On Distant Fandom

On April 2, 2011, India won its second Cricket World Cup. But unlike most other cricket fans, I didn’t watch the final in its entirety. For a ninety-minute stretch, I was watching Manchester United produce a typically wondrous comeback against West Ham United. It was a significant win without which any joy at India’s triumph would have been unmistakably sullied. Even though I was born and raised in India my attachment to a soccer club — one that I’ve never seen play in the flesh — was stronger. When, a few weeks later, on May 14, Manchester United clinched its 19th league title and surpassed Liverpool’s long-held record, I felt transcendent joy.

My love for Manchester United is intangible, unearthly, and distant, yet also somehow intimate. Fandom is, no doubt, an innately groundless phenomenon, but to experience adoration for a soccer club that is more than 5,000 miles away appears particularly irrational. Yet it is a phenomenon that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., India, and around the world, are experiencing. Why would someone in New York City, or Sydney, be so inextricably linked to a club in Europe, a team to which he or she has no geographical or physical connection? 

Psychologists in recent years have studied fandom as a unique sociological phenomenon. Daniel L. Wann, a professor at Murray State University, and a pioneer in the field, developed a “Team Identification-Social Psychology Health Model.” He sought to show that a fan’s psychological well-being increases proportionally with his or her attachment to a sports team. He also writes that psychological health is boosted by team identification — not because of the identification, per se, but because fandom connects the fan socially with others.  

Now, this may well be true for people who meet regularly with other fans, whether it is in a sports pub, or at someone’s home, or in the stadium. But often for long-distance fans with no geographical connection to their sports team, using their fandom as a means to increase their social connectivity is implausible, and at any rate not part of the agenda.  

Wann also writes that fans of distant teams can benefit from a similar kind of social network, even if the connection is often only temporary. For instance, when a distant fan is watching his team on television with several other fans of his team, he is likely to enjoy a greater level of social well-being. Wann says that in the case of strongly identified sports fans, sports plays a significant role in that it triggers a series of emotional reactions, ranging from anger to happiness, anxiety to satisfaction, but crucially it helps in the creation of a powerful social bond. This, again, doesn’t apply to a long-distance sports fan for whom the relationship with the sports team is at an entirely personal level — one in which he wants to share his pleasure and his sorrow with no one else.

Benjamin Winegard, a doctoral candidate in the psychological sciences department at the University of Missouri, has sought to amplify Wann’s studies, through an evolutionary psychology argument. He says, in a jointly written article with Robert O. Deaner, that sports fandom is the “by-product of an evolved coalitional psychology” — that it is the modern embodiment of an inherent tribal sensibility.

If Wann and Winegard see fandom as offering the satisfactions of modern tribalism, Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, takes a radically different view. Cashmore, the author of the book “Making Sense of Sports,” says that fandom today is driven by a market-type relationship. He believes that it doesn’t fulfill the role that it did in the late 19th early 20th centuries.

“The origins of soccer were rooted in the locality, in the district. There was a social function — a set of people who went to work together, maybe, who worshiped at the same church, and so on,” said Cashmore in a phone interview. “Being a fan of the same soccer club defied any kind of rational thought or decision making. You didn’t grow up in a district and wonder ‘what team must I support?’ It was in the local DNA really.” 

Cashmore believes television, and the advent of the mobile phone and the Internet, have changed things, making soccer a commodity that can be bought and sold like anything else. “Everything we do connected with being a fan involves consuming,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world anymore, because your relationship with the club is not merely emotional. It’s almost as if the emotion is a by-product of a consumptive relationship — that wasn’t part of the earlier social function that it served.”

Cashmore’s argument is, perhaps, given credence by the sheer magnitude of European soccer today. For instance, the English Premier League — a commercial behemoth established in 1992 comprising the country’s top 20 teams — that was initially slow to exploit the international market, entered into a $2.2 billion deal with 98 broadcasters from 211 countries in 2009, marking an increase of more than 100 percent on the previous deal. Many teams now have supporters clubs across the world, and European soccer is now in all senses of the phrase, a global sport. The clubs no longer have a clear, emotional tie with the immediate neighborhood where they are located. The role that they play has changed — while they once seemingly fostered the creation of indissoluble social bonds, they are now commercial machines.

However, Cashmore does recognize that emotion continues to play an important part in fandom, even if he believes that it is at a more abstract level. “We now have a community of consumers, rather than a community of people who once weren’t connected through consumption, so it makes it slightly less real.”

But the argument that consumerism by itself is a more recent phenomenon, I would contend, is itself somewhat specious. Organized football, at a competitive level, has always worked through a market-economy formula. Fans in earlier eras may have supported teams that their fathers supported and so on, but clubs were still looking to make money through the game — tickets have always been bought and sold. Fandom, even back in the day — to use a phrase preferred by romantics —involved aspects of a consumerist relationship. Merely because fans today choose their teams due to marketing via newer media, as opposed to supporting a team that is from their locality or that their family supported, doesn’t necessarily make fandom inherently less pure than it was earlier. That said, the advent of television and the increased globalization of the sport have admittedly given it a somewhat plastic feel — certainly more so, I’d imagine, than in the years gone by.

However, even if one were to assume that being a sports fan in today’s world is built more around consumerism than ever before — it is implausible, for instance, that Eric Cantona, and concomitantly Manchester United, would have come into my life without the television’s aid — the psychological and physiological impact of fandom cannot be underplayed. Why must something that is seemingly intangible affect a fan as profoundly as it often does? Why must a sport team’s loss send a supporter — even a distant one like me — into a deep, dark abyss, which could not  be more withdrawn from reality?

It is, perhaps, as Grant Farred, a professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center, says, in a book on his long-distance love for Liverpool, entrenched in pathology. In a phone interview, Farred told me that his love for Liverpool is the purest thing he has ever experienced; yet it is something that is rooted in a made-up world. As with Farred’s experience with Liverpool, watching Manchester United, hasn’t, for me, been about a sense of community, or about forming a social bond — for all its distance, and for all the lack of geographical links, it has been an absolute and intimate experience. It hasn’t been about hanging out in sports bars or going to out at 3 in the morning after a Champions League win, and bursting firecrackers or hugging people on the street, but about a more quaint, inner joy.

Wann’s research notes the need for “escape” to be a chief cause of fandom, and in my case, soccer — and Manchester United, in particular — has certainly served as an escape valve. It has allowed me to suspend disbelief, and to live in an alternate universe. If I feel happy, I turn to Paul Scholes, and if I feel sad, I still turn to Scholes.

But as Cashmore says, it is impossible for a fandom of this ilk to have developed in the absence of technology and globalization. Watching soccer and supporting a club — particularly from a distance — may involve some sort of a physical action, but it remains an inherently consumerist activity, whether one wants to accept it or not. It saddens me to think that my love for Manchester United is grounded in consumerism, but even that choice is driven by emotion, as Cashmore points out. He likens fandom — as Garry Crawford has in his book, “Consuming Sport: fans, sport and culture” — to an “imagined community,” akin to the concept coined by Benedict Anderson. “The imagined community, however,” says Cashmore, “has become a virtual imagined community.”

Its basis in consumerism today has meant that fandom doesn’t fulfill all the needs that it, perhaps, once did, but it plays a different role. It still creates bonds that are incapable of being broken. It’s still embedded in pathology. It may be an insane, irrational and illusory feeling, but it still often feels beautiful. The 19th league title in a real world should matter nothing to me. But the real world can be a boring place to live in.

— Suhrith Parthasarathy 

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