Sitting in the stands last Sunday watching Brighton and Hove Albion take on Everton there was a palpable energy in the air. From the cheers and chants for home players to the booing of opposing players and officials, the atmosphere at the Amex stadium has already been credited with helping the Albion to reach the Premier League and hold their own in home matches.
It’s not just the football results that benefit from a good atmosphere at matches, however. Research shows that watching sport, particularly live sport, can also affect the health and well-being of supporters. Being part of the crowd, singing along with the chants and joining in the cheering gives people a sense of being part of something ‘bigger’, a sense of social cohesion fostered by the (mostly good-natured) ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
At a time when social cohesion is at an all-time low the impact of watching live sport may become more important. The media is full of research and interventions to combat social isolation, particularly amongst older people. But loneliness is also increasingly amongst younger people. At a time when social media is overtaking face to face interactions the importance of feeling part of something bigger, in a concrete way, cannot be underestimated.
Psychologist Susan Krauss suggests that evidence shows sports fans are less prone to depression and alienation than non-fans and that ‘strongly identifying with a team’ can be “a source of validation for their self-conception”. Something that is echoed by other studies showing that being part of a long-standing group is a source of social support. This has implications for physical and mental health with research suggesting that those with strong social support networks are better able to cope with and recover from illness and live longer.
Watching sport may also be good for your health in other ways as it raises the heart rate which can mimic the effects of cardiovascular exercise. Also, watching live sport will also result in burning calories as people travel to the match and cheer on their teams. A University of Glasgow study found that watching sport, inspired people to get more active. Football fans were more successful in weight loss programs than others. This ties in with evidence that after big National sporting events, such as the Olympics or the Rugby World Cup, interest and participation in sport, and exercise more generally, goes up. Research from the University of Chicago even suggests that watching sport can be beneficial to the brain when ‘parts of the brain usually involved in playing sports are instead used to understand sport language’.
There is also evidence that watching sport has other impacts. When Barcelona won the Champions League in 2009, for example, there was a baby boom, dubbed the Iniesta generation, the following spring with births up 16% in February and 11% in March. And this isn’t just a Spanish phenomenon. In 2007 there was an unprecedented baby boom in parts of Germany 9 months after the National team came an unexpected third in the World Cup, with birth rates in some areas up 30% on the previous year.
Clearly, not all of the news is positive, however, a Canadian study of hockey fans published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, for example, found that on average heart rates of fans increased 75% when watching a match on television and by 110% when watching a live match. This is the equivalent of the cardiac stress experienced while exercising vigorously. The research team went on to suggest that this poses a significant public health risk and that those supporters at risk of cardiovascular problems should be warned prior to attending the game. This follows a study In Germany in 2006 that found that German fans watching their national team in the football World Cup experienced hikes in both heart rates and blood pressure more than doubling the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Following this up in an article in the Telegraph Dr Phil Hammond even suggests we should bring in goal-line technology to reduce the number of bad decisions made by referees and so reduce the stress experienced by fans and reduce their heart rates at the same time. There are also well-known links between losing big matches and spikes in incidences of domestic violence and the many violent episodes between opposing fans at matches have been well documented.
Even accounting for the negative consequences for some fans and their families, for most sports fans watching sport is positive, both socially and regarding more general well-being. But for many, the cost of watching support is prohibitive. Taking football as an example, between 2011 and 2014 the average price of the cheapest ticket across English clubs increased at almost twice the rate of the cost of living. With average tickets across the premier league costing £32 this season, watching live sport at the top level is beyond the means of many. Yet tickets to many local and lower division matches are available at much lower prices and may bring similar benefits regarding social cohesion and support.
It’s not just live sport where costs are high, competition between Sky and BT Sport to get coverage of the most popular sporting events has largely priced the Freeview channels, including BBC and ITV out of many events and matches. Champions League and Premier League football matches, Premiership Rugby, many of the Masters Golf Championships and some snooker and tennis tournaments are no longer available on Freeview except as highlights. And Internationals are also affected with many Six Nations Rugby matches, some Cricket matches, the Ryder Cup and the Americas Cup all available only in part, if at all, on Freeview channels. This reduces accessibility, with the likely effect that people will slowly lose interest, lose camaraderie, and lose the benefits of social cohesion brought about by a shared love of sport. It’s difficult to support a team if you cannot afford to watch them play.
It will be sad if the only people who can get both the pleasure and health benefits of watching live sport will be those who can afford to do so. The colonisation of sport by global businesses does little to benefit the grassroots supporters. Watching sport is a social activity and largely beneficial to health and wellbeing. At a time when loneliness is rife, and increasingly linked to negative health impacts and premature death, making live, and televised sport accessible to as many people as possible can only be a good thing.