Katie Martin

American Sports Needs More Fair-Weather Fans

Why you should root for great teams and great players—and abandon your sad-sack local franchise

When I was 10 years old, I was brainwashed. It was a perfectly legal maneuver. My uncle, who lived in New York City, observed that I liked to play baseball and took great care to impress upon me the superiority of the Yankees. This was the mid-1990s, an auspicious time to be hypnotized by pinstripes. Led by a telegenic talent who shared my first name, the team achieved dynastic dominance before the end of the decade.

I grew up in McLean, Virginia, some 300 miles from the Bronx, but my parents stood by and allowed the indoctrination. My mom regarded sports the way a vegan looks at a porterhouse steak, while my dad’s appraisal of the Washington, D.C., sports scene was straightforward: The Redskins were sinfully bad, the Bullets were worse, and hockey was too boring to merit an opinion. Lacking an appealing hometown team, I became a kind of free-agent fan, seeking out teams—the Yankees, the Miami Heat, the Indianapolis Colts—with likable stars. A winning percentage north of .500 didn’t hurt, either.

And so, without intending to adopt any sort of triumphalist attitude toward sports, I became that most despised of figures in the eyes of the diehard: a fair-weather fan. For most of my life, this has been a heavy shame. I have muttered shy apologies to friends for not standing by the hometown teams, even as most of them failed to escape the vortex of mediocrity.

But I’m done apologizing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m right and everybody else is wrong. Rooting for winners is more than acceptable—it’s commendable. Fans shouldn’t put up with awfully managed teams for decades just because their parents liked those teams, as if sports were governed by the same rules and customs as medieval inheritance. Fans should feel free to shop for teams the way they do for any other product.

What I’m proposing here is a theory of fluid fandom that would encourage, as opposed to stigmatize, promiscuous sports allegiances. By permanently anchoring themselves to teams from their hometown or even an adopted town, sports fans consign themselves to needless misery. They also distort the marketplace by sending a signal to team owners that winning is orthogonal to fans’ long-term interests. Fluid fandom, I submit, is the emotionally, civically, and maybe even morally superior way to consume sports.

Fair-weather fan is a slur I have long endured but never understood. (Only in a country with tens of millions of citizens rooting for regular losers based north of the 40th parallel—in such climes as Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis—could one sneer at the idea of “fair weather.”) The accusation is typically leveled by members of the many wretched tribes of sports addicts whose allegiances are dictated by geography or some cruel family curse. When Charles Darwin wrote of man bearing “the indelible stamp of his lowly origins,” he referred to all Homo sapiens, but the phrase might better fit its most sorrowful subspecies: people who still watch the Cleveland Browns.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the May 2018 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

I can hear the critics now: What of loyalty? What of the ecstatic, once-in-a-lifetime feeling of having endured decades of failure only to be present at the championship moment?

When I hear “once in a lifetime,” I think: Only once? Why is fleeting happiness a worthwhile trade-off for decades of agony? The belief that eventual victory will bring lasting happiness is a classic delusion; behavioral psychologists chalk it up to the “durability bias.” People assume that all sorts of positive events—a promotion, a wedding, a championship—will punch a ticket to permanent happiness. But no such ticket exists. All life is suffering, as Buddhists and Buffalo Bills fans will attest, and the suffering of sports fans is a biological fact. Studies led by researchers at the University of Utah and Indiana University have found that self-esteem, mood, and even testosterone levels plummet in male fans after a loss. Why relegate yourself to such misery?

One of the stronger arguments for unconditionally supporting even bad local teams is that doing so fosters a civic union that transcends class, politics, and other divisions, making small talk possible across otherwise unbridgeable divides. But this serves more aptly as an argument for the unifying power of sports than for any particular allegiance—many of my most entertaining sports conversations have been colorful exchanges with Red Sox fans. If anything, being a Yankees fan is a boon to sports banter; try getting somebody outside of Maryland to talk with you about the 2018 Baltimore Orioles.

Rather than fostering civic bonds, blind loyalty makes our cities worse. Millions of people pledging unconditional devotion to any business threatens to imbue it with monopoly power. This power is plainly corrupting.

America’s professional athletic leagues are essentially cartels. By prohibiting cities from having too many competing teams, they obligate fans to support local powerhouses owned by billionaires who use fans’ undying loyalty as emotional leverage for municipal extortion. Many of these owners make ludicrous financial demands of city and state governments. London, by contrast, has more than a dozen professional soccer clubs that move up and down through various leagues; as such, none are viewed as civically essential, and local governments tend not to subsidize their stadiums.

