Root for the Home Team, Part 1

A two-part feature on how we choose the teams we root for.

There are books — or at least one book — on why and how fans follow sports, but our interest here is why fans follow specific teams.[1] As far as I can tell there are three reasons:

Geography

Though our sporting culture would lead you to believe otherwise, geography is actually the least important of the three factors, particularly now. The relationship between geography and sporting fandom is looser than it has ever been. The lure of the “home team” has never been weaker. You already know how this possible — hint: the Internet — but the why is trickier. If our primary sporting loyalties aren’t based on geography, then where do they come from?

My first sporting love was the Atlanta Braves. At age eight, baseball was my favorite sport, and Atlanta, at just under three hours, was the closest city with a major league team. The newspaper my family subscribed to covered Braves baseball, and at the time, they were still on TBS every night, so I could watch all the games but the West Coast ones, which always started past my bedtime. They were, no doubt, the home team. But only one of those reasons contributed to my becoming a diehard Braves fan at the time — the fact that baseball was my favorite sport. As kids, we tend to follow the teams closest to our geographical location for reasons other than geography.

Community

In my case, the first of two deciding factors was that two of my very good friends in the neighborhood were also Braves fans. We could watch afternoon games together then go out and pretend to be Greg Maddux and Chipper Jones[2] while we were having a catch or playing Wiffleball. They got me into it.

Even as an eight-year-old, fandom was a social experience. It brought me closer to my friends. In other instances, it can be a bonding tool between parent and child, uncle and niece, cousin and cousin. When you go to college and start rooting for your alma mater, it’s not because they’re suddenly the closest collegiate athletics program; it’s because everyone else around you is doing it too.

Parental and familial loyalties tend to win out: If you live in Alabama but marry a Redskins fan, and have no prior NFL loyalty, then there’s a good chance you’ll inherit that fandom. If you grew up in Georgia with a diehard Red Sox father, then you probably turned out to be a Red Sox fan. My parents didn’t care about baseball, so I followed the lead of my friends, who had inherited their fandom from their parents.

Curiosity

The second deciding factor for me was that the Braves in 1995 were a fun team to follow. With a front-end rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, we felt like we were going to win three out of every five games we played.[3]Maddux especially was a joy to behold; at 6 foot and 170 pounds, he went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA and won the Cy Young Award without ever looking like he was trying. He wore glasses in the dugout on his days off. He could have been any of us.

This is curiosity, taking an interest in a team because we find that team or a player on it interesting. There could be any number of reasons for why we find them interesting, most of which are also reasons for finding a team entertaining. You’re entertained by a player’s or a team’s playing style, respect the work they’re doing off the field, their coach went to the same high school as you, you enjoyed Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” you like the team’s colors or logo, anything. Most bandwagon jumping happens as a result of curiosity. Say you liked the look of Blake Griffin’s monster dunks or the University of Oregon football’s spread option/blur offense or FC Barcelona’s Incredible Machine attack and became a fan of the team for a period. That’s bandwagon jumping motivated by curiosity.

Curiosity especially can be a fickle motive. Every fandom has an inciting incident and a moment where the interest in the team deepens, a reason why the fan hits the point of no return. For instance, for two or three years starting in 2003, I was a Detroit Pistons fan. The inciting incident for that was an ESPN the Magazine cover story on the Pistons’ Ben Wallace, the 6’7” toque-afro-wearing center who won four Defensive Player of the Year Awards and led the league in rebounds and blocks despite giving three to ten inches to many of the players he was guarding. Wallace was a badass, and I rooted for his team because of him. But there was never any deepening moment; I never passed a point of no return with them. By the time Wallace signed with Chicago in 2006, I’d already left him and his team behind. I’ve already written here once before about my feelings towards Andy Carroll and Newcastle: the same basic principles apply. 

Stories of fans’ inciting incidents range from the perfectly logical to the completely absurd. I talked to two Arsenal fans and members of the NYC Arsenal supporters group, Kurtis and Brett, last year in New York who shared theirs. Brett’s came in 1998, when he visited Arsenal’s stadium at Highbury for a December game against Leeds United. “I saw Dennis Bergkamp play and score,” he says. “It was different from any American sports atmosphere I’d ever been around.” Kurtis had his interest in Arsenal piqued by, of all things, the 1992 Morrissey album “Your Arsenal.”

