Monday, January 13, 2014

We won! or why fans identify so closely with their teams

A friend of mine (we'll call him "Darren" for the purposes of this piece) wrote this:
I'm a big sports fan, but I try not to refer to the teams I support as 'we'. In this context, I'm a consumer, not a creator. This Mitchell and Webb piece is a wonderful illustration of this idea.

Haha, quite funny, etc. (Especially the bit about Spurs as a rival for the title. C'mon, you're havin' a laugh.)

I've been giving this a lot of thought. I share some of the aversion to the use of we, but often find myself slipping into it. And here's why:

[Insert good bit that opens "Darren" up to the idea of seeing himself as more than just a credit card.]

...and the high cost of hockey tickets and the dead audience at Canucks games may engender a sense of feeling like a wallet, true. I have no desire to consume a Canucks game again. But I can compare it with my experience and cheap price for tickets to the Whitecaps, or even catching the Whitecaps Reserves for free at Thunderbird Stadium.  Are we ever merely consumers, paying for services rendered? Surely not when I attend games for free. What about if I pay $1 to see a game? Or money for parking? At what point do I become just a consumer?

(This ignores, of course, the library-like atmosphere at some Premier League games, and the ultra-high cost of season tickets for, say, Arsenal, but that's not my experience as a soccer fan.)

I assume "Darren" meant it in a broad sense of the word consume, as in to take it in rather than actively participate. Technically true for many fans, but not for those of us that choose to participate in the more active forms of support. When I go to a soccer game, I am more than a consumer. We chant, we sing, we stand and applaud, we swear at the ref in rhyming couplets... We participate. And I'm not even talking about being part of the spectacle of tifo and flag-waving and such that is often seen as an integral part of some game experiences.

This (at times) turns into the 12th man aspect. Crowds influencing games, etc. There's a lot to be said about the value of home field advantage, the benefits of having an active, loud crowd, etc. There has been a lot written about this elsewhere, and I'm not about to repeat it all. Suffice it to say that it's a thing, with measurable thingness.

And how's this for measurable thingness: Unimpressed with the effort shown by the team who were losing 4-0, ultras (hardcore supporters) in Genoa demanded the shirts off the Genoa players' backs, mid-game. And they got them. Now let's pretend that Genoa didn't end up losing (which they were going to do no matter what.

I detest that, absolutely, but it sure is direct participation in a game.

I'd like to take it one step further, though, beyond trying to insist (backed up by fairly strong evidence) that fans influence the outcome of games, so therefore are part of the effort that leads to winning, and therefore can rightly say "We won." I'm going to write a bit about community.

Like everyone else, I belong to a lot of communities. I have a family, I have various friend-groups, am a Canadian citizen, a resident of Vancouver, a member of a political party and a social change movement, and so on.

When a community does something, I consider that we did it, as a group. We rent a house, we like to drink wine and beer, we used to be respected on the world stage, we are experiencing a craft beer revolution, we aim to make things better, and so on.

And we just missed out on the play-offs last year. The Whitecaps, that is.

Looks a bit weird when I write that. We. Like I kicked a ball in anger. Which of course I didn't.

(Now, I did buy game-worn gear - I have played in the actual shorts that star midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker wore in an actual game. But that doesn't count, does it?)

Some communities have strict definitions of who is and isn't a member. You likely aren't a member of my immediate family (Hi, Nina!). You may be a member of my soccer team, or a paid-up member of a political party. We may have raised a pint together.

But even for most communities with clear boundaries, there are always grey areas. Sylvie has aunties that aren't her actual aunts. New people sub in for my soccer teams sometimes. Citizenship is not always clear, nor are residency, race, sex, religion, etc.

I'm blathering on a bit in order to get to this: in true post-modern wankery fashion, I posit that group-membership is largely self-defined. Or at least it is often so ill-defined or impossible to define as to allow for self-inclusion. We can argue about this if you want.

Moving on...

There's a feeling one gets from being part of a group or community, a sense of belonging, of well-being, that the hard-hearted amongst you may deny has any meaning. Those people likely go to watch soccer in Vancouver, pay for their $25-50 ticket, buy overpriced beer, groan or cheer, and go home, satisfied they spent their money well on solid entertainment. The product on the field, and all that. And I'm sure those people enjoy soccer a lot. Like I enjoy a tv show that I pay Netflix to see (David Tennant is a very good Doctor, by the way). Thanks, Netflix, for engaging in a financial transaction with me.

