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Game On: Heroes & Villains Lure in Casual Sports Fans

Even casual sports fans can enjoy watching an unfamiliar sport if they know the backstory. (Image credit: <a href=""> Peter Bernik</a>, <a href="">Shutterstock</a>)

With the Super Bowl kicking off this Sunday, people are prepping for huge parties. Bags of chips and gallons of guacamole are flying off store shelves. Fans are sporting their favorite jerseys. And, as with any party, the more, the merrier.

So how can diehard sports fans add to their numbers by drawing in casual viewers? It may be as simple as sharing a sweet story about a favorite player, or a terrible tale about a rival that people love to hate, according to a new study from Oregon State University (OSU).

"Knowing something about the athletes that are competing gives people a reason to watch and a reason to root for or against someone," said Colleen Bee, an assistant professor of marketing at OSU.

This dynamic may help explain why stories such as the sibling rivalry matchup between the Harbaugh brothers who are coaching the opposing teams, or the controversy swirling around Manti Te'O's Internet dating hoax, sparked people's fascination. [The World's Greatest Hoaxes]

How casual fans got hooked

In order to understand some of the factors that affect the enjoyment and satisfaction of a sporting event for casual fans, Bee and her colleague recruited 133 college students to participate in a study in which they watched pre-recorded Olympic speed-skating races, an event that relatively few people watch. None of the participants were familiar with the athletes, who were identified only by country and false last names.

Before the race, a subject received one of two fictitious descriptions of one of the racers. In one, a heroic back story characterized the athlete as well-liked, polite, humble, free of performance-enhancing drugs and enthusiastic about working with sick children. In the other description, a villainous back story portrayed the athlete as an arrogant doper who was once arrested for disruptive behavior on an airplane.

Next, each study participant watched one of four race conditions, which pitted either a villain or hero against another "neutral" athlete, with the villain or hero winning and losing in the different scenarios.

The description of the neutral athlete listed only vital statistics, such as height and weight. The researchers measured the subjects' satisfaction of the race based on whether the hero or villain won or lost, as well as the participants' enjoyment of the experience.

Unsurprisingly, the students felt relief when the hero won or the villain lost, and disappointment in the reverse of both scenarios. However, having a hero or villain still made the race enjoyable to watch, regardless of the outcome.

Rooting for the hero

"It sheds some light on how a casual fan differs from a diehard fan," Vassilis Dalakas, an associate professor of marketing at California State University, San Marcos, said of the experiment. Even if a favored outcome does not happen, the initial feeling of disappointment disappears for casual fans, and they are still left with a satisfying experience.

Dalakas, who was not involved in the study, described people's appreciation of the hero/villain dynamic as pervasive beyond sports. It starts from a young age, with stories about Cinderella and her wicked stepsisters, and is seized upon by producers of competition-based reality shows such as "Survivor."

"American Idol" and Olympics broadcasts often feature touching segments that tell the back stories of competitors, but these shows are usually careful not to vilify competitors. In these cases, Dalakas says, consumers tend to create their own villains, which can be done through scandalous stories in gossip columns.

Bee's study is detailed in the latest quarterly issue of the Journal of Media Psychology, which came out at the end of 2012.

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