Monday, November 8, 2010

Fan Identity and Team Choice

How does one become a fan? Choose an allegiance? Decide that you’re going to wear bright green, or purple and gold, or paint your face orange and black? In many cases, these allegiances are decided for us—handed down via familial loyalties or decided by geographic boundaries. I raised this question on Twitter a few weeks ago, and the results all indicated that team alliance is linked to one’s point-of-entry into fandom: if you begin watching Team A and learning about the sport via Team A, and your network is tied to Team A, then you’re likely to become a fan of Team A. And like all habits, longstanding fan ties are difficult to break.

ResearchBlogging.orgBut is acceptable to support Team B if you live in Team A territory? Particularly if Teams A and B are rivals? Initial ties are important in this scenario. It’s fine if you move to the Midwest from Massachusetts and want to continue to support a New England team—you’re maintaining loyalty to your geographic origins, and that’s totally acceptable. There’s a reason for you to break with the group. But in the absence of relocation, can you support a team with no apparent ties to the location or network to which you belong?

S is a HUGE New England Patriots football fan. It runs counter to our network where the New York Giants and the New York Jets reign supreme—and an allegiance to either would apparently be preferable to siding with the evil Coach Belichick and his platoon of Patriots. He’s a Met fan in accordance with the reasons given for team attachment by others: he comes from a line of Mets fans, and was raised in close proximity to the former Shea Stadium. There is both a network connection and a geographic connection that ties him to this baseball team, but his football allegiance has raised more than a few eyebrows and subjected him to taunts and criticism from colleagues, friends, and family alike. In football, he’s a displaced fan.

Michael Miller argues that fandom is an outlet for expression that may be lacking in the fan’s day-to-day life (1997: 125). In these contests where there must be a winner, the game offers a finiteness that often is not attainable is the norms of the average fan’s life: workers do not “win” at the end of eight hours, and in relationships, there are no measures of “familial performance” (1997: 124). Furthermore, Miller argues
The joy and beauty of being a fan ultimately derives from the fact that his/her allegiance can never be effectively challenged. A sports fan is never challenged for holding his/her views as he/she might be for being a Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, Capitalist can be. These latter identifications are supposed to be represent deliberate choices often reached through intellectual inquiry, investigation, thought, and decision. This is not the case with the fan whose very being is characterized by an emotional attachment that cannot be rationalized. The fan is never required to justify his/her “faith” in a player or team (1997: 126).
But this is only true when you fit with the prevalent group—unless you have good reason (i.e., relocation) for breaking with the norms. S is constantly questioned and taunted when the Pats lose. Which I suppose is to be expected in any town that has a deeply rooted sports tradition.

Pat Patriot, logo for the NE Patriots
from 1961 to 1992. © NE Patriots
S became a fan of the Pats when he was about eight years old, well before they had their string of Super Bowl wins in the 2000s. When asked today why he supports the team he invariably replies, “It’s the Patriots!” The term to him is filled with nationalist imagery—"Aren’t we patriots?” is a favorite counter question he likes to pitch. He believes they should be America’s team. He also says, as an eight-year-old he was swayed by the logo and the colors, but the Giants, a local team, also share similar colors, so by this argument were it not for the logo he should have favored the Giants. But S was actually introduced to football outside of the normal familial team alliances, which could help explain his out-group association: His father, though a Giants fan, watched a lot of 49er’s football by way of introducing him to the sport, and those early years of fandom must have been immensely influential. This experience may have allowed the normal bonds of fandom to be bent.

Over time athletes and teams come to represent the public they play for, and fans believe that they can sway the outcome of these matches through their actions. It’s why we don the gear, paint our faces, and persevere through times of loss. Sports are one means by which we leave our mark on the larger world—and this “we” includes the spectators, the fans who are participants in their own right. Sociologists Raymond Schmitt and Wilbert Leonard III (1986) raise the concept of the “postself” as a means of explaining this belief. The postself is “the presentation of his or her self in history” (1088). The idea is that via our actions and choices—the teams we support and their performance—will impact how we are remembered.

