Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=215028
Story Retrieval Date: 9/1/2014 2:39:32 AM CST

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Facing football withdrawal? You’re not alone

by Jason Peterson
Jan 31, 2013


It’s Monday morning, the day after the Super Bowl. You wake up on the couch and survey the living room – empty pizza boxes, crumbled chips on the floor and 2-liter bottles tipped on their sides, threatening to leak warm soda on the floor.

But the euphoria of last night’s party vanishes when you realize the one thing you had been dreading for the past five months: No more football.

It’s a harsh reality for uber-fans to accept. Today’s hysteria leading up to Sunday’s Harbaugh family reunion will eventually give way to six months without a single moment of fresh gridiron eye candy. And college football? Already a speck in the rearview mirror.

The more dramatic fans might lock themselves in their rooms and wallow in self-pity. But according to Dr. Angelos Halaris, medical director of adult psychiatry at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, there might be a more clinical explanation with a less-than-clinical name: football withdrawal.

“When the football season is over and there’s no other game on the schedule for months, you’re stuck,” Halaris said.

Halaris explained that a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens can experience a high volume of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes a sensation of pleasure. Constant stimulation of this region of the brain – sometimes known as the brain’s pleasure center – may lead to an addiction of the behavioral patterns that cause it, such as drug use, sex, overeating or, apparently, football.

Football continues to tighten its grip as the most popular sport, according to a January 2012 Sports Business Daily report that says the gap is widening between the 36 percent of sports fans who claim football is their favorite sport and the second-place group of 13 percent who favor baseball. The previous poll in 2011 indicated 31 percent for football and 17 percent for baseball. That leaves a lot of fans, including Daniel Slubberke, a 24-year-old Chicago transplant from Los Angeles, scurrying for other entertainment options after the Super Bowl.

“I’ll try to get into other sports, but when the football season comes back again, I forget about them,” said Slubberke, a devout Pittsburgh Steelers fan. “I don’t pay attention much in the off-season because there’s not much to talk about.”

Moe Smith, a 22-year-old marketing student at DePaul University, is what you’d call a chronic sports fan. He’ll spend his Sunday afternoons watching NFL games, check on his $1,000 fantasy team that evening, and read the latest analysis the following morning. When football’s over, however, he simply latches onto the NBA or college basketball and starts over again.

At the risk of sounding like an addict in denial, however, Smith insists that sports are his hobby, nothing more.

“It’s not my life. It’s just entertainment,” said Smith, a Indianapolis Colts fan despite being raised in Chicago. “I feel like watching sports makes you more social, so you converse with other people with similarities.”

A look at Google Trends reveals an annual, cyclical pattern of fans’ online interest in the NFL. With preseason games under way in August, the NFL’s online traffic experiences its greatest surge of the year – rising between 300 and 400 percent higher than July’s numbers. After a slight lull in October and November, the middle of the regular season, interest reaches a crescendo in late December and early January when the playoff race shapes up.

After the Super Bowl, however, a steep drop – interrupted by a brief spike in April due to the NFL draft – eventually bottoms out in June before the cycle begins all over again.

The trends are different, however, when each NFL franchise is considered separately. Scott Hagel, vice president of communications for the Chicago Bears, says the NFL has a “365-day-per-year calendar” and interest in each team fluctuates depending on the events happening throughout the year. Thus each team has a unique pattern of media consumption from its fans.

“There are reasons to pay attention to the NFL every month,” he said. “Obviously, the consumption is different, going from a game mode to an off-season more focused on player transactions and coaching and staff changes, the draft process, mini-camps and training camps.”

Hagel said online fan activity doesn’t drop off as much as one might expect after the season. He certainly doesn’t see signs of fans experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Hagel cited two off-season incidents in which the Bears received record traffic to their website – the acquisition of star receiver Brandon Marshall last March (a notoriously slow month for the NFL), and the recent hiring of new head coach Marc Trestman on Jan. 16.

“And we’ll have high traffic this year when we hold our mini-camps [in May] because people will be interested to see what the new coaching staff is doing with our players now,” Hagel added.

Halaris suggested the NFL fanatic can wean himself off a steady stream of games and news by turning to replacements, such as YouTube highlights and fan forums. Hagel said the growing interest in mobile consumption of sports has spurred the Bears’ efforts to expand their mobile lineup of multimedia content.

“With the way technology has increased and the wireless speed has increased, you can watch videos on these phones and the user experience is taking off,” Hagel said. “We spend a lot of our time creating content that allows people to consume video in a unique way through the Bears’ assets. We want to make sure people’s mobile experience is a good one.”

So when you wake up on the couch next Monday and face the prospects of no football for the next six months, just remember – the NFL isn’t going anywhere.

“All I know is we certainly appreciate Bears fans and their affinity to the team and the passion they show 365 days a year,” Hagel said. “We certainly want to make sure we’re there to feed that appetite.”