Most sports fans don’t choose their favorite team.
They’re born, through no fault of their own, in a hospital close to a team that sucks at a sport they’ll like. From then on, that’s their team. For better or worse. And if you should ever let them know that you like that team, too – and you haven’t been a fan for life? Then you’re cast out. You’re not a real fan. The success that the team has had recently? It’s not yours to enjoy.
Alright. That may be a bit heavy-handed. But it is the mentality that many die-hard fans have. What a ridiculously insular and outdated notion.
What about the 1/3rd of Americans who live more than 105 miles from an NFL stadium, 107 from an NBA arena, 119 from a Major League ballpark, 139 from an NHL arena, or 204 from an MLS stadium? (Source: Deadspin) Or the many Americans who have relocated once – or a handful of times throughout their lives? Or late-comers to an interest in sport? Who should they cheer for, and how should they make that decision? Moreover, might allegiance be fluid?
The answer is, well ya – duh, of course.
Data from Facebook suggests that, unburdened by obligation, fans further out from franchises choose freely (and often strangely) from the options available to them. They pick their own favorite teams! They might even pick good teams. As a Detroit Lions fan by birth, this is something to be supremely jealous of.
But what’s more is, these “bandwagoners” get to pick their favorite team based on whatever factors they consider to be important to them. They might even take into consideration whether or not a team’s logo or nickname are explicitly racist, or if the organization has recently totally screwed up the handling of a key player’s domestic abuse, rape, or DUI charges. You know, the kinds of things that die-hard fans often overlook.
And in a media landscape where there are multiple 24-hour sports networks, dozens of blogs dedicated to each team, and every star has a presence on at least one social media platform; you’d be crazy to follow only one team. Nobody’d expect you to. It’s fun to watch good sports. These days, you can be a fan of a team, or a player, who doesn’t play in your market. It doesn’t make you less of a fan of the home team.
And you can support an in-market team you didn’t grow up supporting, too. Even if it’s just because they’re winning. If people that you like – friends, family, or coworkers – like them, it’s fun to see your friends happy and watch games with them. Even funner if they bring pizza and beer over on a random Monday in October. If these are bandwagon reasons to like something, bandwagoning seems chill AF.
Sports, strictly from the perspective of the consumer, are about little else other than entertainment and community anyway. We enjoy watching the games, sure – although some fans can make their favorite pastime seem like a hardship to be endured – but more than that, we enjoy the relationships that following sports can provide. The friends we make along the way, or whatever.
When die-hard fans ostracize bandwagon fans, they’re not only needlessly policing the way that other people have fun; they’re taking a something they might have in common with a peer and twisting it around until it somehow becomes a point of disagreement. What the hell, man?
Saying that bandwagoning is OK isn’t a knock on loyalty. Die-hard fans get more out of the sports experience than any other. And loyalty – even loyalty to a strictly-for-profit entity like, say, a multi-billion dollar professional sports franchise – is absolutely a quality to be admired. But even those franchises know that it’s not always something that has to be rewarded.
After all, the rap on the Cubs for many years was that they were lovable losers. And with the best game day environment in North American sports and an international brand, they had little incentive to improve. Simply, their fan-base had enough die-hard fans to churn out a brisk business whether or not they did.
Luckily, a new ownership group took over recently. And they saw an incredible growth opportunity for their business – the bandwagon. So the Ricketts family invested in winning, and now bandwagoners and fair-weather fans alike are paying them back this October – probably many, many times over. The Cubs have a higher payroll, and better players, and more fans than they did when Wrigley itself was their main draw. These factors are intertwined inextricably. Now, the Cubs’ attention turns to fan retention; and continued success. Growing that bandwagon. The cycle repeats, and self-finances.
Winning is good business. If revenue from die-hard fans can be said to be inelastic, dollars from bandwagoners and fairweather fans are tied more closely to on-field performance. At the highest level – this is the motivating factor for winning. Brand building. App developers might call it “new user acquisition.” Its revenue, eyeballs, whatever. Earning fickle fans’ hard-earned cash is the primary incentive to spend more on the factors that produce wins. The payroll is really an extension of the marketing budget. Converting fans from fairweather or bandwagon to die-hard is what every organization hopes to do. It’s how franchises become more valuable – and in turn, how they win more
This fall, as with any championship season, the front running teams are bound to draw in a few new supporters thanks to their on-field play – some of those folks may even brave enough to call themselves new fans.
It’ll be the attitude of the rest of the fanbase, and the experiences they share with these so-called “bandwagoners” just as much as the team’s immediate success, that determines whether or not they stick around. But their sticking around is likely the best indicator of the team’s long-term success.
Long live the bandwagon. Be nice to them this fall, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.