It is something that so wholly encompasses the sports fan’s consciousness that it seems second nature. Yet it is one of those things that the fan rarely thinks about as he goes about his daily existence. Rooting for his team or teams, year after year, there are precious few occasions on which he finds himself questioning why he continues to offer his support, year after year.
Naturally it cannot be this way for every sport. On the track, or in the swimming pool, the golf course or the tennis court, we watch individuals exhibit their brilliance outside of the framework of a team setting. Even sports like cycling and Formula 1 racing, which ostensibly exist as team enterprises, are subject to the whims of sponsorship, each fluid in its composition and utter existence. New teams arrive on the scene as old teams die off, the sponsor’s money fading away toward other uses within the advertising budget. With no long-standing institutions for which to root, we fanatics can, without reservation, embrace or detest the actual athlete in question. Long-held biases are held only for as long as that athlete remains in the public consciousness.
And that is not to say that the team sports lack their personalities. Boy, do they ever have their personalities. But our level of tolerance for them is tempered by our own loyalties, our own proclivities, our own deep-seated biases and preferences for this team or that team. A change of uniform can work wonders for a person’s popularity within communities in a situation like this.
After the events of the past week, it seems sensible to discuss the most vivid personal example of this phenomenon to occur within my lifetime. Born in Wisconsin to a family that had lived in the state for generations, I was instantly ingrained from that portentous birth into a lifetime of Packer fanhood. So when the backup quarterback came in for Don Majkowski in the early 1990s, I had already been cognizant for half a decade of failure on the squad. The Majik Man was supposed to be the redeemer, but his injury in that November game all those years ago was to be the spark that initiated a new era of altered fortunes for the franchise, always proud yet at that time wholly beleaguered by decades of futility.
That man, Kiln’s finest, was of course Brett Favre. The gunslinger from Southern Miss proved just what the Packers needed, bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay for the first time since the era when the trophy’s namesake was dominating the NFL. Of course, it didn’t hurt having the Minister of Defense himself in the trenches via free agency, nor the absurd return-man wheels of Heisman winner Desmond Howard. But this team, during my formative years through middle school and high school, was unmistakably defined by Favre.
Toward the end of his tenure in Green Bay, the endless waffling sure grated during every offseason. Yet there ol’ Number Four would come, tractor wheels smoldering after the haul from the Deep South toward Lambeau Field, every season a measure of dependability. And then… retirement seemed to finally strike.
Only that wasn’t the gameplan at all. Favre was simply being shunted aside for his understudy, no Majkowski injury at least offering the easy excuse for the team to jettison such a vital part of their decade-long return to the upper echelon of NFL franchises. Only, instead of accepting the offer to remain a Packer for life –adored by fans both within the state and, like myself, in the greater diaspora of Packer Nation — he instead felt the pull to play still consuming him… and off to New York he went.
I could handle this change. While I would no longer be actively pulling for Favre, I also could begrudge neither the man’s desire to milk a few more years out of his body in a profession with an incredibly finite window of opportunity for success, nor the desire of Packer management to finally unleash their next franchise quarterback and play for the future once more with Aaron Rodgers. I wished him the best; though unlike some fans I’d seen, buying up those Jets jerseys to go with their vintage Favre wear in green and gold, I wasn’t about to go plop down the money to see an old idol’s name splashed across my back in another team’s colors.
The transformation, from hero and athletic idol… to appreciated, understood former member of a favorite team… to villain was completed last year for me. No longer could I respect Brett Favre after he A) engineered his retirement from the Big Apple in much the same hand-wringing way he’d treated the Green Bay faithful for the past decade, and B) did his usual about-face and returned to the game. Only this time, just like the year before when he’d worked his way out of Wisconsin, he was going to find himself a new destination.
The problem for anyone who ever pulled for Green Bay? He locked his sights in on the Minnesota Vikings.
Which brings us right back to that question: Why do we root for the teams that we do?
There are essentially four types of fans in any fan base, in how they came to their particular favorite team:
- There are the lifers, people who live in a community their whole lives and are indoctrinated from the womb into a culture that reveres their local heroes at the expense of those beyond the city or state limits. Rooting for one’s team in this situation is a matter of civic pride, of local loyalties, tethering one’s emotions to the fortunes of the athletes who represent their backyard. It is the purest way of coming to a rooting interest, just one facet of a wide-reaching identification with a specific place.
- There are those who are attracted to one team or another based on a parent’s penchant for a certain squad. They might live thousands of miles from their parental homeland, yet those loyalties die hard and are passed down through the generations. So dad’s barometer of support goes up or down for these guys or those guys? Thus does the son, the fan, feel the same highs and lows as their family members have before them.
