Well, it’s that time of year again. Five months and 20 football games ago, the NFL set sail for its 2014 season. Now it’s playoff time, and the field of 32 has been narrowed down to 12 – actually, it’s eight now that Wild Card Weekend is over – and the biggest league in the United States will soon be crowning its national champion. You might be familiar with a particular NFL commercial which has been airing all season in which a typical midwestern woman explains how her family of Vikings fans gradually turned into a family with Eagles, Bengals, Cowboys, and Steelers fans, and I’m not sure I’m remembering the entire mass of adopted team loyalties there. Now, astute observers might have noticed that later versions of that commercial made a very subtle but important change to one of the lines: When explaining how one of the family members became a Steelers fan, they say he did it because he moved to Pittsburgh. The first version said he became a Steelers fan after he ate a few burgers at a local restaurant which were named after the Steelers’ quarterback. It’s a good change; the original version implied that the kid made a loyalty change because he ate a burger. I’m less finicky about attacking team loyalties than most other fans, but really, that one hinged on “Dude, why do you even bother at all?!” territory. As far as loyalty switches go, that one was inexcusable.
It did, however, make me start wondering about what rules we follow for keeping our sports loyalties, which allowed me to come up with this little guidebook about picking and holding onto your favorite sports teams.
General Guidelines for Picking a Team
First and foremost: If the area you live in has a particular loyalty to a team in the sport you follow, you must follow that team. If you live in a city that doesn’t have a team, then it’s helpful to follow whatever team the other locals are following – this is why it’s helpful to follow the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin and the New York Yankees in New York – although it frees you up to pick any team you want. Your city isn’t directly involved with any sports rivalries the preferred team may have, after all, so you can do what you want.
If you’re in a place without a team, you’re free to try on teams like hats to see how they fit. You have to remember, though, you’re not necessarily looking for the best team. You’re looking for the one that’s the best fit. There’s a difference. Hanging on to the winning team for no reason other than an obsession with choosing the best team makes you look like a pathetic bandwagoner. If you choose one of the league’s face teams, brush up on your history because you’re going to need to defend yourself. Hell, brush up on your favorite team’s history anyway. Not only will it make you appreciate what you’ve gotten into to a fuller extent, it will help you understand the beliefs and traditions of long-term fans, and form a bond with the team.
If you live in a city without a team in the sport you follow and the league suddenly drops in with an expansion team, you have the option of either keeping your old team or adopting the expansion. You can do as you will; this is one instance where no one will bother you about a switch. You better be willing to suffer and grow if you adopt the new one, though; trying to jump back to the old one during a good stretch makes you a bandwagoner, especially if the new one is going through typical expansion pains.
When trying on teams, look for local connections. I started following an entire sport because a guy who went to my high school was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. After he fell out of the NBA, I spent the next few years adopting new teams to see which one fit me the best, and I ran through loyalties the way a plow runs through snow. (I even started this blog during a phase of trying-on with the New York Knicks, and have run through three more teams since. Eventually, though, I made my way back to the Sixers. I’d like to see you accuse me of bandwagoning for THAT switch.) Feel free to waive a local connection if the team was ever based in your city and left, though; you wouldn’t stick with them if they walked out during your lifetime, so no one will blame you for avoiding them now.
Along those same lines: If your hometown did once field a team, but that team left before you were born, you’ve hit the statute of limitations. Don’t feel guilty about adopting them just because they walked off. Older fans may give you grief, but younger fans won’t care.
There’s no habit lower than fantanking. You spend your money to see the greatest athletes in the world play at their best, and yet you’re demanding they go against all their competitive instincts in a race to the bottom of the standings on the half-chance they’ll pick up the next great superstar in the next draft and be competitive in, oh, say, three more years? Read that out loud and see how absurd it sounds. Then try to imagine how bad it sounds to a guy who makes his living playing a professional sport. Those athletes aren’t going to be able to play forever, and asking them to play dead for multiple years while their teams maybe build a contender if everything goes right and a half-witted thought which doesn’t even guarantee success in a few years, so just stop it.
If you live in an area loyal to multiple teams, you get to pick only one of them.
