Home Games: The Strange Overlapping Borders of Sports Fandom
To be a fan is, first and foremost, to join a tribe. But the borders of these sports homelands, and what's at stake, are more confusing than they first appear.
Photo by Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
I am a fan of the Chicago White Sox.
That descriptor and the allegiance it implies comes not from tradition. Cousins and uncles are fans, but my immediate family couldn't care less. It's certainly not because I respect and admire the team's ownership; Jerry Reinsdorf escapes auto-citation when asked for the names of shit-heel owners solely because his advanced age keeps him from media appearances. If I'm being honest, it's because I got free tickets when I was in third grade.
Read to Succeed is a literacy promotion developed by Six Flags that gives out prizes (see: bribes) to kids if they read books for 500 minutes within a month. The tracking of minutes is done on the honor system, giving you a sense of the prize value. One year, they awarded Sox tickets, and so I went to my first baseball game. I didn't like or understand it, but later, when I began to follow the sport—mostly so that I could simultaneously relate to and distinguish myself from new friends at the out-of-state college of my choosing—I settled on the team with which I had the most experience. That is, the one that gave me tickets because I read The Westing Game.
Which is to say, it's coincidental I'm a White Sox fan and that I grew up in Chicago's southern suburbs, past the Calumet River, where specific MLB team fandom begins to dissipate into a mostly equal mix of Cubs and Sox, the hats interspersed like the easily exchanged currencies of borderlands. If the Cubs had gotten to me first, I'd have shat on Bartman back in '03 and currently be having one hell of a season. As it stands, I get to watch a mediocre product and feel obliged to defend Hawk Harrelson's value.
In other words, there are no real borders between neighboring teams. If survey-sanctioned legal borders are false constructs that societies use for bookkeeping purposes—and, perhaps, to satiate an innate drive to attain and accumulate, since you can't buy something that doesn't have borders—then murkier regions like "neighborhoods" or "the bad part of town" are even more senseless. It follows that areas constituting things like "Cowboys Country" are utter bullshit.
Which is not to say they don't exist. These sorts of sports borders are everywhere, and the tribalism they create does a lot to define what it means to be a fan. In the Northeast, there's an invisible line starting around Lake Champlain and running south that divides Red Sox and Yankees fandoms. In Chicago, the southern end of the Loop is where Cubs and White Sox fans face off. In the Bay, it's the geographical separation of the body of water from which the area takes its name. There have been attempts to visualize these fandom globules—WYNC's Noah Veltman's map creates territories from the nearest stadium's proximity; datafolk at the New York Times used the geographical location of Facebook Likes—but all maps cloud at the borderlands. In those areas, fandom choice comes down to one factor above the others.
"Class is the biggest thing," says Jack Jen Gieseking, assistant professor of Public Humanities in American Studies at Trinity College. "I grew up very working middle class, and it split it in that way. My family is third-generation Orioles fans."
Maybe that's why you generally end up delving into class-based terms when describing neighboring fans. White Sox fans are drunk trash; Cubs fans are drunk preppies. Mets fans are bodega ham-and-cheesers; Yankees fans keep luxe steakhouses in business. A's and Raiders fans are longshoremen; Giants and 49ers fans are tech bros. The Warriors make an interesting case in that the perception of their fan base has shifted with their success: when they sucked, they were Oakland, but now that they're one of the greatest teams of all time, they're Bay Area. For the most part, those stereotypes reflect how the team's fans themselves want to be seen.
"Teams are the representation of an area," Gieseking says. "It's a very old-school idea, a gladiator fighting on your behalf, for your homeland."
Things get nice and strange when you lay borders on top of one another, as when someone follows multiple levels of the same sport. Football seems to lend itself to this, maybe because the infrequency of the games and maybe because its physicality translates more easily across age groups. When football fans are pressed, does their heart belong to their NFL team? Is the college squad of choice their true beloved? Are they one of those weirdos who get amped about a high-school transfer and throws up Jean-Luc Picard facepalm memes on recruiting message boards? Each person's answer will be personal, based on some mixture of nostalgia and tradition. But community-wide fandom mostly has to do with access.
"The communities where everyone watches the high school games, they generally don't have access to professional games," says Gretchen Peterson, a sociology professor at Cal State L.A. "That's more situationally bound. It's about location, what you have access to, what sports are dominating. But also if a college team is doing well, and the professional team nearby is not, [the popularity] can ebb and flow."
