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Tuesday, July 23, 2002
Updated: February 6, 2:27 PM ET
Who Are You?

By Peter Keating
ESPN The Magazine

You yell at the TV (okay, 84% of you do). You pound the table. You knock over the chips, and after the last missed field goal or free throw or slider, you look as if your best friend has moved to Peru. Then some nonbelieving buddy gives you a "who are you?" sneer and asks: "What's the big deal? It's just the [insert name of team whose Underoos you first wore when you were 5]." Just like that you're up on assault charges.

Now, while we would never condone a felony, we have to admit we'd make a compelling character witness at your trial. Having just finished pelting fans with questions about the state of this fair country -- the one we call SportsNation -- we can rightfully (or at least plausibly) claim to be experts on the depths of its passion. In one of the most comprehensive surveys of sports fans ever conducted -- in April and May, by the Norwalk, Conn., research and consulting firm Markitecture -- we drilled to the core of American fandom, asking everything from what's your favorite sport, to how much you usually bet, to how many have a sports tattoo.

Fast Facts

6.1 million Americans have named a child after a sports hero or team; 16.9 million have named a pet after one.

6.1 million have had sex at a sporting event; 2.5 million of those age 13-20!

49 million fantasize about being their favorite sports hero.

56.7 million say there is no amount of money they'd rather have than a championship trophy for their team.

13.8 million have snuck into a game without paying; 4.8 million age 13-20.

88.9 million think some sports are fixed, led by wrestling (79.1 million) and boxing (72.9 million).

55.2 million have played hooky from work or school to see a game; 18.2 million age 21-29.

Because we had to know. And so did you. (The answers, by the way, are pro football, $28 and 2%.)

Fans big and small, old and young, male and female, real and rabid make up SportsNation, the most dedicated and diverse group of athletic supporters on the planet. Cynics like to say that the games they watch are just entertainment. Romantics feel sports are more like religion. Our poll of 1,500 men, women and teens, representative of the 68% of Americans age 13 or older who identify themselves as sports fans -- that's 153 million of you -- shows the truth is somewhere in between (with a margin of error around 3%).

On the one hand, America's fans definitely care about sports, maybe a bit too much: 55% say a city's identity is defined in part by its teams, and 40% say that when their team is winning, "all is right with the world." Not even Sept. 11 deterred fans. Fact is, 86% say the terrorist strikes haven't kept them away from the games, and 40% say sports played a major role in the post-9/11 healing process. And get this: When we asked how much money you would accept in exchange for a championship for your favorite team, over a third of you said you couldn't be bought. At any price.

On the other hand, there's some disillusionment in the flock. An astounding 58% think sports are fixed in some way, while 38% think college and pro teams would cheat to win. And 31% say they've stopped rooting for a once-favorite team. So go ahead and equate sports with religion if you must, but know that in addition to zealots, every faith has its skeptics, casual believers and followers who turn up just for the big moments. Yes, friends, sports let us love without being responsible, and hate without being mean.

What else did we learn? For starters, the citizens of SportsNation do get out some: 36% have attended a major league baseball game in the past year, and 25% have gone to an NFL game. That's not all: 8% have seen at least one men's soccer game in person; 6% twirled the turnstiles for a women's college hoops game. We were interested to learn that fans attend an average of three games per year for each of the majors -- whether the regular season is 162, 82 or 16 games long. Many make a big stretch to attend a game: 36% have missed a day of work or school, 14% have lied to their parents or teachers, 34% have traveled more than 250 miles.

Still, SportsNation is basically a society of couch potatoes. Fans watch 5.3 hours of sports on TV each week, and 85% of them prefer to watch at home. Moreover, 63% say they'd rather have a large-screen TV and a satellite sports package than four season tickets to their favorite team.

As those Stanley Cup barbecues in Carolina reminded us, SportsNation is divided into geographical tribes, each with its own distinct customs. Fans in the mountain states are much more eager than Northeasterners to paint their faces (17% to 1%) or name a pet after a sports hero (17% to 2%). At the same time, blanket TV coverage and easy mobility have produced a truly national SportsNation: 76% of fans root for pro teams outside their home area -- and 47% root against local teams.

Jox Populi -- Fans speak out

78% like the NFL's instant replay; 11% don't.

57% want a playoff for D1 college football; 17% dont.

52% believe use of performance-enhancing drugs is widespread; 23% don't.

49% say it "wouldn't make a bit of difference" if their favorite athlete was gay; 32% said it would.

41% like baseball's DH rule; 28% don't care for it one bit.

31% think there's very little racial prejudice in sport; 40% beg to differ.

30% want college athletes to be paid; 54% think they shouldn't be.

22% believe contraction in baseball is a good idea; 56% disagree.

