The Super Bowl’s primal appeal

Our animal bodies yearn to leap, to yell and run, to exult over a freshly fallen foe, to storm the enemy camp to the roaring of our tribe.
But working on a computer in an office, driving a city bus, or walking the kids home from school doesn’t generate many opportunities to unleash the primal agony and ecstasy our bodies are built to deliver. That’s why we’ve created special spaces where the energetic among us can slip inside for an emotional night to rival any great hunt on the open savannah.
They’re called sports bars.
Norm Leaman has been tending bar at one of Halifax’s most popular sports bars since before anyone thought it’d be fun to watch sports in a bar. On his first shift at Oasis 44 years ago, gentlemen stopped in for a drink and live Irish folk music. But over the last 20 years, the pub has shifted from music to live sports. Leaman has watched the patrons change, too.
“The fans are more into it,” he says. “Sports has grown a lot over the years. They’re all groups of friends. The atmosphere is great.” These days, customers come dressed as if they’re ready to step through the television and play ball.
Sports bars like Oasis, HFX Sports Bar & Grill, and Boston Pizza cater to fans on both sides, which means you can be sure to encounter visible and vocal support for the bad guys. Leaman says that’s a big part of the draw: the thrill of the fight without the fight itself.
Research backs him up. Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychological studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has found that when people watch live sports in groups (at bars and in the stands), even people who are ordinarily reserved and shy will explode with “bursts of exhibitionism.”
We leap out of our seats, yell, and stampede in place as our brains blast us with all the drugs evolution has discovered. When you see Odell Beckham Jr. sprint for the end zone, your brain fires the same neural pathways as it would if you were the one running for glory.
Other studies have tested the spirit of fans watching live sports and the people actually playing them. In both cases, the lab finds a 20-per-cent jump in testosterone levels. Pleasant dopamine and exciting adrenaline pump through your body when Sidney Crosby finds the back of the net. Crosby benefits too, as studies have shown home-field advantage is real, likely in part because the players hear the crowd and their bodies respond. That may be why broadcasters make a point to show packed bars cheering for teams playing away games.
There’s a reason why people always sit in the same seats, wear the same hats, and take other superstitious steps to ensure they do their part for the victory. Great behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner studied pigeons. He built Skinner boxes, put the birds inside, and randomly delivered rewards. The pigeons were under the impression they controlled the delivery of rewards and sought desperately to work out how. One always turned in a circle and then pecked right. Another learned to play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on a xylophone.
A sports bar is a Skinner box for humans. You may now proudly see yourself as kin to that pigeon, safe in the truthiness of knowing you helped your team to victory.
A few doors down from Oasis sits Bubba Ray’s Sports Bar. It’s got the prime Spring Garden Road spot, and branches near Fairview, Bedford, Truro, and Moncton. Manager Christine McCall says there are pragmatic reasons to leave the comfort of your home to watch the big game in the bar. They subscribe to all the costly sports packages so you can watch every game – and spend your money on more important things. “We always have pitcher deals and they love our wings,” she says.
Like Leaman, she says the biggest draws these days are the NFL on Sundays, the NHL for Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada, big soccer matches, and mixed martial arts.
“UFC usually brings in people and we never charge a cover for that,” she says, saving fans the $60 or so a pay-per-view costs at home.
Unlike other bar-popular sports, the UFC draws female and male fans in near-equal numbers. UFC regularly bills women competitors as high as men. At UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden last fall, 40 per cent of the card was fought in the women’s divisions, proving those dopamine dumps and adrenaline rushes course through all our veins and brains.
“[NFL games] get intense,” McCall says. “Especially if New England is playing. They’re all crying at the end of the game.”
Psychologist Edward Hirt noticed that too and wondered why we watch live sports when half of us will leave with a loss every time. Why did Chicago Cubs fans cheer their team for that long, lost century between World Series wins? Hirt found it’s less to do with the players on the field and more with the people in the stands and pubs.
We hunted and warred in groups, and you need to know those with you will stay with you through thick and thin. It’s rare for a player to stick with one team his whole career, but common for a fan. That’s who we want to see in the pubs: old friends and strangers who cheer for the same side. It’s a different pleasure to live in Leafs Nation, five decades into the drought.
It’s a thrill Norm Leaman still loves, 44 years into his Oasis of sports. What does he do when he’s got the night off and a big game is on? “I come here,” he laughs. “I come right to my bar.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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