The Five Stages of Sports Fandom

Fandom is a weird thing. It’s a cross between hopeless optimism and brutal fatalism, with a touch of immolation and joy sparkled in. It causes grown men to wear overpriced jerseys so they can look more like the players on the field. Vacations, road trips, weddings, and Bat Mitvahs are planned around it. Marriages have been lost and gained to it. People lived by it an people died by it. Fandom is as unexplainable as it is weird. It fills a void as much as it acts as a common demoninator between wide varieties of people across race, financial, and every other divide in the world. 

But what forms do sports fandom take? I’m going to hone in on sports fandom because I don’t watch superhero movies. I saw the first Transformers movie and decided, “you know what, this is where i’m going to check out.” If you are reading this and shreiking “Transformers isn’t a super hero movie. How dare youuuu!” Yes, it is you fucking dork.

Sports fandom is just as nerdy. And if you don’t believe me, go to a sports memorabilia convention in the middle of July and tell me sports fans don’t smell as bad as Avengers fans.

::Side Note. Why is it that the most hardcore fans of something are so hardcore that they forget to bathe regularly or wear deodorant. Superhero fans, sports fans, and god help us, wrestling fans. Go to an independent wrestling show at a VFW hall during the summer. It smells like someone murdered and then set a skunk on fire. ::

When you break down sports fandom, fan bases generally fall into five archtypes: optimistic, pessimistic, confident, inertia, hopeless. Luckily for us, there are five professional sports teams in Chicago, with one falling into each category. Let’s look at each archtype through the eyes of Chicago’s Big Five sports.

Confidence-Chicago White Sox

Sports fandom confidence is the knowledge that your team is good and expectations are now far beyond simply getting good. It’s to take the next step and be great, then stay great. It’s the knowledge that national sports writers acknowledge you as being in the upper echelon of your sport. It’s having multiple All Stars that give you the feeling that your team can win any day. It’s the feeling that anything less than a deep playoff run will be considered a dissapointment.

The 2020 Chicago White Sox were a fun team. They had the reigning AL batting champ in Tim Anderson, a human boom box who brings fun times and good spirits to a traditionally stodgy sport. They had Jose Abreu, who went from being a traditionally underrated player into becoming the 2020 AL MVP. They have young mashers in Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. They have a stacked pitching staff. They are ready to spend money in free agency. They have expectations going into the 2021 season.

That feeling pours down to fans. They walk with an extra swagger. When your team is good, you know it. Having a good team is an extension of you. The White Sox are built to be good for a long time and that inspires confidence. Buy your throwback jerseys. Rock the vintage cursive C hat. Fight Royals first base coaches. You have earned this feeling. This feeling is at the top of the Sports Fandom Food Chart.

Optimism-Chicago Bulls

Okay, i’m cheating  little bit. Bulls fans have generally felt pretty jaded over the past couple decades. It’s very difficult to go from the Jordan years to two decades traveling in the wilderness, lead by bumbling idiots named Paxson and Foreman. 

Optimism for a team is generally the post script to a team cleaning house. Coach? Gone. General Manager? Gone. Getting a new start from new people in charge generally leaves fans feeling like maybe, just maybe, this will be the jumpstart to something better. By firing Gar Foreman and Jim Boylan, the Bulls effectively took the two people who were worse at their jobs than anybody in the NBA, and created goodwill by kicking them to the curb. Just the fact that I don’t have to see Jim Boylan, most notable for looking like a giant schlong in a suit while screaming on the sidelines, out there actively making his players worse, feels like a breath of fresh air.

Fandom can be very easily appeased when the blood of those who they deemed to have failed the team run through the streets. We are fickle by nature. Firings are a good way to satiate the savageness of our desires. 

Optimism can also be attained by having a terrible team and getting the top pick in the draft. This of course only applies to the NFL and NBA, where top picks generally play immediately and their development in and of itself gives fans hope. Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best thing. In sports, hope is usually the forebearer to confidence.

