I was in England on a study abroad program from 2001 to 2002, but I squandered my chance to cultivate an interest in English Premier League football [i.e. soccer]. Aside from a field trip to watch Oxford United, a third division club, draw 0-0 against someone or other, all the soccer I watched was World Cup matches, which offer entertainment that is immediately thrilling but mostly lacks the history and complexity of league play: when the US beat Portugal, it was a thrilling upset, but it wasn’t another chapter in the rich history between those two teams, or countries for that matter. It’s similar to how, a legal drinker for the first time, I failed to take advantage of all that great English beer and just drank Stella Artois and Kronenbourg and continental lagers like that. Not bad, you understand, just a kind of unsubtle experience that gets pretty limiting if it’s all you consume.
Consequently, I didn’t pick up any of the soccer discussions that were no doubt swirling around me all year…except for one, at a university karate tournament in Edinburgh (yes) between a competitor from another team and his two coaches. I don’t remember the guy’s name—only that he absolutely demolished me in the sparring competition, which he went on to win—but it came out that he was a Leicester City fan, and from the way his coaches were ribbing him I could tell that they were having a bad season. (Indeed, they finished at the bottom of the league, with a record of 5-13-20, and were relegated—i.e., sent down to the second division* for the following season.)
*The “second division” was actually called, confusingly, “First Division,” since the Premier League is technically separate from the Football League, but for clarity I’m going to call the one right under Premier “second,” and below that “third,” etc.
“You won’t be laughing next year!” this Leicester fan vowed, then caught himself: “Well, in two years, when they’re back from relegation.” Which they were, for one season. Then they went down to the second division, for four more seasons, after which they went down again, to the third division, for one season. Then back up to the second division, for five seasons, before finally returning to the Premiership. That takes us from 2002, when I overheard this exchange, to 2014—twelve years, of which Leicester were in the top flight for exactly one.
How long would you consume a mediocre to terrible product before quitting and finding something better? The answer tends to be very different for sports fans than for anyone else. Take television: I watched The Simpsons from its beginning in 1989, through seven excellent years and 2-3 decent to good ones. It was a touchstone among kids (well, nerds) of my generation; it probably did more to form my sense of humor than Monty Python did. But when it started to deteriorate, around 2000 or so, I didn’t hang on for anything like twelve years—I watched maybe another half-season out of habit, and then I dropped it with zero sentimentality. Lots of Simpsons fans, including some more hardcore than me, did the same thing, and as far as I know none of them felt guilty or were regarded as lesser fans. If the Simpsons miraculously returned to form and I decided to start watching again, I wouldn’t have to hear a lot of bitching from diehard Simpsons watchers about how I was just a bandwagon fan whereas they had stuck with the show through the hard times.
On the other hand, if The Simpsons did suddenly turn good again, I wouldn’t feel any sort of triumph or elation from it; it’d be nice to be watching good TV, but I wouldn’t be out honking car horns and burning couches. This is how sports differ from other entertainment and consumables, from which consumers expect a positive experience as a minimum recompense for their money and time: if your expensive meal is good, that seems like your due, and if it’s bad, you send it back. (Of course, you can’t return a paperback or a DVD just because you don’t like it, but you can tell everyone to avoid it, avoid future work by that author/director, etc., and most do.) Sports, on the other hand, are a gamble: when you buy your ticket or cable package, you accept the risk that you’re going to hate what you see, that you’ll feel worse when it’s over than you did when it began. Of course, fans have a certain baseline expectation of competence and effort—that’s why booing happens—but they nevertheless accept the risk of losing as a necessary part of sports’ character. After all, it’s because a sporting event is a gamble that we feel so thrilled when it goes our way.
