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Fathead's Sports & Relationships Study

For die-hard fans, sports isn’t just entertainment, it’s a way of life. Fans invest time, energy, money, and emotion in the sports they follow. They get swept up in the trials and triumphs of underdogs and champions alike. Support for a certain team or player can be a point of identity as powerful as religion in many cases. Fandom is full of history, superstition, rituals, and loyalty that can span generations, enabling many sports franchises to operate at remarkable levels of profit.

That got us wondering: How does sports fandom affect relationships? How do couples balance one partner’s commitment to the game when the other partner is less interested or even indifferent? To find out, we surveyed more than 2,000 Americans in relationships where at least one partner is a sports fan. Here is what we discovered.

1 in 3 people wish they could change their partner’s level of interest in sports

Many couples are content to have separate activities that they pursue when they aren’t together. But others yearn for companionship and wish their loved one shared their interests. More than a third of our survey respondents (36.6%) said they wished they could change their partner’s level of interest in sports. Overall, 22.1% said they wished their partner cared more about sports and 14.6% said they wished their partner cared less.

The prospect of snuggling on the couch in matching jerseys while watching a game together – or alternatively, turning off the TV and having those hours to share doing other activities – appeals to both genders. But men are more likely to want to change their partner than women. Among the men we surveyed, 30.8% wished their partner cared more about sports and 8% wished their partner cared less. Among women, 12.5% wished their partner cared more about sports and 21.8% wished their partner cared less.

Digging deeper, we sorted our results by the sports people follow closely, instead of gender. Fans of lacrosse, wrestling and horse racing were most likely to crave companionship and wish their partner shared their interests. If recent trends are any indication, lacrosse fans might get their wish. Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. The nation’s first professional women’s lacrosse league was created in 2016.

MMA and football fans were least likely to want to change their partner’s level of interest in sports. Mixed martial arts has grown tremendously in popularity over the past decade is now the 10th most-popular sport in the U.S., with women comprising up to 45% of its fan base. And despite recent political divisions over athletes “taking a knee” during the national anthem, football remains Americans’ favorite sport to watch with a diverse fan base.

Fake it ’til you make it…?

It’s not just a sitcom trope. When trying to catch the attention of a sports aficionado, some non-fans take to Google for a crash course on the rules of a game so they can strike up a conversation. There are even articles online that offer advice on how to fake being a sports fan. Among our survey respondents, about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men admitted that they had pretended to like a sport to please a potential romantic partner. But that doesn’t make it a good idea in the long run.

Hefty sacrifices for companionship

Wishing one’s partner would suddenly become interested in sports is easy. But what would our survey respondents be willing to give up to actually make it happen? The answer was: quite a lot.

From adding 20 minutes to their daily commute to gaining 10 pounds or taking a 10% pay cut – men were significantly more willing to make sacrifices to change their partner’s level of interest in sports than women were. When we asked what they’d be willing to do, we discovered:

It’s hard to say if the differences between men and women have more to do with love of sports, desire for companionship, vanity, or difference in acceptance of a partner’s quirks and preferences. But the divergence on this question was striking.

(Don’t) take me out to the ballgame

First dates can be awkward, and it might seem that going to a sporting event with all the surrounding hoopla is an easy way to break the ice. But our couples told us clearly – don’t do it. The tickets are often pricey. Games can be long. Stadiums tend to be noisy and not conducive to conversation. And getting beer or popcorn spilled on you can definitely ruin the vibe.

Gender and viewing habits

Sporting events might not be ideal for first dates. But once a relationship is underway, many couples enjoy watching sports together. We asked our survey respondents, “With whom do you usually watch sports?”  Overall, their partner was the most common response with 72% of people saying they watch with their significant other. In second place, 59.5% watch with friends, 35.7% with other family members, and 32.6% watch alone. But the balance for men and women varied slightly.

There is unquestionably a social element to sports consumption in the U.S. Many bars have televisions on every wall and “Superbowl” is nearly synonymous with “party" each January.

For women, their partner is overwhelmingly the most common sports-watching companion.

But among men, friends come first and their partner is second. Men are also more than twice as likely to watch alone. For some men, watching sports alone is a choice. They prefer being able to focus exclusively on the events on the screen. But as our survey has shown, many would rather have company.

Fantasizing about togetherness

For about a quarter of U.S. sports fans, their passion for the game extends online. Fantasy sports sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings have attracted large audiences in recent years and have benefited from a recent Supreme Court ruling opening the door for sports betting. We explored the effect of fantasy sports on relationships and here’s what we found.

Between picking lineups, monitoring injuries, tracking player stats, and following game coverage, fantasy sports can be a time-consuming hobby. Does that put a strain on relationships? Our survey found that the more time people spend on fantasy sports, the more likely it is to be a source of friction. But significantly, many fans who play online wish they could talk to their partners about their strategies and competitions. Fantasy sports players were almost three times more likely to wish their partner cared more about sports than fans who don’t play online.

Faith over fandom?

Some fans support the home team with nearly religious zeal. But how does it rank against actual religion? We asked our respondents which was more important to them in a romantic partner: sharing the same faith or rooting for the same team. Religion edged out fandom for most of our respondents, but not all. For 4 out of 10 men, team loyalty was a higher priority than sharing the same religious views.

