American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Implicit Religion and the Highly-Identified Sports Fan: An Ethnography of Cleveland Sports Fandom

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Michael Butterworth (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Vikki Krane (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Bruce Edwards (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Kara Joyner (Committee Member)


Scholarly writing on the conflation of sport as a religion regularly concentrates on the historical and institutional parallels with the religious dimensions of sport, focusing on ritual, community, sacred space, and other categories more traditionally associated with religious life. Instead, this study redirects focus toward the neo-religious nature of modern spirituality; that is, the fulfillment of Thomas Luckmanns prediction that a significant aspect of modern spirituality would concern the need to construct a self, the constantly shifting work of forming personal identity and enhancing self understanding. As such, internal commitments and intense devotion may perform as a de facto invisible religion in the lives of people. As popular culture provides useful texts toward satisfying this ongoing work, professional sports can act as a conduit of both personal and collective self understanding for highly identified fans, subsequently operating as an invisible religion within their lives. This study investigates the nature of fandom among a sample of Cleveland professional sports fans. Using a semi-structured interview format, it explores the lived world of patrons of the Parkview NiteClub, a long standing Cleveland sports bar/blues club, asking, How might the experience of this group of highly identified fans in Cleveland constitute a kind of invisible religious experience that both shapes their view of themselves and influences how they journey in this life? Using Edward Baileys tripartite implicit religion rubric to assess commitment, integrating foci, and intensive concerns with extensive effects, formal interviews with fifteen Parkview patrons took place over six months, using a semi-structured questionnaire to explore the contours of their devotion to the Cleveland teams. The interviews reveal that the co-mingling of civic history, existence of the teams, and personal life narrative of the fans themselves are intimately interwoven, producing a relationship between the three that moves the teams from mere entertainment outlet to a chief component of the fans self-understanding. They testify that much of their past history and current reality is affected by their relationship to the teams in Cleveland, and that both personal and collective identity gets continually influenced by the existence and performance of the teams themselves. Thus, this study concludes that the activity of sports fandom can be considered both invisibly and implicitly religious, and that sport fandom as a site may provide a venue for future scholarly work concerning neo-religious behavior within modern society.