"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What Makes A Sports Fan?

Finally after a drought of 30 years, Washington has a good baseball team, and thousands of Washingtonians are now paying attention.  Winning gets attention, and except for the rare exceptions when the performance of terrible teams (The Hapless Mets of the early 60s) becomes a perverse fascination, most people like successful teams.  This is not surprising since the best teams have something special - players of unique, once-in-a-generation talent, an esprit de corps which enables even mediocre teams to rise above the level predicted by ability, brilliant Shackleton-type managers who through their understanding of character, personality, and ability make teams perform especially well.  Bad teams founder, flounder, and are sad to watch. 

In the Fifties on hot summer Saturdays fathers and sons would sit in the backyard and with the familiar unhurried sounds of whirring lawnmowers and children playing next door, would listen to a Yankees game.  The Yankees were always good, perennial winners with larger-than-life players.  It mattered little that the competition was never up to snuff.  Victory was expected, but fandom and allegiance had nothing to do with that.  It was an emotional alliance with the famous, historical Yankees.  

In today's era of salary caps and arbitration, such preeminent dominance is not possible.  While big market teams like the Yankees or Dodgers have a financial advantage - Yankee wins during the Steinbrenner years were devalued because he not only bought talent with his deep pockets, he seemed to buy all talent.  It wasn't the same thing.  Money - whether concentrated in Yankee coffers or spread around thanks to League interventionism - was still money. 

Egalitarianism has spoiled the fun.  There are so many bad teams in the NFL because of the most restrictive financial regulations in sports, that even losing teams have a chance for the playoffs.  What fun is it to watch mediocre teams play each other?  There is something to be said for dynasties whether the Yankees or the University of Alabama.  Success breeds success, and the most talented athletes in the country want to play for the Tide and Nick Saban.  Other teams of the perennial successful SEC are no different. 

To the real fan, however, none of this matters.  Allegiance to the home team supersedes considerations of talent, promise, or outright success.  A fan is a fan through thick and thin, loss and defeat, error and brilliance. 

There is a radio station in New York - WFAN - which broadcast a late-night sports talk show.  What characterized the callers, many of whom were regulars, was not their sports savvy but their passionate, defiant allegiance to their teams.   These fans referred to the Mets, the Yankees, the Jets and the Giants as “we”, and the anguish over losing was acute.  Caller after caller searched for reasons – the manager, the poor defense in left, the declining skills of a former hero.  If the losing streak continued, the calls were more impassioned, calling for the heads of players, coaches, and head office staff.  If the team was winning, the genuine spirit of support was jubilant.

Image result for images wfan ny

Now that the Nats are winning, viewership is up.   However high-end Washingtonians don't always  go to the ballpark, do not have paraphernalia, and do not care much about winning or losing. While they will always love the complexity and sophistication of the game, theirs is a dispassionate following.  Many watch all Redskins games and follow news reports about them; but interest has less to do with hopes for victory than a fascination with the dynamics of the team.  The clashes between ownership and management and stars and their handlers; the shameless self-promotion of wealthy but unproven athletes; the lack of any social or moral cohesion in the clubhouse; the racial politics of recruitment; Shackleton-like management genius; and many other non-athletic issues are far more compelling than who hits a home run or where the team is in the standings. 
So what makes the real fan?  The fan who sticks by his team no matter what.  The fan whose allegiance to his team is deeply emotional.  The fan who takes wins and losses seriously.  For these fans team dynamics are far less important than personality-related performance.  Blame is necessary - the player, the manager, the general manager, the owner - in order to justify such passionate  loyalty.  The financial, institutional, and political complexities of the game are of peripheral interest.  Whatever the complex of factors that may lead to decisions on the field, it is these immediate gaffes or heroic displays that count. 

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote about how he tried to change allegiances from his longtime team, the New York Mets to the Washington Nationals.  After all, he reasoned, sports allegiances were certainly no more than residence, availability, and performance; so it would be a simple matter of changing his support to the Nats.  He found that it wasn’t so easy, and he suggested why:
It’s probably more accurate to say that team loyalty begins with youthful enchantment. You got thrown together by circumstance with a magical team — maybe one that happened to be doing well when you were a kid or one that featured the sort of heroes children are wise to revere. You lunged upon the team with the unreserved love that children are capable of.
The team became crystallized in your mind, coated with shimmering emotional crystals that give it a sparkling beauty and vividness. And forever after you feel its attraction. Whether it’s off the menu or in the sports world, you can choose what you’ll purchase but you don’t get to choose what you like.
The neuroscientists might say that, in 1969, I formed certain internal neural structures associated with the Mets, which are forever after pleasant to reactivate. We have a bias toward things that are familiar and especially to those things that were familiar when life was new: the old house, the old hometown, the people, smells and sounds we knew when we were young.

Image result for logo ny mets

Scholars have more predictable answers relating to psychological and social needs:
"When individuals identify and form a strong connection with a local team, it is related to psychological health," says Daniel L. Wann, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky and co-author of a book about sport-fan psychology. "The more they identify with the team, the higher their self-esteem , the higher their vigor or energy, the lower their fatigue, confusion, depression , and alienation."
"Chicago Cubs fans go to Wrigley Field to have a good time, feel that camaraderie, and sense of belonging. Whatever the Cubs do is a side issue," says Dr. Wann. "The beauty of it is that it doesn't matter how good the team is, you get the effects anyway."
Edward Hirt, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Indiana University, feels that sports provide many avenues for meeting the human need to belong. "People can go to games together, watch broadcasts together, talk and commiserate on the radio or through email or play fantasy sports together," he explains. 

