It’s no surprise that sports is a field where we encounter moralistic scolding, because sports are a part of life, and moralistic scolds are a fact of life. Examples from the media are well-known. Tut-tutting about professionalism and respect for the game, the concept of amateurism, the Winnipeg Jets dress code. Or, you know, grandstanding about streets filling with blood. It takes all kinds. But moralistic sport-scolds are not just in the media. They’re also all around us, in the fanbases themselves (fact of life, remember?). Fanbases police what it means to be a “real fan” in a highly moralistic fashion. And so bandwagoning, (or glory hunting for the Europeans) has got a bad reputation.
There is some restraint, because bandwagoners might just be newly initiated fans that will stick with their team. And No less an authority than Bill Simmons “only watches hockey in the playoffs.” If THE Sports Guy is okay with being a bandwagon fan, that should, in theory, immediately quiet the moralizers. You’re not gonna out-sports the Sports Guy. And yet, a niggling doubt remains. We wonder whether fair weather fans are like fair weather friends. Well, we should stop doing that, because bandwagoning is not immoral, and, also, it’s actually fantastic. That’s part of the reason it’s disliked, of course. You can say it’s the Puritan heritage of hating any appearance of hedonism. Or you can say it comes from the Catholic belief in the nobility of suffering. Take your pick. In either case, the mechanism is the same, and it’s plain to see that it shouldn’t apply to sports. But though disliking bandwagoners for religious reasons is misguided in itself, it’s doubly unfortunate because bandwagoning makes the team you cheer for better, as well.
Sea! Who? Sea! Hawks!
I believe this to be true, because I have compared the real fan experience with the bandwagon experience personally. I am a “real” fan of the Vancouver Canucks, and a “bandwagon” fan of the Seattle Seahawks. Last year, I started caring about the Seahawks right about the time of their game with the 49ers, and followed that up with joining around 80 extremely drunk, high, loud and happy people (with all four qualities increasing as the night wore on) watching the Seahawks demolish Denver in the rec room of some kind of modern condo complex. I then went to downtown Seattle and yelled “whoo!” and high-fived people. I got very hoarse and developed a sore throat, but it’s okay, because later I had some delicious throat-soothing soup. Also, that was over a year ago, and the expiration date for whining about being slightly physically uncomfortable is definitely under a year. The point is, I watched two games, and they were both filled with positive emotions because the Seahawks won. Maybe I was on my way to becoming a fan.
To become a respectable sports fan, I would have then had to learn about the team. Follow its ups and downs. Learn about the Percy Harvin controversy, agonize about the game against Dallas.
I didn’t do any of that.
In fact, I didn’t watch a single Seahawks game until the Superbowl. And then, conveniently, I jumped right back on the bandwagon. I dressed in blue and green. I filled out a Superbowl bingo card (Car ad which you can’t tell is a car ad until the last five seconds? Check! Announcers saying “unbelievable” for something that was highly believable? Check!) I bet money. I cheered when the Seahawks scored. I cheered every televised instance of Marshawn Lynch or Richard Sherman. I whooped and hollered when Jermaine Kearse made that ridiculous catch. And then, when a short slant to Ricardo Lockette was intercepted, well, I was pretty disappointed. But then, I saw people staring into walls, going for long nighttime walks, throwing things, drinking away the pain with shitty vodka, or worse. Some dude destroyed his TV to just to make a viral youtube video. And me? I was fine. Whereas, if the Canucks had a 2 minute five on three in overtime and then unexpectedly gave up a shorthanded Stanley Cup winning goal… well, then I would not be fine. Hell, when the Canucks lost to the Sharks in the first round of a series they were never gonna win, I wasn’t fine.
Part of the disdain of bandwagoners might have to do with this. You get to partake in all the good, and shake off all the bad. But such a good deal can’t come for free, so the price of admission might be some ribbing. And to this component of anti-bandwagoning, I say fair enough.
Bandwagoning and Character
The additional disdain for the fair weather fan, though, the one that comes from valuing loyalty, is not reasonable. Those that say bandwagoners are being like those terrible people who stopped loving and cherishing as soon as their partners got sick, poor or … uhh, bad, I guess? I mean, now we have to be reminded every time someone gets married, so it must be pretty important. Abandoning a team every time it’s not the best, the theory goes, is like being one of those shitty friends in “Nobody wants you when you’re down and out.”