- There are those that turn toward rooting for a given franchise simply from living in a place for long enough, soaking up the atmosphere and adopting a team as his or her own. Whether an alma mater, or simply the only athletic show in town, there is a visceral connection to that community. Even if one gets displaced from this locale later, the lingering passions may remain.
- And then there are the front-runners and other bandwagon routes to a favorite team, clingers on the sides of the cart toward success. This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the lifers, with a personal connection to a locale of little consequence. Instead what matters most is vicarious success, to be found wherever it can be snatched conveniently.
Of course there is always the matter of rooting against a team, but this is more often than not a matter of reverse fanaticism. We root for a random team to beat our rival; we root for a random team to beat another team because it will help our own favorite out in the standings. And in this day and age, when tomes are penned seasonally and shows are filmed about fantasy sports, many fans are veering toward a system of individual fanaticism that somewhat circumvents team loyalties. Hell, I will talk about how technology influenced one of my own current teams in a bit.
But first let’s take a sport like football. We already know how I got to my Packers complex; the same holds true for the Wisconsin Badgers, a team for whom my father — who never spent a single class period attending the school in Madison — rooted long before I reached the world. Had my father not accepted a job two thousand miles away from Wisconsin, these teams would have fallen under the first type rather than the second. But the Cheesehead was ingrained into me thanks to television and later the internet, and old stories about the team told orally and in writing, and it stuck for what I know is a lifetime’s destiny no matter how far I stray from Portage County.
But move we did, when I was five years old, to the Equality State, and I found myself gradually drawn toward the exploits of the Wyoming Cowboys as I grew up and began combing the weekly Sunday Denver Post we’d get for the summaries of all the football of the weekend. Inevitably coverage drifted toward the Buffaloes and Rams, and thus I had plenty of reading about what then was the WAC in the days before the Mountain West split.
That all came to a head during that giddy, yet ultimately unrewarded, 10-2 season that Marcus Harris, Josh Wallwork and the Pokes put up en route to losing the inaugural (and short-lived) WAC championship game. Despite double digits in the win column, though, the Cowboys were sideline fodder as the bowl games arrived and went that season, and I was left to cherish those precious few bowl appearances the team from Laramie does get to make once every few years. I’ve made it to the Border War, sitting in the stands for tight wins over the Rams in my giant brown foam cowboy hat. Thus I still to this day find myself identifying with Wyoming, rooting for the team despite many hard and lean years for the team, and revel when they do discover a modicum of success.
And then there’s Oregon, which also falls under the title of teams adopted just like Wyoming. After having come to work on the University of Oregon campus here in Eugene almost five years ago, and working amongst students all day who extol the virtues of the school’s sports teams, it wasn’t a stretch to catch myself pulling for the Ducks. The deal only became sweeter as they vaulted themselves from the exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows of the Dennis Dixon era on through Jeremiah Masoli and now Darron Thomas. They’ve gone from Pac-10 afterthought to national titlist in the half-decade I’ve spent in Lane County.
Thus, WOW… I find myself especially drawn to Wisconsin, Oregon and Wyoming box scores every Saturday evening during football season (considering how rarely I actually get to WATCH the games). And when the NCAA basketball tournament rolls around, this admittedly lukewarm fan of the hardcourt becomes exponentially more interested for every one of these schools that reach the final field.
But what about those teams overseas, that other football, the soccer clubs I find myself following? Why did I pick the teams I did, all those years ago, and latch my fortunes to their own?
Last season it paid off for me when Inter Milan captured their first UEFA Champions League crown in four decades. But why did I pick Inter, instead of any of the other teams around Italy, when I started following Serie A in my teenage years? Why did I start following any of these soccer teams, for that matter? What is it about Newcastle United that arouses my emotions? Why do I root for Glasgow Celtic, or Real Madrid?
When it comes to these leagues, to overseas sports, the non-traditional sports fan in America has to draw upon often arbitrary and rarely logical means for selecting favorite teams. In the case of Newcastle, my father — who growing up was the IT director for a resort in Grand Teton National Park — had an assistant one summer when I was approaching high-school age who was a Tynesider. His enthusiasm for the Magpies quickly converted me from a neutral fan to a Newcastle supporter. So that may very well be the closest thing I have in soccer to a logical rooting interest that fits within the first three criteria above.
As for Real Madrid… it all came down to one man: Davor Suker. I’d fallen hard for the Croatian national team that took third place in the 1998 World Cup — and not having a favorite team in Spain, I decided to pick the one for which the Croat captain and that year’s World Cup Golden Boot plied his club trade. Of course, as soon as I set my sights on the capital city’s most famous squad, they pretty much stopped playing Suker despite his hot summer on the international stage set up in France. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to stop rooting for the team.
