Why do some college football fans identify not just with their school, but their school’s conference as well?
More specifically, why does SEC pride exist? Why are Kentucky and Mississippi State particularly proud of their SEC membership, considering they combined for a 3-13 record against SEC opponents? After all, conferences are just administrative bodies without any football team of their own. Why don’t fans of schools in other conferences have the same amount of enthusiasm for their conference (besides mostly-sarcastic "B1G! B1G! B1G!" chants on Twitter)?
Besides actually hearing "SEC! SEC! SEC!" chants in person, I always wondered why Ohio State fans in particular seemed to not care about how other Big Ten teams fared in bowl games or against out-of-conference opponents – except in a self-serving way. That is, when Ohio State’s strength of schedule mattered. That is the only time when Buckeye fans might take pride in a Spartan Rose Bowl victory, for instance.
There is definitely some danger in overstating conference fandom. Most Georgia fans want Florida to lose every game they play, forever, regardless of their other feelings about the SEC. And "SEC!" chants can end up just being ironic. Conversely, it’s possible that fans in other conferences have some degree of conference pride, too.
But, in general, it seems like "SEC fans" actually exist – and not just when rooting for conference brethren is motivated by self-interest. It seems like there are two reasons why.
The perception of shared beliefs and values
It’s possible that the perception of having a lot in common with your conference mates can form the basis of conference fandom. There are several necessary components for this to be true.
This has as much to do with geography as it does with universities and college athletics. It first requires satisfaction with one’s state (or at least region of the state) and then the belief that fans, schools, and the actual geographic locations in the rest of the conference are similar. If those two prerequisites are met, it’s possible for the in-group to expand to the entire conference. Sure, conference-mates might "hate" each other on gamedays, but otherwise they are part of the in-group. Despite competing with members of the in-group one Saturday a year, fans can still identify with the conference.
Here, social identity is based on satisfaction with perceived shared geography, history, beliefs, and values. The closer the matchup between the conference footprint and geographic region, the greater the perceived commonalities between fans and schools, and the greater the conference fandom. The SEC is a Southern conference. Many SEC fans respect what they believe to be distinctly Southern aspects of their conference peers: The Grove at Ole Miss, the night game atmosphere in Death Valley, or how great of a town Athens is.
The Big Ten was comprised of only Midwestern schools. Nebraska was a card-carrying Midwestern school, but it’s tough to make that argument for Rutgers and Maryland. Regardless of whether they ultimately contribute to the strength of the conference, they extend the conference’s geographic footprint outside of areas that would self-identify as the Midwest. The same could have been said for the Pac-12’s potential addition of Texas and Oklahoma during one of the last rounds of conference realignment.
If this explanation is true, we’d expect to see:
1. Greater conference fandom for conferences that correspond to a self-identifying geographic region
2. Greater conference fandom for conferences with shared histories and values (i.e. religious beliefs and voting patterns)
Sharing in the benefits of winning
Alternatively, conference fandom may have more to do with the desire to share in the benefits of the winning teams in a conference.
This explanation is built from social identity theory and is called "basking in reflected glory (BIRG)." Essentially, the person trying to enjoy the reflected success "has done nothing tangible to bring the team’s success." Few fans tangibly contribute to their team winning, but here a fan’s team has done nothing to contribute to the conference’s success (other than adding to the best team in the conference’s wins column). Put another way, the team – and the fans of that team – are taking benefits from which the individual team didn’t contribute.
So, according to BIRG theory, Kentucky enjoys being in the same conference as Alabama, because it takes some pride in being a part of the perceived best conference in college football. Even though Kentucky lost 48-7 against Alabama last season, Wildcat fans take some pride in knowing that they still belong to the best conference. Even those at the bottom of the conference totem pole still receive some benefit in belonging to an elite conference. The cover and title of Paul Finebaum’s new book, My Conference Can Still Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football, makes this pretty clear.
Even if a conference begins to decline in strength and begins losing bowls and out of conference games, various cognitive biases like anchoring, loss aversion, and cognitive dissonance can cause fans to ignore or minimize negative information that contradicts their beliefs about their team and conference. However, if a conference’s decline is too steep or sudden to be ignored, then fans may use what psychologists call "cutting off reflected failure (CORF)." CORFing is the opposite of BIRGing, and would involve a fan downplaying his or her school’s conference ties.
If this explanation is true, we’d expect to see:
1. Far less BIRGing in all but the best conference
2. If there is any doubt about which conference is best, we’d expect either less BIRGing overall, or BIRGing by everyone with a potential claim
3. Less SEC fandom if another non-SEC school wins the College Football Playoff this season.
These are likely not the only two explanations for why fans identify with their conferences. Further, basking in reflected glory and the perception of shared beliefs and identity are clearly related – both involve the enlargement of group identity from the school to the conference level because of some perceived benefit.