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Cinderella is a #!*&%: Social Identity and a Crushing Defeat in the NCAA Tournament

Emotional Reactions

I want to share some initial thoughts from this year’s tourney. First, my overall view of the tournament is updated slightly from last week.

The NCAA Tournament is the worst playoff system.

The one-and-done elimination format introduces excessive randomness and robs the fans of seeing the best team triumph.

Second, in terms of specific games, the Illinois Loyola game was troubling. The refs were clearly biased against Illinois. Probably because of Loyola’s strategic use of a nun to manipulate the officials.

Also, I don’t care. Illinois is a football school. Let the Bret Bielema era begin.

The one compliment I will give to Loyola is that the fans' dance moves were awkward to the point of being spectacular.

Furthermore, it’s not just me that was outraged and disappointed. I took a look at the representative (unbiased) sample of college basketball fans that gather on Illini message boards. Lots of “this is a tough one” and “why does this hurt?” sentiments.

Deep Thoughts

Somehow, after this past weekend, I found myself mulling two questions. First, is it wrong to root against a nun? Second, why do fans suffer real emotional pain when their teams lose?

Losing is a fundamental part of sports. Every team loses. The Globetrotters are only 19,000 and 3 versus the Generals. Fan’s expect to lose, at least occasionally. Even Alabama football fans realize that losing is part of sports.

A couple of concepts clarify how “losing” impacts fans.

Social Identity

At a fundamental level, sports fandom is about group membership. Fans of a team share interest and knowledge. Illinois fans know Lou Henson was the coach of the Flying Illini, and Deron Williams was only the second most highly recruited player on his high school team. They also know to respond I-N-I when someone yells I-L-L.

The psychological cores of fandom are group affiliation and social identity. The idea of social identity is that individuals construct their self-images and communicate their personalities through the groups to which they belong. Think about how often we describe ourselves or our friends in terms of fandom.

A quick google search produces a quick definition of social identity with accompanying citations:

Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).

Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem.

Research shows that people are more likely to wear team clothing following a win than after a defeat. Fans like to connect themselves to a winner and “bask in reflected glory.”

But to the hardcore fan, winning or losing is more personal. The sentiment is often that “we” won or “we” lost. It’s just a little strange that I have never met another member of the Illini basketball team that comprises the “we” that lost to Loyola.

But, even if it’s not logical, fandom membership is a vital part of identity and a lose can represent a form of social identity threat. From the Britannica entry on social identity threats:

According to social identity theory, group members may experience different kinds of identity threats. Group-status threat occurs when the perceived competence of the group is devalued.

We care when our teams lose because it often feels like we are absorbing a public defeat. A loss represents a form of identity threat. We are part of our teams, and when our teams fail, so do we.

Satisfaction and Expectations

The other key concept is from the field of marketing. Marketers have long focused on customer satisfaction. A satisfied customer is more likely to be retained and therefore is a more valuable customer.

But satisfaction does not occur in isolation. Similar experiences at the Ritz Carlton and Holiday Inn Express will lead to different levels of satisfaction. If the Illini football team goes 8-4 next year, the folks in Champaign are thrilled. If Alabama goes 8-4 next year, the only people happy in the state live in Auburn.

When a team comes in as a number one seed and maybe the best run of any team over the past couple of months, the expectations are off the charts. Making the tourney and winning a game is ordinarily a decent season. However, given the expectations, the second-round exit is a significant disappointment.

Academics use the terminology of expectation-disconfirmation theory to explain how expectations influence consumer satisfaction. Sports are a perfect example of this theory in action.

I (Should) Apologize to the Nun

A personal feeling of defeat following a fan’s team losing is common but confusing. We didn’t play the game or miss a shot. So why do we care so much? Because logical or not, our membership in a fan community is part of who we are. When the basis for that community suffers a setback then, so do we. And the more spoiled we are by success, the more negative our reaction.

The impact of a loss can vary across fans. Casual fans can quickly move on. Perhaps it is because these casual fans are not really fans.

More devoted fans will have more intense reactions. And these losses can stick around for a long-time.

I still have painful memories of the 1989 Final Four and the 2005 Championship Games.

This one probably goes next to the loss to Austin Peay in the 1987 tournament.

But, you know what? It’s all part of the deal. It is the character-building part of fandom. Wanting the nun off my TV screen or mocking the dancing Loyola students is all part of the experience. It is beautiful, enraging, and awesome.

Go Illini!

Our full discussion on this week's March Madness activities is now streaming on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


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