So, if it’s a gamble, what are sports fans betting? Their own positive emotions: their happiness, peace of mind, pride and dignity, sense of justice. The more you lay on the line, the more of a wreck you are when you lose, but the greater the payoff in the form of positive emotions when you win. And sports are always happy to give you double or nothing, so the longer you hang on through negativity, the bigger the return: watching an easy victory isn’t as satisfying as watching a come-from-behind victory, which isn’t as satisfying as watching a championship following a long, difficult season, which isn’t as satisfying as watching your team win after you’ve followed every miserable game for years or decades of futility. A thirty-year-old Cubs fan is going to feel pretty great if the Cubs win the World Series this year, but an eighty-year-old is going to feel the touch of God.
At least, that’s the theory, but the problem with putting everything on the line in this way is twofold. First, your team may never win; second, even if it does, we have no way of knowing that the long-suffering fan really does feel more satisfaction, proportionally, than the one who ignored the team for years but bought a hat and a jersey as soon as it started to win. This, I think, is why hardcore fans feel so contemptuous towards fair-weather fans, who leave when the team’s fortunes fall and come back when they rise: the fair-weather fan’s rationality throws the diehard’s irrationality into such sharp relief that it feels like a rebuke, and plus the diehard feels cheated by the bandwagoner who may get almost as much pleasure from the triumph without having invested nearly as much heartbreak. Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, envies “those fans people who treat their local team like their local restaurant, and thus withdraw their patronage if they are being served up noxious rubbish.” Whether consciously or not, diehards know that what they’re doing is crazy, but by now they can’t quit; they’re compulsive emotional gamblers.
But fair weather fans have a bad conscience too—or, at least, I do, and I’m exactly this kind of fan. The Giants don’t hold a candle to Leicester City in terms of historic futility—they went about 50 years without a championship, not 125, and I never had to experience twelve years of badness; of the twenty-odd years I’ve been a fan, they made or came close to the playoffs in probably half of them. Yet even the few brief stretches when the team has been bad—1995-1996, 2005-2008, and a few odd years here and there—were too much for me to hunker down for. I’d follow a few games in April when I had baseball fever, then start to lose interest as the losses piled up, and finally tune out entirely once hope was well and truly lost. In the process, I missed some of the genuinely exciting moments that redeem losing seasons for the fans who sit through them: memorable individual wins, the rise of the young stars who are going to bring the team back to the Promised Land—I missed Tim Lincecum’s first great seasons, and I regret it like I regret missing out on Prince perform live. But I don’t just feel regret about what I missed; I feel at least a little bit of guilt and shame. I feel like, by admitting what a fair-weather fan I am—on a sports blog, no less—I’m exposing myself as a contemptible phony…but why do I feel that way? Why on earth should I feel judged, or judge myself, for how I chose to use my entertainment hours during those few years?
Part of it is because I feel this behavior as a kind of cowardice or weakness, like I should have the fortitude to handle adversity—which is absurd, because in no other realm do people feel obliged to put themselves through emotional suffering just to prove they can do it. But even dismissing that as masculinist claptrap, I think there’s another reason I wish I could stick it out through the bad times. It’s because rationality isn’t everything, and there’s something admirable about putting yourself on the line for the sake of a dream. If Nick Hornby envies my freedom and rationality, I envy his commitment and devotion.
I’m writing about all of this, of course, because on Monday Leicester City won its first Premier League Championship. It’s been called the most unlikely result in the history of sports oddsmaking: before the season, bookies were offering 5,000-to-1 odds on a Leicester championship, and as always happens when an underdog wins, the news has been full of coverage of the few lucky devils who put down a small bet on the team and are now collecting a small fortune. But those bettors aren’t the only longshot winners, and not all of the winnings are financial. The Leicester City fans themselves are the Powerball winners of the sports world, the ones whose impossible good fortune leads others to believe in something that, in rational terms, they probably shouldn’t. I’ll never know if that Leicester fan at the karate tournament stuck with the team all this time; I don’t even know his name. But I hope he did, more even than I hope for success for my own team, because having known someone that lucky feels like luck in itself. Maybe it’ll rub off on me.