Older Adults and Spectator Sports

The Impact of Spectator Sports on Older Adults’ Wellbeing

I’ve always had a deep interest in how sports can impact a community. Throughout my academic career, my research has been focused on how sports can improve wellbeing for different populations in a variety of places, including the United States, Australia, Cambodia, and Japan. My current focus of research has been on the older adult population.

By 2050, people aged 65 years or older are expected to reach 20 percent of the United States population and up to 1.5 billion globally. Addressing the effects of aging is going to be increasingly important. Aging populations tend to show signs of personal isolation as they lose social connections from retirement and death. These issues often contribute to loneliness and depression. I realized that my research could have the potential to support older adults dealing with isolation – as spectator sports can promote improved wellbeing and a sense of community.

How Group Participation Alleviates Health Issues

Data indicates that roughly 15 percent of older adults in the world experience some kind of mental health issue. By physically or psychologically connecting with something – a sport team, for example – it can create a sense of belonging that can influence mental health and alleviate the risk of experiencing worsening mental health issues.

Though studying the impact of spectator sports on older adults’ wellbeing is the first of its kind, similar research has provided the foundation for my work. We’ve seen participation in a variety of leisure activities or group participations – such as going to church or joining a reading group – can have both psychological and physical benefits. Older adults experience improved physical health and relief, and this translates to living longer.

Connecting Older Adults and Sports

There are two ways older adults can experience health benefits from spectator sports. The first is called “in-group participation.” By physically attending a sporting event, the older adults are together with friends and other spectators and see that they are part of a larger sport fan community. The second is called “team identification.” Beyond physically attending events, psychologically connecting with a sports team can make seniors feel like they are an important part of the team.

With both in-group participation and team identification, older adults’ connection with sports offer emotional support. They experience the atmosphere of love, compassion, and caring from the other fans among them. This feeling of emotional support can boost their mental health and sense of belonging to a broader community.

Seeing Results in the Community

In 2016, I received the Janet B. Parks North American Society for Sport Management Research Grant to conduct a study on older adults and spectator sports. We recruited 50 participants from the Minnetonka, Minnesota area and randomly placed them into two different groups: the treatment group and the control group. The treatment group attended three University of Minnesota volleyball home games. The control group did not attend any social activities or sporting events. After the game attendances, we compared the psychological states of the two groups using information from surveys taken before and after. These were intended to measure identification with a sports team, a sense of emotional support from peers, and a sense of belonging. What we found was the older adults who attended sports games experienced an increase in most of those measurements, and the control group did not.

We followed that initial study with a follow-up of older adults selected across the United States. This time, we recruited more than 500 adults aged 65 or older. This broader replication of our initial study seeks to find if there is any variation in potential emotional support for older adults following sport teams and how emotional support affects their social wellbeing such as sense of belonging and community trust. We’re working through that data now.

Yuhei Inoue, Ph.D.

About the Author

Yuhei Inoue, Ph.D.

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