COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – There are just three days before Ohio State faces Michigan at Ohio Stadium, with anticipation growing by the hour, and for many fans, the rivalry is much more than a game.

Ohio State University professor of sociology Chris Knoester said about half of the U.S. population identifies as passionate sports fans.

“Many people learn about sport and the focus of the game and who to root and who’s their community for from their family and their friends,” he said. “People derive a lot of their self-identity, self-worth, values, and behaviors connected to sports.”

Sports is a way to connect and build relationships. Living in a place like Columbus — or even Ohio – that sense of allegiance is heightened.

“They really divide themselves into their group, their tribe as it were,” Knoester said. “We see these dynamics play out in many ways. It’s positive in people coming together in the community but there’s a darker side of it, too, in terms of people tend to dehumanize other people and opponents or whatnot.”

The competitive side can sometimes be taken too far, ending up being particularly isolating for those in the minority.

“Sometimes women feel like they have to prove themselves in these spectator spaces,” said Dr. Frances Sutton, an Ohio State sports anthropologist. “They are genuine fans but sometimes people assume that’s not necessarily the case.”

Sutton said her research found that women still show up in these spaces, even when there’s pushback.

“Sport is a really big part of women’s social lives in that they see it as a very core component of the relationships they build with their family, with members of their community attending sport events and getting to know friends and neighbors and also the fans,” she said. “People who are in these college or professional fandoms, that gets built into their sense of self.”

This is why Sutton said it’s important for spaces to be inclusive so people can participate in these communities, something Knoester agrees with.

“It’s important to be vigilant and push for our individual and community and societal responsibilities to be inclusive and to work for positive health outcomes and to eliminate inequities and problems with justice,” he said.

Sports unify us in a way that nothing else in the world can. So, as both teams take the field this Saturday, Knoester and Sutton want everyone to have a great time, no matter who they’re rooting for because sports is for all.