A few days ago, I made an oblique reference to my parents about the Thanksgiving Day slate of football games. My mom, confused, responded, “Oh, there’s football on Thanksgiving?” Over the course of the ensuing conversation, my parents essentially came to the mutual agreement that the very fact that there exist people who might be interested in watching football on Thanksgiving is an almost existentially perplexing mental exercise, on par with trying to imagine what the inside of a black hole looks like (random Interstellar spoiler: apparently it’s Matthew McConaughey’s bookshelf).
Clearly, my parents don’t follow football. In fact, I’m fairly certain the closest my father has ever come to watching a football game is when Bane ruined Hines Ward’s SportsCenter Top 10 moment:
I mean, come on Bane, that was a 95-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff! At least wait until some 3-and-out in the middle of the 2nd quarter before launching your terrorist plot! It’s even worse when you consider the fact that the stands in that stadium are almost empty, meaning the Gotham Rogues are basically the Washington Redskins, and that was probably the highlight of their season.
Anyway, my parents are essentially just as ignorant about football as Bane. They just don’t have any particular interest in sports and never have. When I was younger, I was encouraged to participate in sports, and my dad took me to several minor league baseball games (go PawSox!). But I didn’t grow up in a household that really celebrated sports fandom in the way that many do. Nevertheless, I have increasingly turned into a sports fanatic as I’ve grown older.
If asked why, I could give about a dozen different answers, often starting with this:
I mean, how can you not love a medium of entertainment that gives you moments like these? But more seriously, today I was asking myself how it even happened that I became such a big sports fan. Most people become sports fans because of exposure. When you’re a kid, if your parents (or close friends) really like something, there’s a pretty good chance you are going to start to like it as well. I’d say the majority of sports fans I know developed their fandom as children this way.
Growing up, though, neither my parents nor any of my close friends were really huge sports fans, at least not to any extent that I can consciously remember. My parents never watched games and most of my friends were more at home rooting against Ghazghkull Thraka than they were rooting against the Los Angeles Lakers. Hell, I learned about George Steinbrenner through Seinfeld, not watching baseball or ESPN. My limited exposure to sports consisted of a couple of friends that I would play “NFL Quarterback Club 7” on SNES with after school, and whose families were primarily fans of New York teams. At one point as a kid, I rather arbitrarily decided that I was a New Orleans Saints fan, because I liked the logo and thought black was a bad-ass color.
In all honesty, I only really started following sports as a bandwagon fan. During my childhood, the “local” professional sports teams (local in-so-far as Rhode Island is part of New England, and Boston teams tend to represent the entire region; they are the NEW ENGLAND Patriots, after all) were more or less irrelevant within their respective leagues. The historical dominance of the Celtics and Bruins were a thing of the past, the Patriots were utterly anonymous, and the Red Sox were futile on a level that was essentially a nation-wide joke. Further, in those pre-Internet (and, heck, pre-cable TV as well) days, there wasn’t a medium for the constant barrage of information now available for fans of even the worst teams. If your team wasn’t playing in a championship or otherwise “big” games, there wasn’t even a strong guarantee you’d be able to find the game on TV a lot of the time.
Starting in late middle school, both of these trends reversed pretty dramatically. I don’t need to tell you how important the Internet has become and how much it has changed since you were getting mailed AOL version 4.0 installation disks in the mail and tying up the phone lines to log into chatrooms. And, for most of you, I don’t need to tell you about New England sport’s aptly named “decade of dominance” (which has earned our teams and fans the eternal enmity of half the country, but that’s the price you pay for utterly arbitrary bragging rights). It was not only easier to get caught up in a sort of abstract regional pride at the success of these teams, but we now collectively had the ability to digest and disseminate information about these teams at a depth and frequency never before possible.
Even with all of that, I still wasn’t as invested in the culture of sports fandom as the average teen. My interest was piqued, but I hadn’t yet completely dived in. Again, my family wasn’t interested at all, and my closest friends weren’t huge fanatics, so I lacked the social infrastructure for it to really seem personally meaningful. It wasn’t until college that my sports fandom really developed, and then for a combination of reasons. One was the fact that, my favorite sport being basketball (thanks Space Jam!), the victories of the Red Sox and Patriots in my high school years weren’t nearly as seemingly important as the eventual champion Boston Celtics in 2008 (my sophomore year in college). Another was that the friends I made at college were more dedicated to sports than had been my friends in high school, giving me a strong social impetus to become more actively involved in the dialogue. And yet ANOTHER was that most of the friends I had at school weren’t fans of New England, and in many cases actively hated New England sports teams, so I wanted them to win just to shut them up, because fuck you New England rocks we have clams and everything.
Now, I regularly listen to sports podcasts, play fantasy sports, and religiously read Grantland, which have done even more to pull me into the obsessive realm of fandom. Hell, I even read technical papers from the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference about trying to mathematically model specific athletic skills, like rebounding ability.
If I really have to give an answer to the question of why I have turned into such a sports fan with age, it comes down to the fact that it’s a social experience. Sure, the entertainment value is great in and of itself, as is the rather silly way we get the outcomes of sporting events tied up with regional (or even personal) pride, and as a nerd I even love the analytic side of things. But, more than anything, sports is a shared, communal event unlike any other in our culture. Especially with the Internet becoming such a significant medium of consumption and communication, inflating the value of live events that you can’t just marathon while hungover on a Sunday like you can with “Game of Thrones” or other pop culture phenomena. Sports is one of the few televised events where it really matters if you see it in the moment. If you wait a year, it’s not a matter of getting caught up on past seasons or even a show ending with a satisfying conclusion. Sports seasons keep going, and the names and storylines keep changing.
Simply put, everyone talks about sports, and it’s more fun to be part of the conversation. It’s something you can use as an icebreaker when meeting someone new; just ask about a sports team or a big game, and chances are you will be able to strike up a conversation. There’s a reason SportsCenter commercials are consistently some of the funniest and most original things on TV: they are able to draw on this shared knowledge (of players, of situations, of moments) and go from there without having to set things up with exposition or even come up with a premise other than “Hey, here’s a 30-second video clip that features an athlete you’re aware of.” And how can you argue with the results?
Okay, one more.
Maybe there’s nothing profound about saying that sports is fun. But now it’s late on Thanksgiving evening, football is over, and I’m watching highlights of the Kansas Jayhawks beat the Rhode Island Rams, and I’m loving every second of it.