"We're Gators.Not Just Gator Fans": Serious Leisure and University of Florida Football

Article excerpt

Introduction

Around the world, sport garners attention at all levels of society from participants and fans to the media, governments, and multi-national corporations. Dunning (1999) argued, "no activities have ever served so regularly as foci of simultaneous common interest and concern to so many people all over the world" (p. 3). With the growing complexity and fragmentation of modern (Simmel, 1955), and now post-modern society (Dunning, 1999), sociologists have postulated that the social worlds and opportunities for collective identity inherent in sport raise it to a higher level of social importance. Indeed, Dunning suggested, "identification with a sports team can provide people with an important identity-prop, a source of 'we-feelings' and a sense of belonging in what would otherwise be an isolated existence" (p. 6).

Over the years, many scholars have examined the social importance of sport both at the micro level in the lives of fans and at the macro level of society. These studies have focused on such topics as the deeply committed sports fan (McPherson, 1975); team identification, "basking-in-reflected-glory" (BIRGing) and "cutting-off-reflected-failure" (CORFing) (Cialdini, et al., 1976; Kimble & Cooper, 1992; Lee, 1985; Wann & Branscombe, 1990); levels of fan identification (Anderson, 1979; Wann & Branscombe, 1993); levels of fan satisfaction (Madrigal, 1995); fan involvement (Kerstetter & Kovich, 1997; Shank & Beasley, 2000); and fandom as a search for community (Anderson & Stone, 1981; Dunning, 1999). To date however, most studies of sport fans in the US have concentrated on students as fans. There is a need to understand the place of sport fandom within the context of individual's lives as they transition through the various phases of the life course. Our study is unique in that we focus on long-term fans, some of who started their careers as a fan during their student days over 50 years ago.

While sport scholars have analyzed various aspects of fan-related behaviors and the role of sport in society, the social world of the fan has received scant attention from leisure scholars (Jones, 2000). This is curious given that sport is a major form of leisure in the US and around the world. Our guiding philosophy is that leisure is the overall domain under which special forms of leisure, sport and tourism reside. As such, we contend that an in-depth study of a sport subculture is both warranted and significant to our understanding of leisure behavior.

Leisure scholars have examined various non-fan-related social worlds, such as American Kennel Club participants, tournament bass fishers, doll house builders, and bird watchers, and found that participation in them frequently provides a central source of meaning and identity for its members (e.g., Baldwin & Norris, 1999; Bartram, 2001; Crouch, 1993; Irwin, 1977; Kellert, 1985; Mittelstaedt, 1995; Olmsted, 1993; Scott & Godbey, 1992; 1994; Stebbins, 1979; 1992; Yoder, 1997). The question posed is do sport based social worlds in the US provide fans with similar opportunities for identification and meaning?

For fans of the University of Florida football team, being a Gator appears to be a central source of meaning and identity as evident in the clothes they wear, the adjectives they use to describe themselves, and in some cases the color of the car they drive or the place they live. Some travel hundreds of miles to follow their team, to tailgate with their family and friends, and for some who are alumni of the University, football provides a link with their alma mater. No other sport in the U.S. seems to engender the same pre-game socializing (tailgating), rituals, and atmosphere as football. As leisure scholars, several questions present themselves for investigation. Why do Gator football fans devote so much time and effort to following their team? What are the meanings, rituals, and practices associated with being a University of Florida football fan? …