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Winning unexpectedly and embracing fandom
Being a fan of a bad team is exhausting and thrilling and awful all at once
Loving something that will never love you back but you can only hope they’ll show you they care in their own way is probably the sign of a bad relationship. A red flag, if you will. When it happens in life and in person-to-person relationships, witnessing someone going through a situation like that usually leads to A Serious Talk and a lot of emotions coming to the surface.
What about when you have that relationship in sports? We love teams, sometimes we’ve loved them through our entire lives through thick and thin. And we stand by them even though there are plenty of times when it would’ve been easier to walk away and never pay attention to them again.
But when things get really bad with a team, we still don’t give them up completely. Instead of an intervention it turns into a pity party from those who ask which team you like. There’s no sit-down, you don’t have A Serious Talk, but we probably find time to cry and wail and anguish just the same. It does offer up a couple questions though:
Why do we deal with it?
Why do we put up with it?
A few cases in point to ponder here so let’s start in Buffalo. Yes, the Sabres fully apply to this and what’s made things more interesting is their 2-0-0 start to the season after a shootout win against Arizona. Wins are supposed to be at a premium for them and they’re expected to be the worst team in the NHL and have their 11th straight season without appearing in the playoffs. Fans have not turned out this season. They pulled in around 8,800 for opening night and around 7,600 on Saturday afternoon. Tickets are readily available on resale sites and pretty inexpensive and people just aren’t coming out.
Can Sabres fans be blamed for not plunking down? Absolutely not. Should they be shamed for not supporting the team? Definitely not. There are only so many times fans can be sold on a rebuild or promises of a brighter future, particularly when previous promises have fallen woefully short.
What’s amazing about fandom is that some fans will still go to bat for everything about the organization and buy in. Kudos to them for not wanting to stare into the abyss. Other fans are disgusted and fed up but are still happy to see the team win these games. Locking yourself into reality while being a fan is a hell of a thing to do because it’s really damn hard to do. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved in fandom and it’s up to the organizations to try and maintain that as much as possible. The easiest way to do that is win but there are other ways to go about it when wins are harder to come by. Not tending to that is how you lose thousands of season ticket holders and have a half-empty arena.
But does it make one fan better than the other because they tap the “BELIEVE” sign harder than others? Does it make one fan better than the other if they’ve been a fan longer than another one?
No. No to both questions.
Fandom is what you make of it and fandom is what you choose it to be. If that means going belly-up at the bar and drowning sorrows or swimming in joys, OK. If that means watching games with your arms crossed and spitting every four-letter word at the TV, go for it. If it means having the game on and not being able to look at it because you fear things will fall apart if you do, that’s fine too.
As conflicted as things are with the Sabres, let me inject my own fandom into this discussion. I am a Newcastle United fan and if you’re not familiar with the Premier League, that’s OK, let me explain their situation.
Newcastle is an ancient team with a legacy that goes back a long ways in England. Their history is storied but their more recent years have been poor. They’ve been relegated twice in the past 20 years and were fortunate enough to earn promotion back to the top league. Those relegations happened under the ownership of Mike Ashley. To spare you the gore of the story and my own madness we’ll just say he was a very bad owner who sought to make money off the Newcastle name and prop up his other businesses with it all while dithering away running the team and pretending he was broke and couldn’t afford to pay for good players.
Just over a week ago, Ashley sold the team to a consortium led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund which resulted in a lot of inner conflict for fans. The regime have been strongly implicated in doing terrible, murderous things. For as bad as Ashley was as an owner, at least he hasn’t made headlines for helping kill a reporter. Fans begging and wishing for Ashley to be sent packing got their wish… but it turned into more of a monkey’s paw situation.
Even with all that and the icky feelings that surround all of it as well as the controversy to come — because ownership with a 320 million pound pool to dip into leads to many more questions about spending — the fans are relieved. And it feels very strange to feel relief when the new guys replacing the old guy are the bad guys. With all that it led to scenes like this:
Am I conflicted? One hundred percent yes. How could I not be? Trying to compartmentalize sport and life is very difficult to do. More is known about everyone and everything is almost right out in the open, the good and bad of it all, and having a conscience in trying to support your teams is really, really, really hard to do. But if I bailed on Newcastle because of this, does that make me a good person? Am I a bad person if I continue to watch and enjoy the team?
No. No to both questions.
Sports are so ridiculous that it imbues such immense loyalty from a lot of us for no other good reason than, “this is who I’ve liked from the start and this is who I’ll like always and if I give up on this I’ll never love again.” OK that’s dramatic, but isn’t that what causes us to feel like this towards our favorite teams? Love is difficult and full of conflict and the highs are the highest you’ll ever feel and the lows are withering and debilitating. But how we decide to be fans is an individual thing no matter how many others are also fans. Yes, as a collective everyone is on the same team but everyone is doing it their own way. Just sometimes it’s a lot harder and a lot more difficult than anyone expected.
Go team? If you want to.