Katie Martin

According to Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has written prolifically about the financial aspects of sports, state and local governments in the United States have spent up to $24 billion on professional, amateur, and college stadiums since 1990. That is far beyond any sum the community value of a team could justify. In fact, some studies suggest that sports franchises might have a small negative effect on economic activity and employment. Not only do their stadiums tend to offer mostly part-time or temporary work, but they funnel local spendingwhich might otherwise go to an array of restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, and cinemas—into the pockets of millionaire athletes and billionaire owners.

When fat-cat owners aren’t begging cities for money, they’re raking it in from you, the ever-loyal fan. In the 2016–17 season, when the New York Knicks went 31–51, the team nonetheless received $10 million more from television deals than the NBA’s six lowest-earning teams combined, because millions and millions of fans refuse to give up on an owner who has repeatedly insulted them with poor management and ragtag teams. The Knicks haven’t made the conference finals in the 21st century. But what urgency does James Dolan, the Knicks owner, feel to build a more competitive squad when he knows that you and Spike Lee will be there through thick and thin?

Of course, a devoted fan base doesn’t necessarily give rise to a crappy team; the Yankees are almost never bad. The point is that unconditional devotion permits incompetent management to go unpunished. In a world of more-fluid fandom, Dolan couldn’t count on inelastic demand for his terrible product. Last summer, on draft night, with the Knicks holding the eighth pick, Dolan skipped the event to play a gig with his blues band. This man is not loyal to you. Why are you loyal to him?

For most of American history, sports allegiances have been determined by an arbitrary synthesis of birth, geography, and media exposure. The devotion of many baseball fans had less to do with star wattage than literal wattage. In the mid-1920s St. Louis debuted a 50,000-watt AM station, KMOX, which floated the play-by-play of Cardinals games across the middle of the country, from Peoria to Texas. Many Americans became fans of the Atlanta Braves not because their home was in Atlanta, but because Atlanta was in their home: The Braves were purchased by the television mogul Ted Turner in 1976 to fill hours of nightly programming for the widely carried cable network that became TBS.

Whether or not traditionalists approve of it, however, a new age of fandom may be emerging, one that is less arbitrary and shifts the balance of power to fans. For starters, fantasy sports allow anyone to build teams comprising athletes from across a given league. Inevitably, fantasy sports muddy hometown alliances by encouraging people to root for stars outside their media market, stars whose success might well come at the expense of the local team. What’s more, because fantasy teams draw players from all over a given league, they require users to follow an entire sport, pulling attention away from any one team and its traditional rivals.

Abandoning the hometown team is hardly a sacrifice in an age of sports-viewing packages—MLB at Bat, for example, or NBA League Pass—that allow people to pay a flat fee and see most games around the country. These packages make it easier to root for far-flung teams.

Seismic shifts in the leagues themselves are also accelerating change. Savvy coaches and team owners, many supported by advanced analytics, trade players when their value peaks, even if that means shipping off hometown heroes still in their prime. It’s a business goes the standard defense of such moves. In the past, players have been pilloried for having the gall to pursue their own self-interest, financial or otherwise, in choosing which team to play for. But that stigma is disappearing. Stars now routinely use their free agency to maximize their salary or shop for championship-contending teams, challenging the assumption that they owe a vassal’s fealty to owners who themselves display no such loyalty. In turn, fans are further encouraged toward a more Marxist view of the sporting world, where allegiances flow through labor (individual players) rather than through capital (franchises).

Some might fear that my proposal will lead to a new age of inequality in which everyone roots for the winners, leaving struggling franchises to wallow in the basement. I’m not too concerned. American sports have a Marxist tradition of their own, in which leagues redistribute the wealth of successful big-market teams and otherwise encourage parity. The poorest teams receive the equivalent of welfare paid out of shared television revenue, and the poorest-performing teams typically get the top draft picks. What none of these teams will get, if fluid fandom catches on, is a guarantee that local fans will watch and attend games should teams fail to invest those handouts wisely.

After the New York Yankees, my most embarrassing fair-weather allegiance is to LeBron James. In 2016, James won the NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in a dramatic seven-game series. With blanched knuckles, I watched the final game from a New York City bar with two brothers of Iranian descent whose parents lived in Puerto Rico. None of us had the slightest connection, ancestral or autobiographical, to northeast Ohio. But when time expired, we screamed in joy, jumped up and down, and embraced total strangers. A traditionalist would argue that we’d cheated by cutting to the front of some imaginary line snaking toward such championship glories. Sure, maybe I enjoyed the victory a bit less than some long-suffering Clevelander. But unlike that fan, I’ve got James’s 2019 title with the Los Angeles Lakers to look forward to.

This article appears in the May 2018 print edition with the headline “In Praise of Fair-Weather Fandom.”