Party or team: Which line would you rather cross?

In our current hyper-partisan political climate, it is not surprising that most couples would rather be on the same page politically than be loyal to the same team. But that isn’t universal. More than 30% of men would rather butt heads over the day’s news than which team is the best.

Digging deeper, we sorted our results by political affiliation instead of gender. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much difference between Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Across the board, about three-quarters of our respondents said it’s more important to be on the same page politically than to root for the same team.

Rock-solid relationships

Music is an emotional experience for many, and some people can tell if a relationship will work out just by scrolling through a potential partner’s playlists. Certainly, road trips go a lot better when couples like the same music. But how does the importance of music compare with sports compatibility? We asked fans which matters more.

Overall, both men and women put music ahead of sports. But more people were willing to compromise on music genre for shared team loyalty than either of the other things we asked – political views or religious affiliation.

Dating the enemy?

We asked people who consider themselves sports fans, “Would you date (or have you dated) someone who supported a rival team?”  More than 1 in 5 women (21.9%) said they wouldn’t date someone who rooted for the wrong team. Only 15% of men felt the same way.

How does fandom affect romance?

Sports and romance often collide when the cameras are rolling at major athletic events. From “Kiss Cam” smooches to wedding proposals, fans in the stands often have more to cheer about than just game plays. There are well-documented baby booms in winning cities after Superbowl and World Series victories.

And yet, many spouses and partners complain that time with their loved ones is by appointment only during certain seasons. The struggle for “sports widows” or widowers can be intense. And many fans admit their moods darken when their teams lose. We asked our couples if the impact was more often positive or negative, and here’s what we learned.

More than a third of our respondents (38.3%) said sports fandom has had a positive impact on their romantic relationships at some point. Only 17.5% said fandom has negatively impacted a relationship. When we drilled deeper, we discovered that the amount of time a fan spends watching sports each week can make a big difference.

The more time fans spend watching sports each week, the more likely they are to report that fandom has had a negative impact on one of their romantic relationships. Among fans who watch:

About a quarter of our respondents (28.6%) said sports have been a source of friction at some point in a romantic relationship. Of the things they reported arguing about, the most common themes were: time, money, and mood. Loved ones are often confused by a fan’s wild swings from jubilation to despair during high-stakes sporting events. Non-fans also might not understand the sacrifices true devotees of a sport make.

The cost of being a fan

Being a fan can be a big commitment. We know of fans who scheduled their children’s births by Cesarean section around playoff games. And there is a well-documented decline in worker productivity in the U.S. during March Madness each year. We asked our respondents what they’ve given up out of devotion to the game.

It turns out it’s pretty common for sports fans to travel more than 3 hours to catch a game or spend money they shouldn’t. More than a third of our respondents admitted to calling in sick as a result of fandom. Rivalries and trash talking can get heated to the point that it can jeopardize friendships. About 1 in 7 of our fans reported cutting off a friend as a result of sports.

Decking the halls with sports decor

Sports memorabilia can hold deep significance for fans. What might look like an old baseball or a run-of-the-mill jersey can carry fond memories of the day the ball was caught or a nail-biter game the jersey-wearer won in overtime. A large image of an athlete can be inspirational to someone who admires the person’s tenacity, perseverance, and skill. Almost three-quarters of our respondents told us they have sports-themed decor or memorabilia in their homes. When we asked where, we were surprised by what we learned.

People keep the artifacts of their fandom all over their homes. Some places, like the main living area, study or den, and rec room are expected. But we were surprised to discover that the most common location is the bedroom, with 31.5% of our respondents keeping memorabilia there.

Here’s where people told us they display or store their sports-themed decor:

Balancing love with love of the game

Whether you and your partner are equally enamored with a particular game or team, or it’s a passion for only one of you, good communication can keep your relationship strong from the pre-season to the playoffs. Our survey found that many avid sports fans would love to share their enthusiasm with their significant other. Chances are, their love for the game has deep roots. Even if you don’t understand the rules, finding out the origin of their passion could bring you closer. And the message for super fans getting flack from their significant others is simple: time together matters. The single biggest predictor of friction in a relationship was the number of hours a fan spends watching games. Making time for your loved one as well as the sport you love will keep things harmonious on the home front.

Methodology

We conducted an online survey of 2,013 people in April 2018. Respondents came from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. They ranged in age from 18 to 85, with a median age of 32. The sample included 839 Democrats, 495 Republicans, and 599 Independents. The respondents were 52.2% men and 47.8% women. In terms of relationship status:

On a scale of 0-4, with 0 meaning “zero interest in sports,” 1 meaning “not really a sports fan,” 2 meaning “somewhere in the middle,” 3 meaning “quite interested in sports,” and 4 meaning “die-hard sports fan” – our female respondents had a weighted average score of 2.37 and our male respondents had a weighted average score of 2.99. For questions about “sacrifices for fandom” and “dating deal breakers,” we only queried people who gave themselves a 3 or 4.

For the section about what people would sacrifice, we only queried people who said they wished their partner cared about sports more or less. Those who were content and said “neither” were excluded.

Fair Use

If you’re a journalist or blogger interested in covering this project, feel free to use any of the images or graphics found on this page. All we ask is that you kindly attribute Fathead and link back to this page so your readers can learn more about our survey and its methodology.


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