For others, there's real meaning in that feeling. It doesn't matter that it comes at a financial cost. Feelings don't get to be sliced and diced and categorized.

Here's where I should pull up a bunch of quotes about all this. Something by Eduardo Galeano, perhaps, the most romantic writer soccer has ever known. Here's one:
“The ball laughs, radiant, in the air. He brings her down, puts her to sleep, showers her with compliments, dances with her, and seeing such things never before seen his admirers pity their unborn grandchildren who will never see them.”

I've lived those moments. I watched Camilo do this:

And if you look carefully you can see me in the crowd shot after Eric Hassli does this: 

And here's the relevant bit: I've lived those moments with other fans, and even with the players. In soccer it's common for goals to be celebrated with the fans. There is no fourth wall in soccer. 

Multiply that by the 30 goals that teams might score at home, the others on the road celebrated with traveling fans, the near-goals, the heartbreaking losses, and you start to get a sense of what the fans mean to the players, how they're a part of the same community, with everyone willing the team to glorious victory, and sharing in the defeats.

An occasional game here and there doesn't do the same thing. Neither does watching on tv - no matter how many Arsenal games I watch, I still say "Arsenal won!" when reporting back to Nina about my Saturday mornings.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the use of we when talking about a sports team, but I've succumbed to it, and made my peace with it. It's not something that is at all rational (despite my above rationalization) - it's irrational, based on an emotional attachment. It's beyond attachment, even, to belonging. I belong to the Whitecaps community. I celebrate with them, I travel to away games with them, we watch Reserves matches in the rain together, we win and we lose together, all of us.

I'm going to finish this up, despite barely convincing myself. Mostly because I'm tired, but partly because this isn't something that can be fully explained. I'll let Dennis Denuto sum up my feelings on the matter: 


Darren said...

Thanks for this. Feeling like a participant and being a participant aren't the same things. And I don't think 'participating' is the same thing as belonging to an organization, particularly when everybody besides the fans are employees of a company.

Consider this counter-example: you go to a great concert, dance all night, the lead singer talks about "we're having a great time tonight" and so forth. This is a concert you go to every year. Yet do you think of yourself as a "we" with the band?

I also object to the delineation that there are casual fans and serious fans, and the serious fans are the ones with permission to use 'we'.

To answer your rhetorical questions:

* You're always a consumer, regardless of the price point. If I attend a free concert sponsored by Coke, I'm still a consumer.

* Regarding your Genoa example, of course consumers have power. They can influence corporations and modify outcomes. Just because players--company employees--modify their behaviour under the influence of fans--the consumers--doesn't mean we should somehow blend the two groups.

Brenton said...

"I also object to the delineation that there are casual fans and serious fans, and the serious fans are the ones with permission to use 'we'."

As do I. But I don't think I've done that. What I've identified is why some people feel that, as well as to suggest almost anyone can self-identify with most communities, so a "casual" fan can feel anything they want. And I would counter-object to the idea that anyone can give permission on this.

"Feeling like a participant and being a participant aren't the same things. And I don't think 'participating' is the same thing as belonging to an organization..."

What I've done poorly is try to expand the idea of organization to the idea of community. I considered exploring the various roles within an organization (in this case the Whitecaps) and exploring those grey areas that could open us up to the idea that you or I could be part of the Whitecaps community. Matchday volunteers, supporters groups that cooperate with the admin on matchday happenings, etc. But I was too tired to keep going.

Unknown said...

Any blog post that ends by quoting Dennis Denuto deserves a considered response.

Sports teams are now treated as businesses where fans pay for a product and owners (they hope) take the profits. American sports are brazen about that. I couldn't believe the first time I watched a world series final that the trophy is presented first to the winning owners, not the players.

Football has its roots still in the idea of a club. As a club, the price paid by the fans is their contribution to the success of the club - of a common endeavour. There are no profits, no shareholders, just supporters and members.

Think of 'we' as a way to reclaim that club ethos. Sure, it can feel a bit fake if you take a very literal view of the modern business of sport, but as a customer you can still influence an organization. Make the owners see the value of creating a community of 'we', and they will see their interests are aligned - pehaps we can really entrench that club spirit in MLS!

Brenton said...

I like that, Rich. Thanks for commenting.