The postself, Schmitt and Leonard argue, drives athletes, but because sports is a social experience, the postself of the athletes can possibly be extended to the participants:
Although we did not find unequivocal evidence that fans identified with the athlete’s postself, this foes remain a distinct possibility. Caughey has emphasized the extent to which American fans identity with various types of media figures … “Through their simple connections with sport teams, the personal images of fans are at stake when their teams take the field. The team’s victories and defeats are reacted to as personal successes and failures. Another investigation found that 28% of 1252 adult Americans said that they sometimes, often, or always fantasize that they are the competing athlete when watching their favorite sport (1099).
Support of a particular team allows us to become a part of that team’s victories and losses—our histories become intertwined. I’ll never forget Endy Chavez’s catch as a Met that kept hope alive in the NLCS in 2006. It was the catch heard ‘round the world. With so much uncertainty in our lives and in the world, perhaps these are the small ways in which we author our history and identity with some degree of control.

S has chosen a team whose logo and colors carry a message about him and his beliefs. It's no different than his decision to cheer for the Mets. In latter instance however, he has been handed a prepackaged view on what the team represents to the group and has adopted those views later in life as his own. In the former, he has created his own representation. In both cases, these teams constitute his personal history, and will comprise his postself. And since sports are a large part of his life, his participation is something that will figure prominently in his biography though it runs counter to the expectation of his peers.

In a post called Us, Them, and Non-Zero Sumness Patrick Clarkin did a fantastic job a few weeks ago analyzing intergroup conflict in sports. Drawing on Muzafer Sherif’s 1954 experiment, Clarkin leads the reader through a discussion on the way competition helps to exacerbate conditions of otherness. In situations where there must be a victor, such as in sports, a zero-sum condition emerges where the success of one group necessitates the failure of another group. In this setting, rivalries and conflicts emerge as a means of achieving the goal of success. In non-zero interactions, both parties gain something. Clarkin writes:
When two groups are interdependent, attitudes toward each other tend to shift toward the better.
S has positioned himself willingly outside of the group in this instance, and he’ll have to take the lumps that come with it. But though team alliance can be fixed, the experiment above suggests that team support in the larger picture (playoffs or championships) may leave room for these sorts of allegiances to be tolerated as people enter into temporary alliances for the duration of playoffs and championships.

Are you a “displaced” fan? Share your story with the AiP community below.

Update 12/06/10: An interesting post that discusses some of the points we focus on above: The Color Purple.

Photo by David Morris from Pexels

Miller, Michael (1997). American Football: The Rationalization of the Irrational International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 11 (1), 101-127

Schmitt, R., & Leonard II , W. (1986). Immortalizing the Self Through Sport American Journal of Sociology, 91 (5) DOI: 10.1086/228387


  1. Hi Krystal,

    I have recently added you to my blog reader and decided to kill 2 birds by commenting on this post and introducing myself. I am a biocultural medical anthropologist at U. South Carolina. I grew up in Louisiana, attended LSU, and am a huge Tigers football fan. I got my PhD from Bama, did my post-doc at UF, and am now here at my 4th SEC school. Many of my friends are also huge SEC fans and have gone to or taught at these other universities. I constantly get teased about my support of LSU as a faculty member at SC. It is because of this that I have my office covered in LSU paraphernalia. I have attended LSU football games at all 3 of the other universities and luckily LSU has won each time! I love the good-natured rivalry and even post on sports blogs with the tag line "The USC Cocks pay my bills but the LSU Tigers have my heart."

  2. Hi Erica,

    Thanks for following along. It's amazing the ways sports can bond us to places and help define us. I've been reading and writing about this since my undergrad days. I'm glad to hear your office is true to your heart. I wonder if a "failure" to convert may actually reflect in some way on one's character -- perhaps making the individual appear more authentic. In any case, best of luck to LSU this year. I'm a Tarheels fan myself ... I believe you all whipped us back in September, but our record hasn't been too bad this year!

  3. I think the Patriots' red white and blue colors read very differently from the Giants' blue and white - patriotic versus corporate, you might say.

    I wonder if the changing media landscape makes a big difference. A generation ago, most games in sports other than pro football were not televised (or not "free" TV), but local teams' games were much more available than others. This is no longer true; it's now possible to follow any team pretty closely.

  4. I agree that the colors are being read differently—S readily made that association for the Pats, though I am sure the old logo and the team name didn't hurt the association for an eight-year-old (i.e., "I'm an American so I'm supporting these guys.)

    I actually was just reading about the ways that media helped establish sports as a part of the family living room landscape. The Miller article above deals with this idea particularly with reference to MNF—I may write more about this. But the idea that the local team games are more readily available can definitely be a factor. It most certainly is a source of frustration for S on Sundays when the Pats are playing an out of market game.