The gravest insult that can be levied against any sports fan is to accuse them of “jumping on the bandwagon” – the act of becoming a vocal supporter of a team while they are in the midst of a successful run.
In Boston these fans are known as “pink hats” – an inherently sexist term that conflates pink-colored Red Sox hats with casual/fair-weather fandom. When the Sox were in the midst of their 2004-2007 glory days (2 World Series Championships, Yankees suck, etc., etc.) they became the most popular team in town (again). Suddenly everybody was sporting Sox gear, trying to score tickets to Fenway, and talking about the team. This period coincided with the proliferation of apparel variants: throw-back uniforms, crazy-colored hats and other merchandise that was designed merely to sell more crap to more people.
The line was clearly drawn in the dust: either you were a diehard fan that knew everything down to Dustin Pedroia’s suit size (boy’s 20, by the way) or you were a poseur that was stealing tickets from the real fans.
In other words, it all came down to authenticity. Were you an authentic fan that deserved to enjoy the team’s success or not?
The real problem was that the authenticity of fandom was usually determined based on fantasy sports criteria: knowledge of players and stats. Now I have nothing against fantasy sports. If you want to spend endless hours studying every player in the league so you can potentially gain some bragging rights among your loser friends, go for it. Some of us don’t have time for that jibber-jabber because we have prestige cable TV shows to watch and overly analyze on the internet.
But is it really the case that the only authentic fan is the obsessive fan? That the only way to enjoy a team’s success is if you study everything about the players, team and league? Is there no place left for the casual fan?
Growing up in New Jersey I felt no strong attachment to any particular team. I liked the Steelers because they were bad-asses that won 4 Super Bowls. I liked the Reds because Pete Rose was my favorite player and I thought the cartoon Mr. Red was cute. They were both successful teams at the time, so I was obviously a bandwagon jumper without even knowing it.
When we moved to Boston in 1986 I easily switched my allegiances to the Boston teams. Why not? I had no strong attachments, Pete Rose was outed as a scumbag, and I enjoyed being in a city with such great sports traditions. I have supported the Boston teams for 25 years now and plan to support them for the rest of my life.
However, while my support remains strong, my interest level certainly waxes and wanes with each team’s general performance. Does admitting this cheapen my fandom? I always support my teams, but my level of interest varies with the season.
For example, I’ve watched a ton of Celtics games over the last 5 years but couldn’t care less about them this season. Why? Because they are obviously an under-manned team that has little chance of winning. I’ll still watch some games (when Top Chef isn’t on) but I won’t get too emotionally-invested in them. Now, if Dwight Howard shows up in town before the end of the season and they make a run, I’ll get involved. Does that make me a bad fan? A bandwagon jumper? Or does that just make me someone who makes thoughtful choices about how I’d like to spend my entertainment time and dollars?
Being a sports fan is an easy guise for any guy to adopt. Society expects guys to be sports fans. But to most sports fans it’s not enough just to be a fan, you have to be a diehard, an obsessive. You have to be a fanatic.
Well, I’m here to say that that’s just not true. Watching professional sports is a form of entertainment. And like any other form of entertainment it’s not up to other people to determine the value of your relationship or the depths of your personal enjoyment.
This phenomenon is definitely not limited to sports. Most sub-cultures demand obsessive devotion. Among Grateful Dead fans this odious game is called “deader than thou” where the measure of your fandom has nothing to do with how much the music means to you or how much you enjoy it, but how many shows you’ve attended, how many bootlegs you possess, and how much minutiae you can recall about some random Playing in the Band performance from 1973 (obviously the best year because no Donna).
In the end what it comes down to – as it almost always does – is identity. Die-hard sports fans identify themselves by their attachment and obsessive devotion to their favorite sports teams. It becomes a part of who they are –oftentimes, a large part. And they are threatened by people who seem to be enjoying sports as much as they are without putting in the same level of work or investment. And when their team wins they want to feel special, they want to feel like they are being rewarded for their investment. They deserve to celebrate the victories, because they worked for it, damn it, regardless of the painful reality that their efforts had absolutely nothing to do with the results.
So does that mean that there is no such thing as bandwagon fans? No, of course there are bandwagon fans and they’re awful people that deserve your scorn and ridicule. But there’s a huge difference between bandwagon fans and casual/fair-weather fans. Here are some simple guidelines for telling them apart:
Do you have a legitimate connection to the team’s home city?
If not, then you’re probably a bandwagon jumper.
Do you root against your hometown teams?
If so, you’re most likely a bandwagon jumper (and definitely a douchebag).
Do you change allegiances frequently?
If so, then you are a bandwagon fan and you need to stop. Just pick one and go with it.
Do you lose interest in certain sports at times?
In all honesty, that’s okay. The internet has ruined our brains so thoroughly that no sober person can make it through an entire baseball game anymore.
Casual sports fans: don’t be intimidated by the diehards. You have every right to follow and enjoy your team in the manner that is most appropriate for your lifestyle.
Diehard sports fans: you are not on the team. You have nothing to do with the team’s successes or failures. Playing fantasy sports and obsessing over stats is a hobby, not an investment.
There’s plenty of room on the duck boats for all of us.