So, like any set of borders, fandoms are shifting constantly, in response to facts on the ground. Franchises come and go, each entry and exit reorganizing the map. In the 1990s, baseball fans in the D.C. metro area were forced to drive to Baltimore to catch a game. After the 2005 creation of the Nationals—and, more important, after they became a decent squad—the casual Orioles fans just shortened their commutes and traded their orange-and-blacks for red-and-whites.
Even that ease of fandom transition may be a relic. The various pressures and exigencies of life—a job in another state, say—can transplant fans, willfully or otherwise, to places where their teams are not. The workaday miracles of modern communication technology mean that it's easier than ever to keep watching your team. In the past, when the only way to follow the old team was by waiting for newspaper dispatches, the logical move was to shift focus to the local team. Now it just means dropping a few hundred on a streaming package, or maybe more on a season's worth of beer at the local sports bar. In a strange, double-bank way, that distance can solidify fandom, even as technology makes it easier for fans to follow their old teams as if they never left.
"People now keep their allegiances when they move away," says Peterson. "Now that I have access to my Red Sox, I don't have to go to a Dodgers game. I can and do, but I don't get excited about the Dodgers winning."
And so new communities form, composed of fans of specific teams that, for whatever reason, have found themselves displaced, field agents behind enemy lines. They meet for games when their team is in town, bravely donning their visiting gear in foreign territory, sharing a brief nod or concourse high-five with fellow expats, making friends or enlisting new recruits to the mailing list.
More often, they collect in bars, taken over and soon designated as official "Fill-in-the-blank Bars," weird outposts that fill up at odd hours compared to rest of the neighborhood. One resides in San Fernando Valley's Tinhorn Flats, where a line forms at 8 AM every Sunday morning of patrons wearing Chicago Bears regalia, 2,000 miles away from Soldier Field.
For the past 15 years, Louie Pradt, Chicago native and L.A. resident for two decades, has stood in that line before sitting at the bar stool that's now held for him. "I had been here for five years before I found the place, and suddenly here are a bunch of guys who talk and sound and think like I do," says Pradt. They even have some traditions that wouldn't be out of place back home. "We only sing the fight song after a win, not a touchdown," he tells me. "When something good happens, there will be a toast, but make sure you know the words. Don't sit in anyone's seat who's been there long enough to have earned it. And if you bring in a fan of the other team, you are responsible for them, so they had better be quiet."
Los Angeles, in particular, is home to a great many "non-L.A. NFL team bars," likely because they've gone two decades without a team to call their own. Now that they do, perhaps these far-flung colonies will be taken over once again by the original population—though perhaps not at Tinhorn Flats specifically. "Chicagoans have a funny way of protecting their turf," says Pradt. "There will be plenty of other Rams bars in town. This one is ours."
This sort of satellite fandom can be a mixed blessing. In 2005, when the White Sox won their first championship since 1917, rather than high-fiving, screaming, and crying as one with my fellow fans at the end of a nearly century-long drought, I was alone in my L.A. studio apartment. I called and texted as many pals as would respond, but still couldn't help feeling like I missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to celebrate with fellow members of that loyal group—and maybe more importantly, to rub it in the faces of those sad-sack Cubs fans at close range. I was in California in October instead of Chicago, though, so maybe it all evens out.
But maybe that's not looking at it right way. Maybe these remote outposts, be they singular or fully formed groups, are precisely where the true fandom exists, because it is no longer obligation but choice. That's how Pradt, who hasn't been to a Bears game since 2007, feels.
"I was at the Super Bowl in 2007 [between the Bears and the Colts], and that's when I realized why I go [to Tinhorn Flats]," Pradt says. "There was a moment—the opening kickoff—when we thought the Bears were going to win. And I realized I was in the wrong place. I was surrounded by strangers." Being a fan, after all, isn't about the players, who change jerseys when the economics are right, or the ownership, who are every bit as mercenary in milking fans for every cent they're worth. If you care, that caring is about the people around you, wherever they may be.
"When [the Bears play in the Super Bowl] again, I will be sitting next to the guys I have laughed with, cheered with, suffered with, and drank with for 15 years," says Pradt. "It's the only place it feels right to be during the game." Some things are true pretty much everywhere.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.