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September 02, 2009

On Becoming a Team Fan

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Football season is upon us (at last!!). I was at a Seattle Seahawks exhibition game a couple of weeks ago and was surprised how large and noisy the crowd was at a game whose outcome didn't much matter.

I'm not a strong Seahawks fan. Ditto the Seattle Mariners baseball team. As for the late, lamented-by-some Seattle Supersonics basketball team, I did root for them when they won the NBA championship -- in 1979. I pay no attention whatsoever to the Seattle Sounders "football club" soccer team. Double dittos regarding whatever the women's pro basketball team is.

Truth is, I never was more than a sometime-fan of Seattle major league teams.

Why is this so? Some of it has to do with my preference for some sports over others. However, there is a common factor: All of Seattle's major league teams came into existence after I was well into adulthood. And I was in my mid-thirties when the football and baseball teams were established (I'm not counting the one-year wonders Seattle Pilots baseball team that hastily became the Milwaukee Brewers). Alas, Seattle took a long time before becoming a major-league city.

I have this theory that fandom establishes itself most deeply in childhood. When I was a kid, from time to time I'd be taken to see Seattle Rainiers baseball games. The Rainiers were part of the old Pacific Coast League, a short step below the majors. I still have warm feelings for the Rainiers.

The PCL that I knew died when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved respectively to Los Angeles and San Francisco. New York fans of the National League persuasion were in shock until the Mets began play in 1962. While I have the greatest sympathy for fans of the old Dodgers and Giants, I always wondered how they could become serious Mets fans. Nowadays, of course, the Mets have plenty of home-grown fans; a fourth grader who first saw the Mets play in 1962 would now be a 56-year-old getting AARP solicitations in the mail.

You can tell me I'm full of it in Comments. But I probably won't believe you.



posted by Donald at September 2, 2009


I think you're right in your basic point, but the bonding/attachment point may occur later than childhood. Consider my comment to an earlier post about how college football and basketball have more loyal rabid fans than professional teams in either sport. The fans are apparently mostly adults.

My guess is that the bond was formed in a significant proportion of these cases in the college years, and had the same kind of brain-altering intensity as a childhood sports crush that turns into permanent love.

Your point raises a broader question though: moving teams around prevents any kind of early life bonding for now-adult fans in the city to which the team has moved and removes the object of affection from the bonded/hooked fans of the city from which the team has moved. My prediction is that fan loyalty will continue to decrease as teams move from city to city. Unless online fandom somehow becomes possible.

Bonding in youth may also explain why sports like hockey or soccer haven't been able to penetrate the US sports market. The year is already covered by three major league sports: baseball (spring summer fall); football (summer fall early winter); basketball (fall winter spring). Hockey plays right across basketball's season...and basketball has already captured all the fandom. Childhood bonding just intensifies the locking out of other sports.

Second prediction: no major league sports will ever break through if to do so they have to compete with the big three. Bye bye soccer! Bye bye hockey!

You won't be missed at all.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 2, 2009 12:53 PM

Lifelong sports loyalities are part of the reason why there have never been any serious efforts to bring major league sports teams to Las Vegas. Many of the city's residents have moved there from elsewhere and continue to follow the teams from their former hometowns.

Many people are complaining that the Mets' new Citifield pays more homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers than to the Mets themselves. Its main entry is called the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and the stadium itself is modeled after Ebbets Field. The Mets seem to have annointed themselves as the successors to the Brooklyn Dodgers when, of course, they're not - the Los Angeles Dodgers are the successors to the Brooklyn Dodgers. What's more, the Mets seem to have entirely forgotten about the New York Giants.

Posted by: Peter on September 2, 2009 2:11 PM

I'm a Chicago Cubs fan from birth. They were my dad's team. Although Dad never attended the University of Illinois, we were also great fans of the Fighting Illini football and basketball teams.

When I was growing up in small town Illinois, we received broadcast TV in black and white from an antennae mounted on the roof. We could pull in WGN, CBS, NBC and ABC from Chicago and WCIA. That was it. 5 channels! (Mounting a gigantic antennae on the roof was a right of passage back then. Terrifying! And we did it ourselves to save money.)

WGN, even back in the 50s and 60s, broadcast almost every Cub game. So, I felt as if I really knew the players personally. This was the era when the Cubs completely bottomed out. They were terrible every year. But I could name every player and recite their statistics.

WCIA broadcast Illinois football and basketball.

A few times a year, Dad and I made the pilgrimmage to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs and to Champaign to see the Fighting Illini.

