Cheering fans are as ubiquitous to competitive sports as coaches and clipboards.

And something about that had always puzzled Yong-chae Rhee, an assistant professor in Washington State University’s sports management program.

After all, far more teams fall short of the ultimate goal each season than achieve it. There’s just one Super Bowl champion, for example, and 31 franchises that end up promising a better season next year. Only one of the 30 Major League Baseball teams wins the World Series. Of the 351 NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs, just 68 advance to March Madness and only one claims the title.

Yong-Chae Rhee
Yong-Chae Rhee (Courtesy WSU College of Education)

“This was very curious to me because when I first started to look at this, all of the research about fan behavior had been associated with positive aspects such as winning,” says Rhee, who studies why fans remain loyal to losing sports teams. “If you look around, there’s all these teams but only one winner…and I wondered why can losing teams still have so many fans.”

It’s not that Rhee felt there was anything wrong with that. But since research shows a winning season can measurably boost overall support for a team, he wanted more than simply anecdotal explanations for the arguably irrational behavior of fans sticking with losing teams.

What he discovered reveals as much about human coping mechanisms as team loyalty or organizational excellence.

It begins with a concept known as relative deprivation, a theory social scientists use to evaluate the behavior of groups or individuals who feel they’re entitled to more than what they’ve received. It’s typically associated with the study of political movements or socioeconomic conditions such as poverty.

Rhee found that it also can be used to examine the behavior of sports fans. Like just about any group, members tend to most closely compare themselves to each other. So, while every sports fan wants their team to win, the feelings of deprivation that come with a losing season are made more tolerable by the realization that nearly every other member of their immediate group is struggling with similar disappointment.

“What happens is this in-group bias kicks in,” Rhee explains.

A particularly poignant example can be found among fans of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

Back in 2010, they revolted after Cavaliers star LeBron James announced he was leaving for the Miami Heat. Fans defaced and destroyed copies of his jersey, burned posters and murals containing his image, and heavily criticized management of the team.

But the following season, ticket sales took only a slight dip.

“Relative deprivation explains this,” says Rhee, adding that the Cavaliers did see a brief but deep drop in ticket sales two years later during a 26-game losing streak that at the time was an NBA record but that, too, quickly rebounded.

“After the announcement, there were angry fans burning his jersey, blaming the team for letting him go…but they came back.”

As a footnote, so did James—four years later—and while fans cheered his return, along with Cleveland’s first NBA title in 2016, support for the team already had been back at pre-2010 levels for a while.

Rhee first noticed the seeming incongruity while growing up in South Korea.

A team from a struggling region of the country initially enjoyed tremendous success in South Korea’s fledgling professional baseball league during the early to mid-1980s but then went years without another championship as the other teams built stronger programs.

“The fans were still with them,” Rhee says of the initial team. “They were still proud of their team, and that got me to thinking, this is not just about winning.”

To study the connection, Rhee recently conducted in-depth interviews with a random sampling of Korean sports fans from diverse backgrounds. He found that relative deprivation combines with social identification to compensate for disappointment, which teams can also help manage by serving as strong representatives of the fans and the community that’s been built around them.

”This says that it’s not just about winning,” Rhee explains. “If you represent your people right, they’ll stick with you even when you’re losing.”