The Super Bowl kicks off Sunday with millions of fans cheering players on the field — while secretly channeling powers on high.
A new survey finds that half of sports fans see the supernatural at play in sports, including believing that their team is cursed, that well-behaved players are blessed, or that God has a role in deciding the outcome of the game.
“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 Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
In fact, more than one in four fans surveyed say they have prayed to God to help their team. One in five say God plays a role in determining which team wins and loses.
Billy Barker, a manager at Champps sports bar in Richfield, is a churchgoing man who is part of the trend. Wearing a Vikings jersey last weekend, he explained he doesn’t tap the hot line to heaven for the game, but he takes a more indirect route.
“I’ve tried to be extra good before the game,” said Barker, “open the doors for old ladies. Try to get some extra good karma.”
Scott Hartman, an Illinois fan sitting with a group of buddies at the bar, doesn’t exactly drop to his knees with folded hands. But he’s among the folks who share a few words with the Big Guy when the game gets tight.
“Any little bit helps,” said Hartman. “It’s a big game.”
Football fans pray more
The findings come from telephone surveys of 1,011 adults conducted between Jan. 8 and Jan. 12. People were asked several questions about their Super Bowl habits related to religion and superstition.
Football fans, the survey showed, are more likely than other sports enthusiasts to ask God to give their team a break. Thirty-three percent pray to God, compared with 21 percent of other sports fans.
It also found regional differences, which could equalize the supernatural playing field for the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos. Both are from the West, where one in four fans report that they pray to God to help their team. That compares to 30 percent of fans in the South.
Midwesterners have an edge in a more dubious area: 30 percent reported their team has been cursed, higher than any other part of the country.
Minnesota sports fans loudly agree.
“If God has a favorite team, it’s not Minnesota,” said Jamie Weigle, a server at Champps. “There is some kind of crazy unluckiness here that won’t go away.”
What are the statistical odds, asked others, of Minnesota not having a professional sports team besides the Minnesota Lynx make it to the national finals for decades?
As for those casting their eyes to the skies Sunday, white evangelical Protestants are the most likely, with 38 percent reporting they ask God to help their team. That compares with 33 percent of mainline Protestants and 21 percent of Catholics, the survey found.
But local clergy agree it’s unlikely God cares who wins.
“I would be highly skeptical,” said the Rev. Michael Van Sloun of St. Bartholomew Catholic Faith Community in Wayzata, a chaplain for the Vikings for 11 seasons.
During his time with the Vikings, Van Sloun said he regularly prayed with players for avoiding injuries, quick recoveries and good sportsmanship, but they never prayed to win.
“God is the God of the Broncos and the God of the Seahawks,” Van Sloun said, “He loves both teams, both sets of players and both sets of fans.”
Lots of rituals
The survey found that 21 percent of fans perform a ritual before or while watching their team. Wearing a team jersey or team colors was the most popular ritual. But 21 percent reported activities “such as dancing in a circle, sitting in the same seat, or talking to their television,” the survey reported.
Barker said one of his patrons brings a bobblehead and sets it on his table before games. One fan reports he doesn’t eat a certain dessert so he doesn’t jinx the game. Another pulls off his jersey when the going gets tough, just to put on the pressure.
The one survey question that equally divided respondents was whether “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.” On that 48 percent agreed, 47 percent disagreed.
With Super Bowl just days away, are sports fans consulting with higher powers about who will win? Not Joe Garcia of Richfield, whose prediction of a Seahawks win is based on something far more earthly.
Said Garcia: “I’ve got money on that game!”