I think that The Natural does a great job of portraying the mythic connection of fathers and sons through sports. In my case, my loyalties were inherited from my father. Although I've lived in the New York City area for over 30 years, I've never extended my loyalties to NYC area pro teams.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 2, 2009 4:51 PM

Sports fanaticism is in a lot of respects like religion, I think. Except, from my POV, much more harmless. I grew up in a Steelers household, and didn't care at all about either thing during childhood. Somewhere past 30 something must have been calling me home, as I became more and more interested in watching Steelers football only after that point. Now it's an intense loyalty, and I'm working on indoctrinating my two kids with it.

Tradition's a good thing; I picked the sports thing over the Catholic thing to carry forward.

So anyway I agree with your point, and have been thinking about the same thing lately. I've been wondering about my friends who aren't into sports, whether maybe they simply grew up without the influence of a sports fanatic parent, without a family team.

Of course counter-examples abound, although even there some of them prove the rule. A friend who grew up in a Steelers home became a Baltimore Ravens fan (we're geographically closer to Pittsburgh, but we're in Maryland.) The Ravens as a team only started in Baltimore right around the time this friend was a young teenager; so he had the rebellious thing and the this is OUR generation's team thing going.

Posted by: i, squub on September 2, 2009 10:05 PM

I grew up in a Connecticut city that was primarily Yankees territory but had a fairly substantial minority, one-third or so, of Red Sox fans (not too many people followed the Mets, for some reason). As far as anyone could tell there was no obvious demographic difference between the two groups. It wasn't like, for example, that particular ethnic groups favored the Yankees, or particular occupational groups liked the Red Sox, or anything like that. About the only possible explanation is that people living in higher sections of the very hilly city were more likely to be Red Sox fans, because prior to the coming of cable in the early 1970's they were the only people who could see Red Sox games over the air on Channel 38 from Boston, whereas almost everyone could get the Yankees games on New York TV. It's a neat theory, but alas one that might be more like a urban legend.

Posted by: Peter on September 2, 2009 11:59 PM

It's interesting how much a part family background seems to play. My father died young (at 39, in 1962; I was nine) and I can't recall any great sports interest on his part, though I think he followed baseball somewhat. He made my older brother play little league, but all I recall was being dragged to a few games where the only thing that I did was watch uncomprehending, while bro stood in the outfield picking his nose.

My mother's brother had been a pretty good athlete in his day, as had one of my uncles by marriage. I recall them bitching about the integration of college and professional sports, and since I didn't have any interest in either, it was convenient for me to just pretend that my own disinterest was based on similar sentiments.

The only reason I wasn't a complete pariah among my own cohort was that I was always willing to play (frontyard) football. I doubt that I ever played more than four hours of basketball all told, outside of gym class, and even less baseball.

And since this city was too small for major-league franchises, the issue of hometeam loyalty never came up. To this day, I'm indifferent to all that, as is my son.

Posted by: Narr on September 3, 2009 10:50 AM

As a kid growing up I split time between Connecticut and Maine. There was an annual picnic for Mainers from Washington County (waaaay Downeast) living in Fairfield County that attract hundreds each year. I think CT Red Sox fans can be accounted for in part by all the transplants from farther north in New England who migrated, especially during WWII, to work in the factories, etc.

To be honest, Sundays spent watching Dad screaming at umpires, referees, QBs & coaches as "his" teams appeared on the television combined with a scrawny physique turned me away from organized team sports. I'm a half-hearted, late season, fan of the Red Sox, Celtics & Patriots ... but would fail any test on these teams, the players and the stats.

Posted by: Chris White on September 3, 2009 11:05 AM

To be honest, Sundays spent watching Dad screaming at umpires, referees, QBs & coaches as "his" teams appeared on the television combined with a scrawny physique turned me away from organized team sports.

Now we know, Chris, where you went wrong.

As I tried to relate to you in another post, arguing about sports is far preferable to arguing about politics. Arguing about sports is just good clean fun. Arguing about politics is mean and just gets people pissed off.

You've made some very bad choices in life. Instead of memorizing the batting average of every Red Sox player dating back to Babe Ruth, you've decided to become an expert on international and national political issues. Instead of being an enjoyable, slightly cracked blowhard, you've become a pompous, unbearable blowhard.

There's still time to change. The Baseball Reference online is a great place to learn. There's hope even for you. As in any other aspect of life, the first step is to recognize that change is necessary. Your inner blowhard has some bad habits. Get help. Read the sports pages and toss the news section away.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 3, 2009 3:03 PM

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