MURRAY, Ky. – Dan Wann walks us from his campus office building to somewhere in town for lunch. Sorry, the place in town for lunch, as he sees it. Oh, and I have to try the dinner roll. And I have to leave room for the cake. He recommends the gnocchi first, because I asked. He knows this place and this area, and I trust him.
So I order what he orders. Even the “soup and dumplings”.
“If you see me spilling soup because my hand is shaking, don’t worry,” I say, “my hand has been doing this my whole life.”
“At least you have an excuse,” he jokes, and we laugh.
I appreciate Wann’s point of view.
In so many ways.
That’s why I’m here, because I recently drove more than 300 miles southwest from Cincinnati to see it. I do what I do as a sports fan coach for what Wann did. When it comes to sports enthusiasts, he knows this area as well.
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Maybe better than anyone else.
No wonder ESPN called it “Dr. Fan World.”
Wann is a psychology professor at Murray State and specializes in research on sports enthusiasts. His work is among over 1,000 references cited in the 2019 book he co-authored with Jeffrey James, “Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Fandom.” It’s a bible to me.
Three years ago, when I was exploring the idea of coaching sports fans, Wann was kind enough to talk to me on the phone. I asked him what fans say about wrestling… what they want… and what more do they want. He doesn’t remember anyone asking him. Marketing questions focus more on a team’s concessions, restrooms, and other playing experiences.
“You could be like a sports psychologist to the fans,” Wann said. “You can do educational sports psychology for fans.”
He was speaking in more general terms. He knew I was a coach and would deal with him as one. This is exactly what I was thinking too. I knew coaching fans would be unique, but I had no idea these questions would be new as well.
And now here I am, three years later, meeting Wann in person for the first time, feeling like a student reconnecting with a teacher who has made a difference. The work he shares with the world on sports fans helps me, help them.
I can talk to him like I can’t talk to anyone else. I share with him some of my experiences. I tell him about declaring my Bengali fandom for the rest of last season, and the fallout from Guardians, and how that has given me insights to help others define fandom in their own way.
Wann understands this.
I tell him how the Castellinis have infuriated Reds fans, from Phil’s “Where are you going” to Bob’s lack of transparency and accountability to the team. I tell him how a little empathy and communication can mean so much to fans, until the team wins again. I say Cubs fans wanted that from their owner, too, after Tom Ricketts cited MLB’s “biblical” losses, deconstructed his team, then joined a bid to buy Chelsea football for billions.
Wann understands this.
Like me, he was a fan before. We knew what it was like to follow a losing team. The same, coincidentally.
He’s from Kansas, I’m from Chicago, and we both grew up fans of the Cubs in the late ’60s, even if he did so to taunt his older brother, a fan of the rival St. Louis Cardinals like their father, who was raised southeast of Missouri. Wann mentions it in his book, to help explain team identification and fan socialization. Human touch is a spoonful of sugar to help academic discourse go downhill.
Wann is addictive. And candid. The book clearly states that the study of sports enthusiasts is a relatively modern activity and it is difficult to conclude too much from isolated studies or articles. I have looked into some of those. It was perfect.
Over lunch I tell him I get it now, and that I can imagine how embarrassing it must be when everyone wants a bite of fandom from him, but the answer isn’t that simple. He says that once he could feel his discomfort as his words came out of his mouth.
However, he believes that sports fandom is overwhelmingly positive, and I agree. The connection with the team and its fan community can be as powerful as family. Most fans don’t get violent about the fandom. But how connected we are can affect how we think, feel and behave. Wann researches this sort of thing.
The stress of the game and the pain of defeat can hit us harder than we’d like. As well as dealing with time, money, balance, other fans, relationships, team decisions and so much more. I help with his kind of thing, not to make anyone a better fan, but to enhance the experience so we can keep our passion without getting lost.
We don’t have to be perfect.
When Dan and a woman who sat right behind him at Murray State basketball games started texting, she asked him if he liked NASCAR. In a 2020 radio interview, he said he replied, “No, I like sports.” He now he tells me that he even joked about what NASCAR stands for. And the answer was… silence. “You think I’d know better,” he says now, knowing a playful text just won’t cut it.
Michelle took revenge on him. She was an Ohio State graduate and she liked Buckeyes football, but he hated it, and so when they went on a real date, a walk around campus, she showed up wearing an Ohio State championship hoodie.
Dan and Michelle have now been married for five years and Dan has also started enjoying Ohio State football. Life works like this sometimes.
As serious as Dan Wann is about what he does, he clearly tries not to take himself too seriously. I appreciate that about him. For two hours we talked and laughed and enjoyed the food, and I’m glad I followed his lead. Yet.
When he drops me off on campus, I thank him for lunch and tell him that he and his work have inspired me to do what I’m doing and that I couldn’t do all the things I do without him. He thanks me and seems genuinely moved.
That’s why I trust Dan Wann.