Confessions of a bandwagon sports fan
This baseball season I cheered for the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland A's, the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Mets, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the ice, I've rooted in the last year for the Vancouver Canucks, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the New York Rangers; I once screamed for Canada to pummel the U.S. in the Olympics because I happened to be visiting British Columbia that weekend. I had the uncomfortable experience of wanting both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA championship in June. In fact, the only sport I don't have torn allegiances in is football, having made up my mind to stick with my hometown Seattle Seahawks (but honestly, it's only because I can't muster up the energy to care about football for extended periods of time).
And yes, I know, I've heard it before — I'm doing sports fandom all wrong.
Consider this my confession: I'm a bandwagon fan and a transient fan, a reputation-ruining combination that makes me illegitimate in the eyes of any "real" fan who's rooted for the same team for more than a few years. Instead of sticking it out with my home team during the rain and shine (and, as a native-born Seattleite, there has been a lot more rain than shine), I change my allegiances to follow the fair weather. I live in New York and the Mets are going to the playoffs? Well then sure, count me in.
In fact, I have been a Mets fan for precisely 103 days. That's how long it's been since I went to Citi Field for the first time since moving to Queens. The Mets were facing the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, who pitched a perfect game into the seventh while the Mets' Bartolo Colon allowed five hits. The Mets lost. And yet, there was something about being in a stadium in a city I was enthusiastically beginning to claim as my own that made the blue and orange sea feel welcoming and addictive — even if the team we were all rooting for got creamed. Born and raised in Seattle by Seattleites, I should be — and mostly am — a Mariners fan. But why can't I have the Mets, too?
I'm pretty new to fandom. Between the ages of about eight and 19, I wouldn't have been caught dead caring about sports, mostly because I didn't think it was "cool." Actually, it wasn't until I moved across the country for college that I started to warm to sports; it might have been a maturity thing — realizing I didn't have to be cooler than people who cared about sports — or perhaps it was a longing to feel a connection to a community when I was so far from my family and oldest friends. Some people join book clubs or take yoga classes or volunteer at pet shelters when they move to a new place in order to meet people: I started following Oakland A's trades and talking about it on Twitter.
And then this summer, I officially became a New Yorker, with the Mets' Citi Field a short subway ride from my front door. Settling into my Mets fandom has become as essential to me as settling into my new apartment and job. It's a little like learning a new language, one that opens up opportunities for interaction that might never have been noticed before: an instant bond that renders an aloof city friendly. A Mets shirt can get me a knowing nod, a wave, a "let's go Mets" called out a car window. Nothing quite brings people together like shared competitiveness either: "So how about that game?" is always a better place to start a conversation than some observation about the weather. And, best of all, in absorbing the home team as my own, nobody knows I'm new: I could have been a New Yorker my entire life. Instead of feeling like an outsider, I'm instantly on common ground.
When revealed, my rather unorthodox and transient sports fandom has been met with the occasional "you can't do that," as lifelong sports fans patiently explain to me that you don't root for the team in the city you live in, you root for your team, the one you've always had and always will have and from which you will never waver or stray. You know, the team from the city you were born in, or the one your parents passed down to you, like some sort of musty heirloom. Sports scolds tell me I should stick to rooting for my hometown Mariners, who now hold the crown for the longest playoff drought of any Major League Baseball team, and leave the orange and blue to professional sufferers who are only now getting their due.
The idea, I suppose, is that in order to fairly enjoy a team's victories, you need to have been initiated through masochistic years, or maybe decades, of disappointment. But as Stacy May Fowles, who defended this year's Blue Jays bandwagon fans in Toronto, put it so well:
The kind of people who look at new fans with disdain are nothing more than grown-up versions of the elementary schoolboys who wouldn't let you into their cool-kid clubhouse. Gatekeeping is never a good look, and what defines a "real fan" could possibly be one of the most boring topics of conversation in the world after people explaining their dreams. [Torontoist]
I'm far from being alone in my wibbly-wobbly loyalties; bandwagoning is widespread and natural, which is likely part of what drives the diehards crazy. As The New York Times observed (likely to the ire of many a long-suffering Mets fan), there was a time not so long ago when every ZIP code in every borough of New York City was Yankees-controlled; since the Amazins got good, however, quite a few ZIPs have flared up with newfound Metropolitan fandom.
Is that so wrong? Really, what better way is there to be introduced to a sport than by watching the excitement and build-up around a team that's on the rise? What better experience than the delicious thrill of what if...? Isn't it that very hope and wanting that makes sports so great and worthwhile in the first place?
And to be more mercenary about the whole thing: Even diehard fans have to agree that there's nothing inherently bad about a team being popular. Popularity means more ticket sales, a more valuable franchise, more money for the team. Is it really so bad to let interlopers like me support your precious team? What, exactly, does it cost you to share the joy of fandom with others?
Not everybody is on board, though. Cue the Sports Guy:
"Honestly, I just can't understand it. You cannot root for two teams at the same time. You cannot hedge your bets. You cannot unconditionally love two teams at the same time, when there's a remote chance that they might go head-to-head some day," Grantland founder Bill Simmons once bemoaned in a column titled "Rules for Being a Fan" (and yes, there's an entire section laying out the rules of "loyalty"). And sure, maybe he has a point: Two of my baseball teams, the Athletics and the Mariners, are in the same division and play each other a lot, which has led me to construct a complicated mental schematic of who to root for when.
What's more, I can concede that one of the best parts about sports is when a team is more than just a team, when fandom becomes a metonymy for a location, a proxy for a place. Being loyal to the home team is being loyal to your roots, to the people and traditions you grew up with and were shaped by. (A lot of time and energy, in fact, goes into figuring out why fan loyalty is so strong and unique. Unlike brand loyalty, where customers will abandon ship if the quality of a product drops, fans will stay loyal even if their team has spent a century shut out of a championship). But here's a 21st century reality check: In 2014, a full 17 states had more residents born out of state than in, perhaps not so surprising since the average person living in the United States will move 11.4 times in their life. To say a fan should remain monogamous to a single locale is antiquated, belonging to a different century, since more and more people are likely to be on the move.
Then there's the added absurdity of "rooting for clothes," as Jerry Seinfeld once rather aptly joked of sports fans whose only true loyalty is to the uniform, and not the players in them. This "rule" makes it so I can't cheer for my favorite players once they've been traded to loathed rivals — and it makes no sense if you think about if for more than two seconds. The talent — players, managers, and coaches — are constantly being shuffled around. Fans get stuck crowing for a brand more than anything else. Which is nonsense because, in the end, sports are about the people.
People, actually, like me. The fans. And as I'll champion relentlessly, fandom comes in all shapes and sizes, durations and degrees. I'm grateful to the diehards who, after initially rolling their eyes, were willing to debate Daniel Murphy's vulnerability against inside pitches with me; I'm grateful to the diehards who made space for bandwagoners; I'm grateful to the diehards who understand that it's not about who's been miserable the longest so much as it's about the fact that we're all really excited right now, and we're in this together.
In fact, I'm starting to get awfully comfortable in my Mets fandom, despite their heartbreaking World Series loss. I even went as far as to splurge on a Mets jersey a few weeks ago, which I guess means I'm in this particular fandom for the long haul.
Or, at least until they start losing.