Pessimism-Chicago Bears

If the Bears win on Sunday, they make the playoffs. If the Arizona Cardinals lose on Sunday, the Bears make the playoffs. So why does this all feel like one extremely uncomfortable dry hump? Because of pessimism, my friends. The Bears have bum slayed their way to a three game winning streak, putting them on the precipice of making the playoffs. Of course, before that three game run was a six game losing streak that had all of the excitement of watching a clown get murdered in slow motion. There was the part where they got embarassed by the Packers. There was the part where they got embarassed on national television by the Rams. There was the part where they were embarassed by not knowing how to run out a clock against the Lions.

After spending way too much time refusing to admit that Nick Foles was total ass, the Bears then spent way too much time refusing to admit that Adam Gase’s offensive playcalling was total ass. Now it’s Mitch Trubisky and the awesomely named Bill Lazor. We have been hurt by Mitch before. Maybe he has it figured out. Maybe a massive win against Green Bay on Sunday will be the jumpstart this team need to make a deep playoff run. I, like most fans though, just don’t see it happening. I’m just…i’m just too damn pessimistic about it.

Sports fandom pessimism is the expectation that things will go wrong and the blood lust that will hopefully lead them to optimism. Pessimism can go any which way, but it always feels so hollow, because you always have one foot off the boat. You almost feel guilty rooting them on, because you know that making any kind of push will lead to the retaining of management and will inevitably lead to the one man rowboat scenario: a team just paddling in circles, going nowhere.

Inertia-Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks built up an insane amout of goodwill by being a legitimate dynasty. Winning three titles in six seasons is not something Chicago fans have been expecting since Michael Jordan retired, got fat, and joined the Wizards. The Blackhawks gave us three parades in a decade. While the Cubs and White Sox were flapping their arms in the deep end, trying not to drown, the Bears were getting Trestman’d, and the Bulls were wasting Jimmy Butler, the Blackhawks were the picture of stability. With legitimate stars in Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, they had the Madhouse on Madison rocking for a long time.

That cheering is just echoes in our heads now. The team got old. Bloated contracts against a puny salary cap in the NHL made it impossible for them to get better on the fly. Long gone is the team that could contend for the title each year, replaced by a kind of old timers day that plays 82 games per season, reminding us of what once was. Beyond that, Jonathon Toews is out with an illness that could cause him to miss extended time this season. Former first round pick and bright spot for the future Kirby Dach is out for the season with a wrist injury. What’s left is a team that just can’t keep up anymore and simply gave away too many years worth of contracts to too many guys to really have a way out.

Inertia means we aren’t rooting as hard. It also means we aren’t necessarily mad. We are just happy for the ride and hope we can do it again sometime. It also means that the Blackhawks jacked up ticket prices to such an unreasonable level that the stadium is going to be half empty for a long time. We will always support, but maybe it won’t be the most important thing on our tv. Maybe it will be on a background tv at the bar. We will look up occasionally and smile when they score a goal. We’ll be back. Just give us a reason…or lower ticket prices.

Hopelessness-Chicago Cubs

Have you ever been on a roller coaster and you are racing downhill and you fan feel your balls in your stomach, and for a brief moment, you think you might die? Take that feeling, and extend it out forever. That’s what hopelessness feels like. It is more common than you think in sports fandom. New York Knicks fans have been feeling this for decades. Detroit Lions fans have felt this for generations. Cubs fans are currently feeling this. After watching their team make the League Championship Series three years in a row, and winning a World Series in 2016, the Cubs are making the very unpopular decision to tear down the team and actively be bad for a long time. This, of course, is a land grab by ownership, taking their savings from not paying players, and keeping that money for themselves. Hopelessness is helplessness and sadness all wrapped up into one terrible Snuggie. 

Hopelessness takes many forms. Loathesome owners (Dan Snyder in Washington, James Dolan in New York), incompetent management (Lions, Mets, Buffalo Sabres), bad luck (Red Sox before they become just the most awful type of confident, Buffalo Bills), and just plain not mattering (Seattle Mariners, Jacksonville Jaguars). But it’s hopeless, all the same.

In the end, that’s what maybe being a fan is all about. The hopelessness that is met with the occasional feeling of optimism, anger, and ambivalence. Being a fan is about taking the bad and hoping for the good. It’s all very masochistic, really. We could spend our time learning to paint, making love, or lighting bags of poop on the door steps of our enemies. Instead, we choose to root for teams that could not care any less whether or not we exist. It all feels just so very, very, very pessimistic.

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