“Brett hates this story,” he tells me by way of preface.

“It’s completely fucking random!” Brett responds.

And it is, but that’s okay. Kurtis didn’t become an Arsenal supporter because of Morrissey. He became open to the idea of supporting Arsenal. Kurtis’ inciting incident — the Morrissey album — was a matter of curiosity and so was his deepening moment. In the late 1990’s his Arsenal fandom took root, thanks again to Dennis Bergkamp. “There was something about him,” Kurtis told me, pausing between phrases trying to think of the words to best sum up Bergkamp. “He looked cool as shit. He made everything look like…he made it look simple but he made it look like, ‘I meant to do that.’ Even that Newcastle goal. Some people will debate, like ‘Ohh he didn’t mean to do that.’ But he made it look like he did.”[4]

Wes first caught onto Aston Villa when our mutual friend Steve Paget — an exchange student from Birmingham, England by way of St. Andrews University in Scotland — needed a ride to the Brewhouse Café in Atlanta to watch Villa draw with Everton.

His deepening moment didn’t happen until that summer, when he roomed with Adams and played lots of pickup and FIFA in the evenings while the 2008 European Championships, which was a pretty good tournament to watch anyway, was going on during the day. That summer intensified his interest for the game, until one day he found himself looking up how Aston Villa was doing in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which he says pretty much clinched it. “The moment I became a fan was the first moment I thought to myself, ‘Let me go on to ESPN.com and see how Villa is doing in this really obscure competition.’”

The Internet allows the link between team and fan to flourish regardless of geography. Without the tools it provides, Wes couldn’t have followed the team in the Intertoto Cup or kept up what he describes as “24-hour attention to the team” for a period.[6] In lieu of Internet video feeds, he would have had to go to the Brewhouse for every game or invested in some kind of premium cable package if he wanted to see more than the one or two Villa games a year ESPN would have shown starting in 2009. This is all generally accepted, common knowledge, so self-evident it hardly needs to be explained.

The trickier part is how all this applies to American soccer. We’ll get to that next week in Part II.

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[1] We’ll assume a certain basic enjoyment of the sport being played.

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[2] Often at the same time, which meant our fantasies amounted to batting practice

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[3] This tendency to refer to the team as “we” is what the psychologists who study this kind of thing, and there definitely are psychologists who study this kind of thing, refer to as BIRG — Basking In Reflected Glory.

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[4] Kurtis, Brett, and I reached an agreement that he definitely meant to do it.

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[5] He describes it thusly: “My senior year, it was like I’d wake up every morning, open Google reader, check all my feeds. I’d get pretty pumped for the weekend, wake up early regardless of how much I had drunk the night before, drive out to the Brewhouse to watch the game, come back, share with my absurdly indifferent roommates, and then proceed to read stories about the game.”

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4 Responses to Root for the Home Team, Part 1

  1. toosoxy says:

    I grew up in Florida with diehard Red Sox parents- so I know exactly what you mean! Live in North Carolina- now an adult diehard Red Sox fan. Great observations.

  2. Pingback: Root for the Home Team, Part II | The Other 87

  3. Pingback: Root for the Home Team, Part III | The Other 87

  4. Marvin says:

    Hey great article! Im actually having some sort of sports identity crisis at the moment. My whole life my father raised me a Chicago sports fans because that was his hometown team. I was a military brat so we moved every three years. I never had a hometown so I rooted for all my fathers teams. By the time my dad retired and we settled in Maryland I had already had strong roots for the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, and Cubs. I’ve been a Chicago sports fan my whole life, but Now I’m 23 have graduated both high school and college and have been in Maryland for almost 10 years. I consider myself a Marylander I even live in downtown Baltimore City, but how can I ever have a real connection with my hometown if I’m forever a Chicago sports fan? All my friends are Baltimore fans and I’m surrounded by them. I wish I could just be a Baltimore fan but Chicago sports is such a big part of my life growing up and I can’t let it go. How can I deal with this issue? It’s live I’ll never experience the sense of Baltimore pride if I remain a Chicago supporter… Please bring some insight.

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