Critical Mass: The importance of crowds for sporting interest

Alex Morgan and Women's Soccer are popular enough in their own right, but certainly help drive the excitement of the Olympic Games. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

The Olympics are a funny thing. The whole world gathers together for a few weeks every fourth summer, and to a lesser extent every fourth winter. Top athletes in their respective sports collide, creating epic match-ups, compelling stories, and crazy-good TV ratings. But why exactly are those ratings so good? NBC thinks their presentation of the "product" (aka, the only way Americans can legally watch the Olympic games) is the one Americans want and need, despite the numerous criticisms, missteps, and widespread anger surrounding the coverage. But despite NBC's "human interest" angle they like to push, fans still get caught up in sports with absolute unknown quantities such as Rhythmic Gymnastics, Equestrian (Rafalca notwithstanding), Shooting, and Trampoline.

Why is this? Is it the national pride? The thrill of watching athletes compete at the highest level? If those really explained it, why didn't more people watch the 2011 Track and Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, or the 2011 Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, Japan? Is it because those are treated as more of a prelude to the main event, much as the Confederations Cup is? Those sport gatherings usually have all the same athletes as those who end up at the Olympics (Gabby Douglas was the youngest to compete in 2011, helping the US to a team all-around gold and qualification for the 2012 Olympics), but they do not drive nearly the same interest.

So why might it be that the Olympics get so much attention? My theory: a critical mass of fans converge to cheer on the competitors, driving the interest of the athletes and both casual and hardcore fans alike. Some sports do well on their own merits--soccer, basketball, hockey--but others need this critical mass of interest to create a compelling event that gets so many involved.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the Sounders other than being sports-related. Well, the same crowd and group behaviors that drive Olympic interest are the behaviors that keep Clink's 100 levels standing for the full 90+, rope in new fans, and guide the FO to keep attendance capped.

Peeking into crowd dynamics, there are a variety of ways to explain what is going on here. (Psychology and Sociology are not in my area of expertise, so bear with me if I mangle something) One is the deindividuation theory: that individuals within a gathered crowd or group are willing to surrender a bit of their individual identity and preconceived notions to agree with or support the ideas or goals of the crowd or group. Crowds usually exhibit, unsurprisingly, the characteristics that a majority of the crowd holds--a crowd of Sounders fans will display pro-Sounders and anti-Timbers behavior. A casual fan who is caught up in the crowd might cheer for things he might not have otherwise or she might get caught up in a chant she'd never sing on her own. Over time, or with a powerful impression, the crowd mentality might stick with the individual. And, over time, as the crowd makeup changes the crowd behavior changes as well.

This happens when we're watching the Olympics. It certainly happened for me while I was watching the men's 20km race-walking event. I was genuinely excited and intrigued by the event, until I thought a bit more about it: "why am I excited for a long distance walking competition?" The answer was easy, I could see the genuine elation all over Ding Chen's face as he realized in the last kilometer or so that he had the gold all but locked up and the excitement of the surprisingly large crowd that had gathered to cheer them on. I wanted to be part of that; I wanted to cheer him on too.

That's a big part of what the Olympics are all about. Obviously, we are primarily rooting for our countries (USA! USA! USA!) and for those athletes with compelling stories, like Oscar Pistorius. But there is still plenty of excitement in watching Singapore and China compete for a table tennis medal, in watching Canada deflate Great Britain's medal hopes in soccer, or in weightlifting, a sport where Kazakhstan took home 4 gold medals and Indonesia grabbed its only two. These athletes, their countries, and all the fans around the world care, so we care too. The excitement rubs off.

It's the same at a soccer match. But more intense. That crowd and group energy comes through the TV, or over the radio, or from the posts on a gamethread, but it goes up exponentially with that physical presence. A good soccer crowd is more engaged at games than any other sporting crowd. Sure, other sports deliver plenty of intense moments during their games that ignite a crowd (like when they cause earthquakes), but none demand the same intense attention a soccer fan needs to give. Soccer is a game where any given 15 seconds may be the most important 15 seconds of the match. Where victory can turn to ashes in a few minutes that seem like they should never have been there. Soccer fans need that close proximity to feed off each other's energy and stay involved in the game. We all know what games feel like when the crowd looks like this. Or this.

Well, actually, maybe. we. don't. And we can thank the FO for that. They had the foresight to stick to their guns and slowly increase capacity at Qwest (now Clink), instead of giving in to early calls for them to just open the whole thing up. The capping of attendance to produce "sell-outs" was one of the early controversies (standing in the 100's level being another) the team generated in the early years. The controversy has largely died down, as it has paid dividends in the ticketing booth, with average and total attendance continuing to go up every year with Starfire also host to plenty of sell-outs.

We have earned dividends as fans as well. The artificial cap has kept fans close together, creating tight-knit sections of season-ticket holders, easy access to nearby knowledgeable fans for newbies, and energetic crowds that transmit and reinforce their excitement to all those in attendance. It was no surprise that the game against LA was one of the most exciting of the season, as those extra 20k or so fans fed plenty of extra energy into the stadium. But there is also no mistaking that the crowd is palpably different when the stakes are raised--when the Sounders had scored 2 goals to pull within one of RSL in the playoffs you could sense there was enough tension in the air you could have suspended a massive tifo spanning the stadium from it. The crowd reacts to the game, but they also react to each other.

That's why attending a game like our CCL match against Caledonia (the lowest-attended match for the Sounders at Clink since they joined the MLS) was still a fun crowd experience. Even though one side of the stadium was empty, the other was still full enough to give that crowd experience Sounders fans have come to know and love. Having attended CCL matches in the past where there were more in attendance, but more spread out around the stadium, it was nice for it to feel like it was somewhat full, even though I could plainly see it was not. The Sounders were able to hit that critical mass.

And that is likely exactly what makes the Olympics so good. That critical mass of fans for each individual event and athlete builds upon itself, pulling in all sorts of fans to watch the whole thing. Just as the mass of Sounders fans corrals the casual into a regular and eventually a season ticket holder or the like.

Of course, I'm not saying you have to be there to experience it, to be a true fan. I'm sure plenty of Dallas supporters love their team just as much as we do. I'm sure plenty of them have a fantastic time at the games and experience the same highs and lows as we do. I'm also sure you can love the team just as much from your couch in South Dakota; you're still a Sounder til you die.

But to be a fan, you have to find a source of that excitement, that energy, that stuff that makes all this so damn fun. And frankly? There is no better, more pure source for it than being part of the crowd, rising and falling together with your team. Cheering them on with the supporters around you. Being part of the game, not just at the game.


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