An Inquiry Concerning Bandwagon Fans

I’m reposting this from Big Leagues Monthly: Daily Edition. You can find the original here.

I have never been a Giants fan, despite living most of my life in the Bay Area. I was a Yankees kid through and through, and for the most part, I’ve never really been able to emotionally invest in another team, baseball or otherwise. Yet for the past few weeks, I’ve found myself helplessly caught up in the Giants magic. Though my allegiances remain with the Yankees, the Giants have taken hold of my emotional attention.

This probably isn’t an alien notion for many of you. As a Yankees fan, I’ve been privileged to see my team make the playoffs almost every year, so I normally don’t have the time or emotional capacity to spread my roots to another team in the playoffs. But I would imagine that fans of teams with less financial ability have an easier time finding a team to root for once theirs is eliminated.

*I’m not sure what has made this year different in that regard. It probably has to do with a combination of the Yankees losing in such a dreadful manner, the Giants’ social media (see, Twitter) presence, and my increasingly sophisticated interest in baseball.

This is all well and good. But what happens when the playoffs end, when the team is either eliminated or crowned champion? Well, at this point, there are three possibilities for those who had a rooting interest in said team:

1. Cease to root for the team next season, regardless of their success.

2. Maintain interest in the team as long as they are successful, but stop caring when they do poorly.

3. Become a loyal fan of the team, continuing to follow and cheer for them through thick and thin.

Now, some of these options are obviously more favorable than others. Yet in each of them, one could conceivably be labeled as a “bandwagon fan”. After all, regardless of the option, this fan “jumped on the bandwagon” of a team, primarily because they were winning.

Let’s start with option 1. This is probably the group that I’m in with regard to the Giants. I’m having a ton of fun cheering for them right now, but I know it won’t last. Sure, I might be slightly more interested in their goings-on next season, but I won’t have an active rooting interest in the team like I do right now.

Is that bad? Am I a bandwagon fan for caring about the Giants right now just because they’re winning (in a spectacular fashion I must add)? Well, possibly yes to the second question, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m a baseball fan, after all. Though my love for baseball originates from, and is anchored by, my love for the Yankees, the former is absolutely not limited to the latter. I find joy not only in watching baseball as an observer, but in participating (in a broad sense of the term) as an active rooting interest. Sports are more fun when you care about who wins. Why criticize those who care about a team other than their primary one?

Option 2 is more cut and dry. These are people commonly known as “fair-weather fans”. They root for a team when they do well, and ignore them when they do badly. There’s no true commitment – all the “fan” wants to do is see their team win, and nothing else. Most committed fans hate this group, because they make the rest of the fans look bad by having what they perceive to be a fake interest in the team.

At this point there are a few points I want to raise. First of all, I think that fair-weather fans take too much flak. After all, they are presumably supporting the team by buying merchandise, going to games, watching games on TV, etc. In doing so, they help the team to raise revenue and continue being successful. Yes, it’s unquestionably annoying when these fans pretend to be “true” fans, espousing their unwavering commitment to the team, only to stop following them when they stop winning, but there’s nothing wrong with getting excited when your team is successful and it’s understandable to lose interest when they aren’t.

This leads to my second question – what’s the relevant difference between #1 and #2 above? Aren’t fans of the second variety just fans of the first variety who continue to cheer for the team until they start losing? Why is it better to just stop caring when the playoffs are over than to stop caring in a year or two when the team is unsuccessful?

Here’s my answer, though I won’t profess to be confident in its veracity: when you make a conscious decision to be a fan of a team, you are making a commitment to that team that goes beyond simply cheering for them for one season or just when they win. In professing yourself as a fan, you are committing to a certain level of involvement and awareness of what happens to the team and you are promising that you will not cease to be a fan just because the team is unsuccessful. You aren’t saying that you’ll always be a fan of the team, or that you’ll cheer for them no matter what, but that your loyalty to them is independent of their success.

“But Matt, that doesn’t resolve the issue! What makes the second option so much more than the first?”

Well, dear reader, here’s the catch – people who are in the first camp, and to some extent the second, don’t necessarily call themselves fans. I certainly don’t profess to be a fan of the Giants. This is because rooting for a team and being a fan of a team are very different acts. Anyone can root for any team at any time for any reason. There is no criteria for rooting, no reasonable criticism to make against people who root for a particular team at any given time.

But being a fan is different. When you call yourself a fan of a team, you are held to a certain standard of loyalty and commitment. It’s fine to be a bandwagoner, to cheer for a team just because they are winning or doing well in the playoffs. But if you decide to be a fan of the team, your commitment must thereafter be grounded not on the original reason for your interest in them (winning), but on a love for the team itself.

I’ll leave you with one final thought, since I never really hit on that third option above. Even if my above conclusion works, it is often impossible to tell the difference between self-described fans of the second and third variety. That is, when a team is successful, there’s no way to tell which fans are true, committed fans, and which are bandwagon/fair-weather fans. You know that anyone who roots for and follows the Pirates right now is probably a true fan, but with teams like the Yankees, there’s no way of separating the wheat from the chaff.

The solution to this dilemma for many is to assume that all people who began following the team when they started winning are bandwagon fans. But all this does is create a barrier among fans; by believing yourself to be a superior breed of fan just because you followed the team when they were bad, you prevent growth and comradery within the fan base, which can only harm the team.

So instead of assuming that all new fans are inauthentic and fake, why don’t we assume the opposite? Why don’t we assume that, despite coming to the fandom because of the team’s success, these fans are here to stay? Sure, many will prove themselves to be inauthentic once the team’s success runs out, but let’s wait until that happens before we assume anything. Rooting for teams that are successful is great and becoming true fans of those teams is even better!

We should applaud and support people who root for, and become fans of, our team. At the same time, if you do find yourself rooting for a new team, or getting caught up in the magic of your home team for the first time, enjoy it! But think carefully before you call yourself a fan of that team. True fans stick with their team day in and day out. They feel joy with every win and pain with every loss, but remain true through the ups and downs. It can be tiring, heartbreaking, and downright terrible, but in the end, it’s worth every second.

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