Dr. Hirt studied fans of Big Ten basketball and found that those with an allegiance to a particular team felt better about their own abilities and sex appeal when their team won. After a loss, fans were far more pessimistic about their chances of making a free throw, completing word games, and getting a date. "When the team does well, fans treat it like they themselves did well," says Dr. Hirt.

Other researchers have suggested that social class is a factor in fan allegiance.  British soccer has always been a lower-class sport and the hooliganism and ultra-passionate allegiances, say some observers, is because of the circumscribed nature of working class life, lack of varied social and cultural opportunities, and resultant close identification with local teams.  This is not true in America where many sports, football and baseball especially, have varied class audiences.  This is partly due to the cost of admission, but also because of a certain intellectual cache attributed to an intellectual appreciation of sport, especially baseball.  

In short, in Washington, DC everyone is passionate about the Redskins.  In towns like Boston or Chicago baseball fans are more likely to be white working class because those towns still have significant proportions of that demographic segment.

Long-term fan allegiance, like that of David Brooks or the callers on WFAN, is surprising because over the years the teams change personnel completely.  It is like the conundrum posited in Philosophy 101: If you progressively replace all the parts of your car – a fender here, upholstery there; new engine, transmission, headlights – when all the parts are replaced, is it still the same car?  Yes, most of us would answer, and so goes fan allegiance.  The Mets may have a totally different roster, manager, head office, stadium from when Brooks began following them, but the Mets are still the Mets in his mind. 

A close friend  grew up in central Connecticut which according to a recent article on the Red Sox – Yankees fan rivalry is right on the dividing line:
The midpoint between Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium is approximately Rocky Hill, Conn., a few miles south of Hartford and east of New Britain. Some adventurers have dared to guess where allegiances are perfectly balanced, usually pointing to a place near Route 91, anywhere from north of Hartford to New Haven in the south.

This split has always been there, although never so scientifically studied.  Half of families were always Red Sox fans while the other half, 30 miles to the south in New Haven were devoted Yankees fans.  I suppose there is a certain geographical imperative, and if one were now to live in New Haven, there might well be switched allegiances – unless of course David Brooks is right and hard wiring occurred in 1950.

Fans of the New York (football) Giants gave up on them when the stadium moved across the river to the New Jersey Meadowlands.  They were still the Giants; but if the name had changed to the New Jersey Giants, there would be most probably a major reshuffling of the fan base.  New Yorkers have always considered New Jersey a foreign land.  

Nor has there been any grumbling when the Anaheim Angels became the Los Angeles Angels.  Perhaps in the sprawl of Los Angeles the Angels were Los Angeles’ team, regardless of exactly where they played.  A few years ago the Florida Marlins became the Miami Marlins, and we will have to wait and see whether former fans in Orlando give up on the newly named team. 

Stadiums like that of Michigan, Alabama, Mississippi State are enormous – all 100,000 capacity and always filled.  Not only are they filled, but they are filled with rabidly passionate and loyal fans.  College football is particularly big in the Midwest and the South, and fan allegiance spreads within a large radius.  In the small Mississippi town near Starkville the pep rallies for Mississippi State are large, long, and wild.

Perhaps David Brooks has it right when he says (in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There):
“Everything in the Bobo’s life is purposeful.” Sports and physical activities are no different. The purpose of participating in a sport in a Bobo’s life is to build muscles and look good.
Bobos want to show and prove that they are serious about their sports. Being “serious” is the best compliment that one can give to a Bobo. In fact Brooks writes, “You want to be a serious skier or a serious tennis player or a serious walker or a serious cross-country skier or even a serious cross-country skateboarder.”
By inference, spectator sports are no different.  It is OK to be a fan if you take it ‘seriously’, that is, intellectually.  Winning and losing is secondary to understanding the intricacies of why.  George Will, the consummate baseball intellectual is theexample of the Bobo sports mentality. 
It's a bit difficult these days to imagine a public intellectual—the kind of deep thinker who opines on financial regulation and the politics of Kyrgyzstan—writing a book about baseball. Soccer, maybe—novelists like Dave Eggers and Alexsandar Hemon will write about it on the least provocation, while New Republic editor Franklin Foer wrote a very good book on the sport and globalization. 
In 1990, the bow-tied pundit published Men at Work, a treatise on the inner workings of the national pastime. The book, one of the best-selling sports titles of all time, is often derided as fussy and overly intellectual. These qualities are parodied to great effect in the Saturday Night Live sketch "George F. Will's Sports Machine," in which Dana Carvey flummoxes Tommy Lasorda and Mike Schmidt by asking them what Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series "was not unlike." The answer: "It was not unlike watching Atlantis rise again from the sea, the bones of its kings new-covered with flesh." (Slate Online)
So many Washingtonians will stop watching the Nats so regularly once they start losing.  

An interesting article appeared recently in the Washington Post a few years ago asking why attendance at the new Nationals Stadium was still far from capacity.  Was it because the Nats were still a new team, and just like any commercial product, customers did not want to invest in it unless they knew if it is any good?.  If the Nats are still in first place in June, attendance should go up, the sports analyst concluded.  On the other hand if they drop down to where they have been over the past five years, their stadium will be the usual one-quarter full. The Nats are now winning and the stadium is always near capacity.

In any case, it is interesting to follow the Nats and the evolution of their fan base because there are so many sports paradoxes here.  Washington is the quintessential Bobo town, and yet fans from Oxon Hill to Georgetown are passionate about the Skins.  It has no white working class to speak of, so baseball should be a hard sell, but the buzz over the Nats is real and continues now in the new 2017 season.  

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