Some more of SportsNation by the numbers:

The Four Horsemen. You could look at SportsNation as a bigger version of NFL Nation, because pro football dominates the landscape, named by you as not only the best sport to watch in person but the top TV sport as well. Fans watch an average of 3.5 NFL games a week, compared with 4.1 MLB and 3.3 NBA games, which is pretty impressive when you consider the number of games on each sport's schedule. (In fact, the most passionate fans watch 4.9 NFL games per week!) In addition, our survey confirms what we've long suspected: While NFL fans maintain steady interest throughout the regular season, a lot of NBA (59%) and NHL (50%) fans are lukewarm until the playoffs get going.

Like the Balkans, SportsNation's four major fan groups are culturally different from one another. The NBA has the most ethnically varied constituency -- 46% white, 25% black, 20% Latino and 7% Asian -- while the NHL has the least diverse -- 85% white, 8% Latino, 5% Asian, less than 1% black. MLB's fans are the oldest, averaging 44.4 years; the NBA's are the youngest, averaging 37.6. Of fans who name the NFL their favorite, 67% are men, while of those who say MLB or NBA is No. 1, the majority are women. Then there's this: NHL fans are the most likely (31%) to cry over a victory. Note: No Canadians were knowingly included in this poll.

He Said, She Said. While we're on the subject of crying, women are twice as likely as men to squirt a few over a win (34% to 17%). They're also more likely to pray for one (61% to 52%). But men are more eager to bet on sports (63% to 50%) and to cheer an opponent's injury (22% to 13%), and far more likely to fantasize about being their favorite sports hero (42% to 18%).

Viewing habits also differ on Mars and Venus: 56% of women, compared with 46% of men, like to watch sports with their kids; 60% of men, vs. 35% of women, would rather watch alone. At the stadium, men are more likely to have snuck into better seats (52% to 36%), caught a ball or puck (28% to 12%) and rooted against their team in hopes of landing a higher draft pick (19% to 13%). Now, if we assume fandom is fueled by participation in organized sports and direct marketing by pro leagues, many women are at an earlier point in the fan-life cycle. In other words, don't worry: Women may one day be as coldhearted as men.

The Bottom Line. The most expensive ticket our poll respondents have bought, on average, cost $67. One in seven has paid more than $100 for a single ticket. Not coincidentally, one in five has bought or sold a scalped ducat. Yet, among reasons not to go to games, cost ranks just third (51%), behind unruly fans (63%) and parking and traffic problems (61%).

That said, a promotion offering a half-price ticket for every full-price one purchased would be a SportsNation favorite (42%), much more appealing than bobbleheads (12%). Speaking of which, fans have their heads on straight when it comes to memorabilia: 68% have opened wallets to buy a piece of history, spending up to on average $100 for the costliest purchase; but of those, 78% did it not for the investment but for love.

For Bettors or Worse. We'd call gambling the shadowy corner of SportsNation, except no corner could contain this crowd: 57% have risked money on sports in the past year, including -- someone convene a national commission -- 45% of teens. Here's a closer look: 42% have participated in a pool and 38% have wagered with friends, while 15% have risked a little something at a race track or OTB, 8% at a casino, 6% with a bookie and 3% over the Internet. Gamblers bet an average of 6.9 times a year, an average of $28 each time, with an average per-bet ceiling of $117. The sport with the most action is the NFL, which draws 65% of gamblers. Although 26% of the gamblers have bet against their favorite team -- admittedly a desperate act, twisting one's soul into a pretzel -- overall, gambling doesn't wield a pathological grip. The proportion who say "the game just isn't as much fun unless money is at stake" is just 6%.

Joe College. Tracking along the spectrum of fan age, many attitudes evolve in ways you'd expect. For example, 21% of fans aged 21 to 29 participate in fantasy leagues, compared with fewer than 1% of our 60-and-over respondents. But some issues bring out an especially wide generational difference:

41% of fans aged 13 to 20 believe sports are fixed, but among their older -- wiser? -- brethren aged 21 to 29, that number jumps to 66%. Support for a D1 college football playoff rises between the two groups, as well, from 44% to 64%. And here's a bit of a surprise: While only 37% of the younger group say it wouldn't make a difference to them if their favorite athlete was gay, 53% of the older -- more tolerant -- group said they'd be okay with it. Cynicism, competition, tolerance. So the kids are learning something in college.

The Next Big Thing. Baseball thinks it's the national pastime. Football may really own that title. But neither should get too comfortable. When we compare the sports that fans watch now to those they watched in high school, men's golf, NASCAR and the NHL have made the biggest gains. MLB and the NFL, on the other hand, take the biggest hits. Looking further out, we asked fans to name "the next hot sports." Auto racing (tops with 54%), winter extreme sports (50%) and soccer (50%) got the most support.

How does SportsNation stay so smart? Well, 65% of you browse your local sports section, but 56% rely principally on TV. The older the fan, the more print comes first: 29% for the 60-and-over crowd, but only 17% for twentysomethings. The Web? Still way early: even among the under-30s, only 9% surf for sports news, vs. 3% of the over-60s. But check back in a few years. We're going to get Grandpa one of those Internet machines.

This article appears in the August 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.