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Half of American Fans See Supernatural Forces at Play in Sports

More than one-in-five fans perform a ritual before or during sports games

WASHINGTON – Amid the 2014 NFL playoffs, half (50 percent) of American sports fans see supernatural forces at play in the games they are watching—they either pray for God to help their team, believe their team has been cursed, or believe God plays a role in determining the outcome of sporting events, a new survey finds.

The January PRRI Religion and Politics Tracking Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, finds that one-quarter (25 percent) of sports fans in the United States believe their team has been cursed at some point, while more than one-quarter (26 percent) say they have prayed to God to help their team and 19 percent say God plays a role in determining who wins and who loses. Half of American sports fans connect the supernatural to sports by embracing at least one of these beliefs or practices.

“As Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this year, fully half of fans—as many as 70 million Americans—believe there may be a twelfth man on the field influencing the outcome,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO. “Significant numbers of American sports fans believe in invoking assistance from God on behalf of their favorite team, or believe the divine may be playing out its own purpose in the game.”

Roughly 1-in-5 (21 percent) sports fans say they perform some ritual before or while watching their favorite team. The majority (66 percent) of rituals center around wearing team jerseys or clothing with the team’s colors. Asked to explain their rituals in their own words, some fans admitted to getting creative in their apparel choice: one fan reports wearing “a dirty pair of underwear. . . over my pants and then I put my jersey on.”

Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of sports fans who have rituals choose a ritual that involves some type of activity, such as dancing in a circle, sitting in the same seat or giving a pep talk to the television. Some fans described their activity in great detail: one reports that he takes all of the money out of his wallet and puts it in the right-hand pocket of his pants before every game.

Football fans are more likely than other sports fans to report praying to God (33 percent vs. 21 percent), to believe their team has been cursed (31 percent vs. 18 percent), and to perform rituals before or during games (25 percent vs. 18 percent).

“America’s football fans stand out from other fans in their belief in the supernatural, which may not be surprising after last year’s Blackout Bowl,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s Research Director. These differences may also reflect the fact that football fans are concentrated most heavily in the Midwest and South, regions that also include large religious populations.

With only two weeks until Super Bowl XLVIII, Americans appear very interested in football’s biggest game. More than 7-in-10 (72 percent) say they’re likely to watch the game, including 51 percent who say they are very likely to watch the game. Interest in the game is significantly higher this year than last, when roughly two-thirds reported they were likely to watch the game, including 44 percent who said they were very likely to watch the Super Bowl.

Americans are less interested in other upcoming major sports events, such as the 2014 Winter Olympics (68 percent likely to watch, including 35 percent who say very likely to watch) and the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament (27 percent likely to watch, including only 13 percent who say very likely).

The new survey also finds a gender gap in which sporting events Americans are planning to watch. While men are more likely than women to say they’re planning to watch the Super Bowl (79 percent vs. 66 percent) and the World Cup (35 percent vs. 20 percent), men and women are equally likely to report an interest in watching the Olympics (69 percent vs. 69 percent).

Among the findings:

When it comes to watching sports, football remains the undisputed favorite among Americans. Americans are roughly four times more likely to say that football is their favorite sport to watch (39 percent) than they are to say the same about basketball (10 percent), baseball (9 percent), soccer (7 percent), or ice hockey (7 percent). Roughly 1-in-10 (11 percent) Americans report that they do not follow or watch any type of sport. There are considerable differences in America’s sports watching preferences by age and racial and ethnic identity.

  • Young adults ages 18 to 29 (13 percent) are roughly twice as likely as Americans overall (7 percent) and four times as likely as seniors ages 65 and older (3 percent) to say soccer is their favorite sport to watch.
  • Hispanics are more likely to prefer watching soccer (26 percent) to football (22 percent), baseball (13 percent) or basketball (14 percent). Black Americans are roughly twice as likely to prefer watching basketball as Americans overall (22 percent vs. 10 percent). And among white Americans, football is most popular (44 percent), followed by baseball (10 percent) and basketball (8 percent).

On any given Sunday, one-quarter (25 percent) of Americans report that they are more likely to be in church than watching football, while nearly as many (21 percent) say the opposite—that they are more likely to be watching football than in church. Roughly 1-in-5 (21 percent) Americans say they are likely to be doing both, while one-third (33 percent) say they are not likely to be doing either.

 Americans are about evenly divided on the question of whether God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success (48 percent agree, 47 percent disagree).

  • More than 6-in-10 white evangelical Protestants (62 percent) and minority Protestants (65 percent) believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. Half (50 percent) of Catholics, 44 percent of white mainline Protestants and only 22 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe that God rewards athletes who have faith.

The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute. Results of the survey were based on bilingual (Spanish and English) RDD telephone interviews conducted between January 8, 2014 and January 12, 2014, by professional interviewers under the direction of Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS). Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 1,011 adults 18 years of age or older in the continental United States (506 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.

Read the report.

Read the topline questionnaire, including the survey methodology.