Regardless of the sport, the most common entry for fandom is a shared excitement. Either family member(s), peer group, community, school, or love-interest exhibits a passion and we join in. It’s a rite-of-passage sense of belonging, we just want to be included. Often our knowledge of the sport is minimal and may be limited to the team name, the mascot, the most popular player. It may or may not grow into a real passion along with in depth familiarity and understanding. Sometimes it is an extension of family lore, steeped in tradition (of family and team) and may involve encyclopedic history of rivalries, statistics, and legends. Still, this version at least begins as a social experience and may never evolve beyond “joining the club.” It is probably most frequently seen as a home town/school/state following. It often grows beyond this but when it does not, then the odds are that the allegiances will change with a change of scenery (geographic, employment, or romantic partner).
Dateline: August 8, 2012––53 days until the start of training camp!
A rather different connection comes from a following born of experience. Playing a sport necessarily involves a deeper understanding of the how, when and why of the blow-by-blow progression. Usually this affiliation trends toward seeking excellence, in its simplest form this might mean rooting for a winning team (certainly one measure of “doing it right”). Sometimes it veers toward individuals who seem to exemplify excellence, star-struck anyone. This often ripens into a deep and mature appreciation of the game, but it can be nothing more than the quintessential band-wagoneer—one seldom hears “Oh I root for the X’es because they really suck” (well the original Mets might be an exception.)
A third paradigm involves a deeper understanding of a game. Typically these fans watch a lot of the action away from the ball/puck and have a true comprehension of the nuances whether acts of commission or omission. Avid discussions of pursuit angles, pass or position denial, situational substitutions, change of pace, and secondary options are pretty good indicators that the participants have delved beyond the superficial. Allegiances driven by these facets indicate the following is more than a passing fad. Often these are systemic, and perhaps the most likely shift of such followings are when the system changes, or is transplanted.
Finally, and rather sadly in my view, are the fanatics born of ESPN. Typically they root for what the network shills tell them is important or popular. These are the most shallow, and ephemeral of allegiances. If it is not on a Top Ten List, forget about it. One picture is worth three or four words, and either is about the limit of the attention span of these followers. Louder is better, whether it’s decibels of Stephen Smith, pounds of bling, acres of ink artwork, or chest thumping. Yet these are the networks that drive the ratings, “educate” the fans, and become the carts pulling the sports’ horse.
Oh, are my prejudices showing again? Yet take egos piled far too high for stability, add E$PN, allow to ferment and rot, and you get the Decision. Consider the second and third types of fans. From these we get avid and occasional enraptured observers—a bit obsessive but seldom violent, occasionally strange but not usually dangerous, and typically a threat only to their bank accounts, social life, and employability. On the other hand, the most rabid (and I use that word as an indictment) fans come from the first and last categories. At best we get painted faces and chests, purple and gold lame velour sweat suits, Viking helments, and fur capes and boots in team colors. But occasionally we get stalkers, hate crimes, revenge massacres, and the truly unhinged. And way too often we get shallow, vapid, and altogether meaningless.
Boston, and all points beyond