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Go Bills! Sports fandom impacts mental health in several ways

Nick Lippa

This Sunday the Kansas City Chiefs play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. It’s not the outcome Buffalo Bills supporters were hoping for, but passionate fans will get a break from seeing their team play after a year of many emotional ups and downs. As WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports, fandom can impact your mental health in various ways.



A big game can make us feel, and sometimes, do big things. It can be yelling at Tom Brady through a TV or feeling compelled to jump through a folding table. The question though, is why?

“We affiliate with sports teams," said UB Associate Professor of Psychology Shira Gabriel. "So you know, we feel a connection to them, we feel almost as if they're a part of ourselves, a part of our social world. And so they gain a lot of meaning in that way.” 


Gabriel understands the emotional impact your favorite team can have on you. Not only is she a Bills fan….

“I'm a Cubs fan too and married into a family of Yankees fans," Gabriel said. "And now I'm a Yankees fan. So you know, I get it. Every community is different, but every community feels like they have their own special things. But there is something amazing about a fandom that has come together through such bad times.”

When the Bills three years ago broke, at the time, the largest postseason drought in American sports, fans donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to multiple charities. The emotion was palpable.


“We have connections with them. And those connections feel very real to us," Gabriel said. "And we know not only have them with the team itself, but we have it with other fans of the team, we have it with the city. So we develop these identities and these feelings of connection that are really important to us.”

When asking yourself, 'Why am I a fan of the team I root for?'-- it's common to have a family connection.

"Our parents might teach us about the game, sit with our dad when we're little and learn about football. And then those memories of all of those games that we watched when we were kid are linked to our feelings about the bills right now and about football right now," said Gabriel. "And so it has this greater meaning. It's like this important cornerstone of our lives for many of us are the games that we've been to with friends, the things that we learned about the game from our parents playing in the yard, all the players that we've watched over the years. All of those things, not only help us build connections to the team, but they're a part of the connections that we have to the people in our lives that we share, being Bills fans with them."

Gabriel said humans as a species often act like pack animals.

“We really like to feel as if we're a part of a large group," she said. "Those groups become very important to us and their success impacts our well being.”


WGR sports talk show host Howard Simon has been covering Buffalo since 1989. 



“I get stressed out about the games," Simon said. "Everybody does.”



Simon keeps his emotions in check as part of his job while watching. 

“I know how to balance it out. It is a game at the end of the day," Simon said. "But let's face it, I mean, my job is a lot more fun when they're winning. Nobody wants to go to a job that I have if the teams are losing all the time. It's so fun walking into the studio and thinking, 'Oh God, four more hours of talking about a six and ten football team.' That's no fun. Or four more hours of talking about how the Sabres are going to have to fire then hire a new coach.”


Simon said when he’s taking callers or interacting online with fans, it’s evident talking about the game together has an emotional benefit.


“It's like a group counseling session," Simon said. "Really, if you think about a radio show, it can work one of two ways. It can be a massive party with everybody else when your teams are winning. But if you're losing and things aren't going well, you have people calling in and they're there for you. We are there for them, you know we can talk about it, make them feel better, and they can call for hours and express their complaints.”


The mental effect sports outcomes have become visible after a win. Studies show fans dress differently depending on if their team won or lost the game.


Simon said if the pandemic was not happening in full effect, it would be more visible in the workplace.


"For example, our office has been shut down since March. If we were there, every Friday during the season, everybody would be wearing Bills gear. And I mean, there would be a company email that goes out and says on Friday, 'It's going to be casual Friday, Bills day,' and people will be encouraged to wear Bills stuff all day long. And maybe we'd have some tickets to give away or whatever-- Bills trinkets, a Bills cap, this and that," Simon said.


"And you'd be seeing it in schools. I mean, back in the 90's, it was like the kids were going to the elementary schools, and everybody was having Bills day. Dress your kid up in a Bills outfit and we're going to make Bills paintings and send them to the Bills. I mean, everything. The daily life in the 90's, the work life, the home life, the neighborhood life, everybody would be flying flags, the bars would be packed. I mean, everything was consumed every January by their playoff run."


"You can't do it now because of the pandemic situation. You can see people flying flags. I guess you can see buildings decorated and Bills colors with lights, red and blue lights and all that stuff. And there were some people who went out to the airport after the Denver game when they clinched the division, but it's nowhere near what it was like back then. Right now, it's just not the right thing to do."


Buffalo Bills analyst Matt Sabuda has written about the team for years. He said he doesn’t get anxiety while watching the game, but isn’t immune to the roller coaster of emotions.


“On an anecdotal note, I do know someone who shall remain nameless, but was so overcome by anger years ago that they actually hurled a brick at the TV while watching a bills game. Incredibly, the TV didn't break," Sabuda joked. "We're talking about one of those old tube TVs with heavy glass. But needless to say, it wasn't a response that anyone should have or wants to emulate.”

This is a topic Sabuda is very passionate about. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in mental health counseling at Canisius College. 

"Everyone's going through something. So in a particularly tough time, if sharing a 'go bills' with a neighbor or someone passing by during a morning shovel or grocery run can help, then by all means go bills."

Sabuda calls this past Bills season a perfect storm of catharsis and distraction. 


"When it comes to the movement to donate to charities, I think it's really a reflection of Buffalo's humanity in a tough time," Sabuda said.


Bills fans have been a part of raising money this year for:

  • Over $1 million to Oishei Children's Hospital in honor of quarterback Josh Allen's late grandmother.
  • Around $500,000 to the Buffalo Business Blitz, set up by cornerback Josh Norman, to help small businesses during the pandemic
  • Over $400,000 to "Blessings in a Backpack", a nonprofit Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson supports that provides food to elementary school children


"When you consider the nonstop reminders of political divisions, the devastating pandemic is piled into everyone's regular human struggles. The Bills represent this common bond that for a brief moment, or I should say, a few hours over the weekend, it's largely outside of the struggles that I mentioned. If the bills win or lose, the community experiences it together,” Sabuda said.


Gabriel said there is power in sports fandom-- both good and bad. Anxiety and sadness can carry over from watching a game. So her advice is to find a healthy balance.

“I can say one thing that helps me is having a wide variety of teams that I root for. So when you're a Bills fan, it has been helpful for me over the years to also be a Yankees fan, and feel of winning more often,” Gabriel laughed.

For a city that endured four straight Super Bowl losses, a historic playoff drought and the Music City Miracle, Buffalonians have experinced some truly crippling sports losses.


Gabriel said its helped mold the fanbase we see today.


"Those Super Bowl losses... I was old enough to remember those well, and those were really, really hard. And they got harder every year, frankly. And they were heartbreaks each time," Gabriel said. "But the positive effects that I've had from these wins these last few weeks have has been even stronger. Like not one particular game recently. But each of these games like every week, just watching this team and especially how young they are and how much fun they're having and how they seem to support one another and they're so excited to be there. This has just been given to me at a time when I really need it. You know, I'm a social person, and it's hard to be home all the time. It has given me so much life and so much excitement."


"We have an artificial tree we set up for the holidays. We're Jewish, so I just put holiday stuff on it like I don't know, I put menorahs and stuff-- all on it. I had a holiday tree. Well, the holidays passed and I took all that stuff down and I've got pictures of the Buffalo Bills all over it and little footballs all over it. We're keeping the tree this year. And we're celebrating Bills season on it because it's just giving me so much joy. This whole last couple of months has been amazing."


Go Bills.


Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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