The little bits and pieces of my internal life.

From the Mosaic
Saturday, January 22, 2005
Becoming a Fan

For many geeks, sports fandom is a great mystery. They can't grasp how anyone could care so deeply about something so inconsequential as a physical contest of skill. They certainly cannot comprehend the dressing up in team paraphernalia, the loathing of the team's rivals, or any of the other accompanying rituals that are attached to team affiliation.

This fall, I formed a new sports attachment, which gave me the chance to sort of observe the process. I have applied to UC Berkeley's MBA program (a topic worthy of its own post, but not today). I had absolutely no prior interest in Berkeley collegiate sports (um, excuse me, "California" collegiate sports), except to the extent that they are local to me, so I hear about them on the news and from co-workers and whatnot.

But once I decided to apply, things started to change. I started, in a word, to care. Cal had an exceptional football season this year, as it turned out; they were consistently ranked in the top 5. And slowly, inexorably, I started to follow the games. I would choose to watch their games rather than other games. I would start to associate feelings, not only with Cal, but with their rivals and their conference.

There are two distinct issues here that are difficult for non-sports folk to understand. The first, of course, is the appeal of sports generally -- how could anyone (or at least anyone who doesn't actually play the sport) be interested in football or hockey or tennis or golf or swimming or whatever else? My recent experience doesn't give any additional insight into that. The closest analogy I can make is to appeal to analogies to any sort of zero-sum competition. Maybe basketball doesn't appeal to you, but can you wrap your head around enjoying a game show like Jeopardy! or, hell, even a Science Olympiad or something like that? I can't do better than that. Beyond that sort of analogy, I'm trying to argue taste, and that doesn't work.

The second issue is, even given the hypothetical interest in competition, what persuades a person that it's worth it to align with one particular side? Why did the act of applying to Berkeley engender in me a desire to see the California football team win its games? I think that the process is like any other allegiance, and in fact is superficially like patriotism. I want the team to succeed because the team symbolizes my school, or my city, or my state, or whatever the nominal basis for the allegiance is), and I have intellectually and emotionally aligned my interests, to some small degree, with the interests of the team, because, well, on some level those interests are my interests.

I will be the first to admit that in the case of professional sports, at least, this is silly. With a few notable exceptions, professional sports are a corporate product that really have little to nothing to do with their host cities (as you can see every time a team threatens to leave its host city). I like to think that the link in collegiate sports is clearer, and I think one could defend a country's national teams on similar grounds. In such cases, the sports side of things is intended, in part, to market the school, to get it in people's minds, and to get people excited about it. It is intended to provide rituals and symbols to bind the people associated with the school together, and in this respect it resembles any sort of religious practice.

So, if you're the sort who would never be caught dead wearing anything symbolic of something as mundane as a college or a city, then I could see that it wouldn't appeal. But if you wore your Gollum T-shirt to your first theatrical viewing of The Return of the King, then maybe you can understand.
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