“Hence, it’s easier for original fans to dump on newer fans than to tolerate them and hope they advance the cause of whatever they like. I notice this every time I mention the UFC or poker — there’s this bizarre (and totally dismissive) backlash, as if I’m not allowed to watch those sports or even mention them because I’m not a real fan. Well, how do you become a real fan? By liking a sport without disliking the core people who like it. So it’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and as weird as this sounds, the original fans like it that way. It maintains their ownership of the product. When the product outgrows them (specifically in the case of a creative entity), that’s when the core fans start throwing around phrases like “jumped the shark” and “sold out,” mostly because they’re bitter it’s not just them and the product any more.”
-Bill Simmons, July 22nd mailbag.
For all the Simmons bashing that goes on the Internet, here he actually hits on something that is probably bigger than he makes it sound. He called it something stupid (“The Cult of Status Quo”), but the real fan argument is one of my least favorite things in the sporting world. It invades bar arguments, destroys internet forums, and is among the things that makes Yahoo! comments unreadable. The entire idea is knuckle-draggingly stupid- but not because people get bitter and cry sell-out (Shockingly, there’s a difference between sports debate and debate over Simmons’ career). It’s stupid because there’s no good definition of a what true fan is, or should be.
For reference, let’s look at a few hypothetical fans.
Fan #1 is a nearly lifelong fan. The team was good in this fan’s youth, so fandom probably started as a bandwagon thing (kids do that stuff). The quality of the team diminished, but the fan remained, attended games whenever possible. Now the fan still follows closely, and is a decently active member of blogs devoted to the team…which mainly act as a support group. Also, owns multiple jerseys from different eras. Watches only some of the team’s games, but living out of market (and the crappiness of internet feeds) is the main reason for that.
Fan #2 is also a lifelong fan. Instead of picking up the team on his own, he was brought up as a fan by some uncles that happened to be huge fans. He remained a fan, but really became devoted in college, where he had season tickets for five straight years, oddly enough. The team is moderately successful, though it has no recent championships. He still follows the team closely, and is a decently active member of the blogs devoted to the team. He owns two jerseys, and enough other branded clothing to fill a wardrobe on its own. Hasn’t missed a game in person or on TV in years.
Fan #3 has rooted for the team since he was a kid, but fell out of love with the sport years ago. The fandom has been reduced to checking scores and owning a hat. But, if asked, he still will say that he’s a fan of the team. Hasn’t watched a game in years. Team hasn’t won anything since the early 90′s
Fan #4 picked up the team in college, having never really followed that sport to that point. Since then, he’s been to a game, gotten a jersey, learned the sport and…became an active member of blogs devoted to the team. Never missed a game on TV for two years, but broke that streak in the past season due to moving out of the market. Team won its championship the second year of his fandom.
Fan #5 never liked or understood the sport until this past year. He picked a team at random to start playing a career on for a video game. That team went on to win everything that year. The fan watched only one game: the championship.
If you know me well, or just realize that I’m terrible at obscuring identities through pronouns, you know the connection between these fans: they’re all me. In order, my Bills, Penn State, Blue Jays, Penguins and Inter Milan fandom. I’m both a hyper-informed fan (football) and a completely confused fan (soccer, baseball). The question is this- where am I a true fan? For the Bills, I don’t (or, should I say, can’t) watch all of the games, so that clearly disqualifies me. Same goes for the Pens now that I live out of market. I definitely don’t count for Inter or the Blue Jays. That really leaves me with Penn State, unless you feel like I need to follow recruiting more closely. So, even though I’m known as someone who really follows sports, I can make a case that I’m not a true fan of anything.
This is where all sense goes out the window. In the strictest, message board troll definition, a true fan lives for that team and very little else. Depending on the person, they believe a true fan either a) thinks the team will go undefeated every year or b) the team needs improved and will never win in its current configuration. Message board get dismissive the second someone has an opinion that is moderate. How you’re dismissed depends on a lot of things. If you weren’t a fan for [insert bygone era], you’re a bandwagon. If you’re female, you just want to bang the players. If you have realistic expectations, you hate the team and don’t believe. If you have optimistic views, you’re drunk on Kool-Aid. People exist in all of these categories- and some people dabble in traits of them as well- but the names get thrown around too much. Being a fan has become its own competition.
The shame of it is that this matters. Sports fans are constantly frustrated by coverage that panders to a lowest common denominator and a typical fan that’s about as smart as the playing surface. It’s our own fault- becoming a better fan is unnecessarily discouraged by people, making people content to be the guy shouting “SHOOOOOOOT” for an entire powerplay. For sports coverage to improve, that lowest common denominator needs to go up, and more fans need to be inclusive to allow for that.
But what do I know? I’m not a true fan.