Can Sports Fandom Be Created From Nothing? An Experiment

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I was at a sports bar talking to Mary-Ann, the bartender. She was pretty skeptical when I told her that I’m trying to become a baseball fan.

"How old are you now?" Mary-Ann asked.

"Twenty-three," I said.

"If you're not into baseball, you ain't gonna get into baseball now. Because it's boring," she said. "It's like watching golf."

This place, the Internet told me, is maybe the best White Sox bar in Chicago. I assumed that meant drunks screaming at the TV. Not the case. A half-dozen fans watched the Sox game on this sleepy Saturday in June — and I came to watch them, to see what it might mean to be part of this tribe.

Oakland Athletics v Chicago White Sox
The White Sox make up half of the Crosstown Classic rivalry. (David Banks/Getty Images)

My girlfriend Susie and I live in Chicago, though we’ve never paid much attention to the Bulls, or the Bears or anyone — until this spring, when our friends went nuts watching the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. It was hard not to feel like we were missing something.

And this would be the summer we tried to find it.

Windy City Showdown

Why baseball? Because I like hot dogs, and Susie wanted a baseball hat.

"I was like, 'Maybe I'll get a Cubs hat, because I'm a Cubs fan,'" she said. "And then I realized, no, I'm not."

Susie’s family says they like the Cubs, but they rarely watch games. I went to college near where their rivals, the White Sox, play. So, just for fun, we engineered a little rivalry: Sox fan me versus Cubs fan her.

At least, that’s what we aspired to be. What we were was two people who’d rather see a Broadway show than the World Series. Was it just too late for us, as Mary-Ann suggested? And even if we managed to get into our teams, would we — could we — ever experience a real rivalry?

In a couple of months, the two Chicago teams were going to face each other in a series of games known as the "Crosstown Classic." We would have tickets to the ballpark that weekend, we decided. And we’d find out whether team loyalty can really be a conscious choice.

Formative Experiences

"I graduated high school in 1969," Mary-Ann said, recounting some of her early baseball memories. "That's when the Cubs were good."

She works at a White Sox bar, but Mary-Ann herself is a Cubs fan. Back in high school, she'd go to games with her friends and fawn over the players.

"I mean they had Randy Hundley, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks ... [Dick] Selma! He used to go by the bleachers and get the bleacher bums screaming," she said.

Pretty much every real fan I talked to had a personal story like this. But Susie and I hadn't had those formative experiences. We needed another way in.

We described this dilemma to Chris, a Cubs fan we met at another bar, just across the street from Wrigley Field. His solution?

"As soon as you pass through the walls of Wrigley Field, you are overcome by — by the magic of baseball. If that doesn't make you a baseball fan, or a Cub fan or any fan of ... summer then there's no point in talking to you right now," he said.

Susie herself was convinced — we needed to go to a game at Wrigley. But before then, we had some work to do.

Raising The Stakes

For so-called fans, Susie and I didn’t know much about our teams or baseball. So when we realized that the Sox and the Cubs were already playing the season's first installment of the Crosstown Classic, we made a point to watch the game at a nearby bar.

"Loser makes the winner dinner," Susie declared.

As we watched, we Googled the gibberish acronyms that appeared on the TV screen.

"An RBI is a run batted in," Susie said.

She started to recognize the Cubs players. She took a liking to Kris Bryant, the talented and handsome third-baseman.

The Sox lost, meaning I was making tacos. But for the first time, we both found ourselves getting into the game. It was fun! And it felt like this whole “fan” thing might be within our reach.

Two weeks later, we finally got to a Cubs game. As we walked into Wrigley and find our seats, Susie was beaming.

"It's beautiful," she said. "You can see the history."

She had spent the day watching YouTube videos about Kris Bryant.

"His nickname is 'The Silk,'" she said.

We settled in with some brats and beers. It was a perfect summer night — warm, breezy, not a cloud in the sky. And it was a heckuva game, with the Cubs and the Colorado Rockies both racking up runs. Suddenly, it was the bottom of the ninth.

"C'mon Kris! Oh this is my guy!" Susie cheered.

Susie and Jake attempt to show off their competitive spirit. (Courtesy Jake Smith)
Susie and Jake attempt to show off their competitive spirit. (Courtesy Jake Smith)

The Cubs were down by one. Kris Bryant stepped up to the plate and hit a homer to give the Cubs a one-run win.

Feeling Like Fans

A change had come over Susie. Over the course of a few hours, she’d become a Cubs fan for life. In those same few hours, Kris Bryant had singlehandedly undermined our relationship. Just kidding. But as we headed home, even I, the longtime sports cynic, had to admit — that was incredible. It’s hard not to get caught up in the thrill of a dramatic win at home.

But at the same time, I wondered if I should resent the Cubs for winning? Because I didn’t. And maybe that made me less of a Sox fan?

The weeks passed. Before we knew it, Susie and I were heading down to the Cell, home of the White Sox, for the Crosstown Classic, our final showdown. We found our seats, looking across a rowdy sea of red, white, blue and black.

"Let's go Cubbies!" Susie said.

"Let's go White Sox!" I answered.

We were reveling in our rivalry, and all was good, until the ninth inning. The Sox were down by one, and a row of Cubs fans behind us started talking smack. “Look at the scoreboard!” they yelled at a nearby group of Sox fans. The Sox fans shouted back something nasty. It quickly escalated.

This was the kind of macho nonsense that’s always turned me off of sports. I shook my head as three security guards came over and threatened to kick out the belligerent Cubs fans. Things calmed down just in time to watch Avisail Garcia hit a pop fly for the third out and a White Sox loss.

(Courtesy Jake Smith)
Despite rooting for opposing teams, Jake and Susie managed to stay smiling. (Courtesy Jake Smith)

After the game, Susie and I sat in the stands talking.

"The question was can we become fans," Susie said. "I definitely feel like a fan."

"I feel like I couldn’t really get into it this time, because there was so much negativity," I said. "Kind of ruined it for me."

The Results Are In  

A few weeks later, I got an email promising me free White Sox tickets if I filled out a survey. The first question: "On a scale of 1 to 5, how much of a White Sox fan are you?”

Yes, Susie and I enjoy watching baseball now. And yeah, I’ll keep rooting for the White Sox. But does that really make me part of the club? After all, I’m never going to throw a punch to defend "my" team. All my life, it’s felt like that's the kind of thing that rivalries are built on.

But there’s more to it than that. If Mary Ann can work at a White Sox bar and never doubt her dedication to the Cubs, then maybe I don’t have to throw a fit when the Cubs win, or even when my girlfriend swoons over Kris Bryant.

I checked box number three on the survey: average White Sox fan.

This segment aired on September 19, 2015.



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