Celtic was simple: Are you a Protestant or a Catholic? Having been baptized and raised as the latter — despite by that time in my life reflexively turning away from that sect and drifting further and further from it to this day — it was a natural to pick Celtic. I certainly wasn’t about to be a Rangers fan, and in this case the frontrunner/bandwagon principle came into play. I just couldn’t bring myself to start pulling for Hibs, or Aberdeen, or any of the other teams that are ultimately afterthoughts most years in the Scottish Premier League.
Inter was a different story, though. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t stand the politics of their crosstown rival’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi. Maybe it was the roster they had at the time… though most of those players elude my memory at this time. But it went beyond merely choosing against another team. Looking back at the story of Internazionale — how they were founded as a cosmopolitan counter to the insular world of the main Milanese club of the time, an egalitarian place where players from around the world were welcomed into the fold — it fit soundly with the communist theory dictating many of my thoughts at that point. Latching on to the nerazzurri could in retrospect look like a frontrunner move as well, yet at that point it was AC Milan and Juventus who dominated the league discussion. Even with a squad boasting guys like Ronaldo, and Angelo Peruzzi, and a grip of starter stalwarts for their respective national teams, they never seemed to have that cohesion to burst past the two main clubs of the moment.
And yet that barely touches the surface. Take a team like the Montreal Canadiens, who I remember rooting for way back in grade school. At the time they were in decline, yet still a historic powerhouse. One part the fanaticism of a distant cousin I rarely saw, one part the bandwagon phenomenon for a team that would ultimately win but one Stanley Cup after I started following them, I still find myself pulling for the Habs to this day. I’ve never been to Montreal… hell, never been to Canada aside from British Columbia, yet the bleu, blanc et rouge get me every time.
Or the fact that when I moved to Portland, and attended culinary school, I developed a Western Conference allegiance for the Vancouver Canucks that lasts to this day. Why, you ask? Well… it is as simple as this: the only other hockey fan in my class that numbered but a baker’s dozen, the only other guy I could tolerate (and in his case, actually befriend), is a Dallas Stars fan from Corpus Christi, Texas. Our only diversion that entire year of school was a copy of EA Sports’ NHL 2003, acquired that year from my family for Christmas.
We needed a compromise team that we could follow through the seasons, build into a dynamo and then watch over ten seasons win accolades not seen since Montreal’s glory days in the postwar period. And so we picked the most proximate franchise to our current location.
If you’ve read the column with any regularity over the years you know of my own Canadian proclivities. It isn’t to say that I denounce America as a nation or a homeland… rather I find I simply espouse more Canadian values and thought processes in my daily life. I guess, growing up in a fishbowl of snow for half my formative years, it all just made more sense the further north one went.
And so we settled on Vancouver. We watched all those seasons while reading, while writing out homework, while tasting wines and cooking dinner, my future spouse tolerating all this away time as she went through her own matriculation at the school I’d departed. The seasons dragged on, those Canucks got stronger and stronger, and we forged a lasting bond with a team… through the magic of a video game playing itself after we’d played co-GMs and manipulated the roster and lines to our mutual liking.
And after all these years, after that one season of following the real Canucks in the Portland Oregonian at the same time we played out season after virtual season on a 15″ laptop monitor, my buddy and I still call one another to this time and talk hockey at least once a month. Rarely does the conversation drift, at least once winter has hit. It is uncanny how sports can bring us together sometimes…
Often we find that our rooting interests are an amalgamation of several factors. Spliced together over the years, the fanaticism takes on a greater significance, less rooted in a fleeting fancy and more ingrained in the realm of serious pull. And while being a lifer might be the purest, least questionable of ways to come to finding a favorite, even the bandwagon cannot be discounted. In many cases the bandwagon can serve as an entryway; the real question is whether you stay on or jump off when the wagon hits turbulent ruts along its ride.
We all have our reasons for rooting the way we do, some easily recognized and some less so. Whichever way one gets there, he or she is still tapping into that vein of vicarious pleasure and pain that is the provenance of the dedicated viewer. And while the faces and names are bound to change with the years — some even venturing onto the rosters of rivals — the crest on the front of the jersey remains constant. Our choices link us on the chain of history, past-present-and-future, guiding our interest in a sport along the way.
This is but the beginning of a broader discussion, by no means definitive or codified at this point. Please leave your input on this subject; it will be expanded in the near future. And may this help you come to grips, as all true fans should, with just why we continue to love the teams that we do. After all, it is that passion forged over years both lean and plentiful that bonds us with that link through time, whatever it may mean to us and however it may have originated…