A sports agnostic looks at the literature on how people decide whom to root for.
We threw a birthday party for my wife at a wine bar in our neighborhood recently, on a night when there was an Important Football Game happening. While most of our guests chatted and enjoyed appetizers, a handful of men sat at the bar. At first I thought that they were just staying close to the font of booze, and so I went to join them. Then I realized that they were actually watching football.
"You watch the Broncos game earlier?" one of them asked me.
"I saw a little bit of it," I said. "Close one, huh?" I had watched about 30 seconds of the game while borrowing something from my next-door neighbor. I'm pretty sure that was the extent of my viewing of the 2012/2013 NFL season up to that point. My neighbor, a sports-obsessed gay guy, had similarly assumed that I cared about the game, so I had made some vague comments to him as well. You know, so as not to fail at the performance of hegemonic masculinity.
In both of these exchanges, I had that old familiar feeling of not having a clue about something that was supposed to be important to me as an American male. I've finally learned, if pressed on my opinions regarding the latest sporting news, to say, unapologetically, "I really don't follow sports." But my first reaction is still to try to "pass" for a man with a healthy concern for box scores and draft picks, and then change the subject of conversation as seamlessly as possible.
The truth, though, is that while I have a maximum attention span of maybe 10 minutes when it comes to watching any game in which no one I personally know is playing, I'm fascinated by the appeal spectator sports has for so many people. I want to know how they became fans and why I never have. Often, during the frenzy of playoffs, I even consider adopting a team to follow so I can get in on the excitement. The problem is, how do I decide which team to care about?
While sports esoterica is a constant component of online discourse at any time of year, in the run-up to Sunday's Super Bowl, my timelines and feeds have crackled with cryptic pronouncements and predictions regarding characters in a drama of which I am largely ignorant. So this year, I asked my friends on social media about their relationships with the pro football teams they care about. How did they find one another? How did they know that their team was "the one"? Have they ever strayed from their team, or considered giving up on them?
When I hear about sports teams of towns I've lived in, I feel a wistfulness that belies apathy: Oh! The 9ers won a game! I sure miss hiking in the redwoods while not giving a shit about the local team.
My inquiries yielded many interesting and passionate responses, but the three main reasons people gave for following their teams were: a) a family tradition; b) identification with their community or region; and c) some ineffable attraction to the ethos or aesthetics of a particular team (e.g., "I don't know ... I've just always loved the Vikings since I was little.")
Stories that my friends shared about attending or watching games with their families, and how they intended to pass that tradition on to their kids, resonated with me in theory. But I grew up in a transient military family with parents from Montana, which doesn't even border a state that has a pro team of any kind. We have plenty of family traditions that I hold dear, but watching sports isn't one of them. Clearly, if I want my offspring to be involved in a legacy of fandom, I'll have to take it upon myself to be its patriarch and founder. Since there's no tradition of team allegiance in either my or my wife's families, perhaps geography will be how I find a team to root for.
In "The Home Advantage," a 1977 article in the journal Social Forces, Barry Schwartz and Stephen Barsky explain the relationship between fans and their home team thus:
If residents invest themselves in favor of their local athletic teams, it is partly because those teams are exponents of a community to which they feel themselves somehow bound. ... A local team is not only an expression of the moral integrity of a community; it is also a means by which that community becomes conscious of itself and achieves its concrete representation.
I have a good deal of affection for every city I've lived in (or near), and when I hear about the fortunes of their sports teams, I feel a wistfulness that belies the apathy I had toward their teams when I was there: Oh! The 9ers won a game! I sure do miss going to wineries and hiking in the redwoods while not giving a shit about the local sports team. But I can't say that I've ever felt that its team was an expression of its moral integrity. These days, I live in San Diego, and the only feelings that news about a Chargers game evokes in me is an internal alert to stay off of any freeway that leads to the stadium.