I'm Considering Becoming a Sports Fan—How Do I Pick a Team?

A sports agnostic looks at the literature on how people decide whom to root for.

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AP (Nick Wass / Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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?

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.

The third reason that my friends gave for their loyalty to a team--an inscrutable attraction--was the most difficult for me to get my head around, but it eventually made some sense to me in an absurdist way. Family and regional connections to teams seem solid enough on their faces, but they become more tenuous when examined with any degree of cynicism. How can a franchise "represent" your family or city given that players, staff, and even owners are quite mercenary about their own loyalties? Players rarely hail from the cities where their teams are headquartered and bounce all over the map depending on the whims of the marketplace; and owners will sell a team in a heartbeat if it makes financial sense. It's just as reasonable, then, to love a team because their logo is cool or their color scheme is pretty.

In an article in Journal of Sport & Social Issues called "Franchise Relocation and Fan Allegiance," Michael Lewis examines the nature of fans' identification with their teams in the context of said teams leaving town. He finds that only a slim majority of fans in his sample group are motivated by "civic allegiance" and refuse to support a team that deserts their city. The number of fans who have "symbolic allegiance" is surprisingly high. Lewis has theories that account for the ratio of civic to symbolic fans in regard to specifics of their respective teams, but what's interesting to me is how he explains the motives of the symbolically allegiant fans:

Thus, whereas some fans find that rooting for a particular team brings them together with their local community, for other fans, rooting for a sports team helps set them apart from members of their local community. In the first case, the sports team is still a collective representation of a fan's identity as a resident of a particular city, whereas in the second case, the sports team is a representation of the individual's unique identity.

So, in theory then, I could find a team to follow that would express my own individuality, rather than my affinity for a city where their stadium happens to be located. That sounds more like my style. But how do these symbolic fans choose their teams? Lewis explains:

In addition to having no current affiliation with their favorite team's city, many symbolically allegiant fans claim no past connection either. Unlike the stories told by civic fans that connect their childhood memories in a particular city with their love for the local team, symbolically allegiant fans locate the beginning of their support for a team in a unique personal experience.

There's my problem. I need a unique personal experience to connect me to a team. I had thought that if I casually followed football for a while, I might find a team that's right for me. But without a favorite team, following football is essentially just lying on the couch drinking beer for the equivalent of a full work-day every week.

In my capacity as a dad blogger, I've been offered several opportunities to hang out with football players and make pilgrimages to sacred NFL sites in connection with various promotions. Could this be the universe trying to create a unique personal experience for me? Maybe next time I'll pay attention. A dad-blogging junket might not be a strong enough fan origin myth to make me comfortable expressing my individual identity in a local sports pub, but it will probably be all right for the wine bar.