Except it’s not. A team is not a person – you’re not hurting its feelings being venal. Maybe sports teams had that connection with the community at some point in history, but nowadays it seems quaint. You’re not going to meet your team on the sidewalk begging for change with a reproachful eye. But the bigger issue is that by sticking with a team through thick and thin, you’re not helping the team get better. By corporate logic, the absolutely reverse is true. Of course, the players are probably going to be trying to win regardless, but to a large extent it’s up to the owners to invest in making the team good, and up to the general managers to fulfill that mission. There are only two possible motivations for a team’s front office to do everything for possible for team success. The owner’s hubris, and the bottom line. How else, then, than by rewarding the team when they’re good and punishing them when they’re bad, can you, as a fan, make the team better? Maple Leafs fans throw jerseys – trying to play to the hubris of… Rogers and Bell, I guess? But throwing jerseys is weak. A corporation like Rogers isn’t going to mind that you threw a jersey – to the contrary. It’s great for jersey sales: you’re probably just going to go and buy another one. On the other hand, not buying a jersey in the first place, not buying merchandise and not going to watch the team – all that – does affect the bottom line. In other words, being a fair weather fan motivates your team to be good to try to keep you. So if you love something, let it go.
The Trials and Tribulations of the True Fan
But the true fans who suffer through the disappointments and the rebuilds, won’t their patience be rewarded when their team triumphs? Maybe, but maybe not. This is another place where convention has failed to catch up with modernity, at least in North American professional sports. In a 30+ team league, there are bound to be lifelong fans who never see their team win anything. And given the inherent advantages some teams have, it might be even worse for fans of some teams – generations without winning. Being a true fan may mean you become the sad-sack spectacle that is the fanbase of the Chicago Cubs. And when, a century or so later, that victory does happen? The pitiable misery of a Cubs fan immediately turns into aggrieved douchiness that is the hallmark of the worst kind of sports fan: those Red Sox people.
Another reason bandwagoners are looked down upon is that they act like they know what they’re talking about. To fans who actually know what they’re talking about when they talk about sports, this is highly annoying. But looked at from a broader perspective, it’s fantastic, because there is suddenly this shared feeling of community. What happened in Seattle was that nearly everyone started talking Seahawks to random people they met. Black, white, old, young. Sitting on the bus, and going through the aisles in the grocery store, Seahawks conversations spontaneously sprang into being. The Seattle Times devoted its front page to a Super Bowl related topic for two straight weeks. Is that myopic, and a colossal journalistic failure? Of course it is! But it was also part of this brief glimpse of a small community that has come together for a common purpose – something that big cities generally lack and are always trying to create. It was an exciting time. And it was bandwagon fans that made it happen. I couldn’t tell, because I don’t actually know anything about football, but it sure sounded like they didn’t know what they were talking about. But when asked why sports should matter in a world where there is so much more going on that is so much more consequential, one answer I can give is that sports are about building a community. And if we really care about using sports to build community, the fellow feeling that comes from a town full of bandwagoners is huge and wonderful.
And Yet And Yet
So does that mean that I should stop being a fan of the Vancouver Canucks until there’s a bandwagon I can hop on? For me, as I suspect is the case for most fans, “should” doesn’t enter into it – if you’re actually a fan of a team, it’s hard to turn off. And, of course, though I’ve been minimizing it in this post, real fans gain something, too. I watched the highlights of the Seattle-Green Bay game, but that’s nothing like seeing the game itself would have been. The greatest feeling I ever felt as a sports fan was watching the Burrows “dragon-slaying” goal. In a bar in Seattle. By myself. Surrounded by Hawks fans. I remember the tension, the goosebumps, and the feeling of every part of my body seemingly disconnected and even kind of numb. I remember the drunk phone conversation with Zuuko afterwards. If I was a bandwagon fan, I wouldn’t have even tuned in until the Stanley Cup final. Is that goal worth slogging through 5-1 regular season losses to San Jose with Luca Sbisa playing top-4 minutes and his performance being referred to gently in the Smylosphere as “surprisingly unterrible”? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s not totally up to me. But what I do know is that I’m not going to get on a high horse if someone decides it isn’t. And you shouldn’t either.