You’re allowed to switch teams outright for the following reasons: 1 – The team moves; no one would blame you for adopting your old team’s archrival for that. 2 – The ownership is a complete embarrassment to the sport. We’re not talking about ordinary bad stretches here; every team goes through those. We’re talking about galactic sins which are evidence of an owner hating his fanbase. You think I never fantasized about leaving the Sabres after Terry Pegula bungled the front office? I did, but Pegula ultimately isn’t a villain. We’re talking guys like Dan Snyder, James Dolan (a major reason I finally concluded the Knicks would never be my team), Jeffery Loria, and Donald Sterling here. (Ironically, I ended up adopting the Chicago Blackhawks when they had reached this depth with their last owner.) 3 – Or you move to a new city and have reached your loyalty limit, and thus have to jettison one of your former teams if you’re hoping to fit in with your new community.
Loyalty Rules in Major Sports (MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS)
You’re allowed to take from one to three teams, but before you go taking more than one, make sure you have some sort of connection with the host city first. A relative, a place you lived, your best friend moved there, something. If you’ve lived in more than three cities, then pick the teams from the cities that contributed the most to who you are.
If you like a team because of a particular player, then you like that player, not his team. I have no problems with switching teams to keep track of a player, but ‘fess up to it. The commercial I was talking about in my opening is a decent example of this – one family member decided she was a Cowboys fan because she met Emmitt Smith, although it goes a bit further there because she had a small bit of face time with him. I do think it’s important for players to try to make time for fans, and if a fan returns an especially pleasant encounter with an opposing player by switching teams, I can accept that. It’s not a solid excuse, but there are so many teams and players presenting themselves as above and beyond the regular folks that I can understand why it would warrant a switch.
When two of your teams play against each other, it’s okay to be neutral.
I can’t emphasize this enough: DO NOT pick a team just because it’s successful. You might be flying high on the recent successes of the New England Patriots, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will both retire someday, and when they do, the entire league is going to totally relish the traditional revenge beatings. The Los Angeles Lakers have turned into a freak show as of late. The Detroit Red Wings keep squeaking into the playoffs on a sixth seed, and all the big prize players want to play for their archrivals now. Every team has down periods, including the Yankees, and no one is ever going to admire you for latching on to a team from outside your area, either. So don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for following whoever is doing well.
Loyalty Rules in Minor Sports
I emphasize keeping yourself local, but in minor sports, you have absolutely no excuse not to. If you’re following a minor league for a major sport, there’s an excellent chance of a team existing in your area. If you’re following a more unusual sport, it will probably be the local team that piqued your interest in it, so don’t turn your back on them just because the dominant team isn’t yours. Minor sports are difficult to follow in a lot of places, so you only get one team per minor league to carry.
Team existences in minor leagues can be insane. Minors think nothing of expanding when they don’t have to, winning three straight titles right off the bat, then folding two years later. Even the most diehard fans can get stuck without teams to follow for years at a time, because every league is a crazy cousin. Therefore, if you move from one area to another, it’s easiest to just switch to the team in your new home than to try to keep following the old one.
Don’t attack opposing fans. While this is always a good rule, it goes double in minor sports because if there are too many incidents, the league may not survive. The last thing they need is to lose fans because of you, so be hospitable.
Some sports are so odd that they require a few exceptional rules of their own.
You can pick up as many teams as you want, as long as you were a student at those schools. If you never went to college, you get one team.
If you were a fan of a particular school but you attended college at a different school, it’s okay to keep pledging your loyalty to your old team, but you must always, Always, ALWAYS cheer for the team from your school. If your old favorite team plays against your school, yes, you have to cheer for your school. In short, your school’s team is your team, over and out, no matter how much you claim to prefer the other guys.
You don’t get to split your school loyalties based on sports. That makes you a bandwagon fan. You can only have one school to encompass all the sports, so pick the school that’s best at the sport you like the most.
After your team tryout phase, you get to pick one team. You’re not allowed to switch, ever. Even if your team gets relegated, they’re still your team, and you just have to wait it out until they make it back to the top level. If you made the mistake of adopting Cardiff City FC last season because their first promotion to the top level in 51 years was a nice feel-good story, too bad. You’re stuck.
Although I cited the NFL above, they’re an exception to every last one of these rules. You’re allowed to carry anywhere from one to 32 teams. The league doesn’t give a shit about its fans, so each and every fandom rule is void. Do anything you want. Someday, the way the NFL is going, it’s all going to be played on a soundstage before a live studio audience anyway, so don’t bother attaching any civic importance to it.