become a major source of entertainment for A’s fans during down years. The bigger entertainment value since then for me, though, has probably come from watching two of my favorite former A’s, Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets and Josh Reddick of the Houston Astros, during the 2015 and 2017 World Series. More generally, appreciating great athletes, and cheering them on when they’re facing any team but one of your own, seems like a reliable happiness-increaser. 
  3. You don’t have to pay attention. If the A’s were having bad season, I wouldn’t have bothered to stop in the park and check the score last Wednesday. I spend far more time on the A’s during winning seasons than losing ones. So much more that, when the successful A’s teams of recent decades have finished their seemingly inevitable playoff collapses, my disappointment has been followed within a few hours by a sense of relief and near-elation that I can stop spending so much danged time watching baseball. Maybe this is the key: I’m not a die-hard sports fan. True die-hards probably really are miserable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.