Why are you a fan of your team? Why do you consider them "yours"? Why does the fan say "we lost last night" or "we need to trade so and so" or "we… (anything)"? You're not on the team. You never were. You never will be. You, individually, don't have the slightest impact on the outcome of a single game. So how does the "we" come into it?
I've never received a satisfying answer to this question from a fan (and I'm not a fan myself - otherwise, it wouldn't have occurred to me to explore this). They might have always cheered for their team, or always lived where the team comes from, or their Dad came from the team's hometown, but that doesn't actually answer the question if you press the point. Why does common geography create a powerful connection? Why the sense of emotional involvement? If I keep asking these questions, the answers dry up. They don't really know why. They just feel it. There's an instinctive pull, an automatic identification. An ironclad one.
There's a deep human need that's being addressed with this phenomenon. What is it? Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve?
First, let's look at the irrationality of identifying with a team.
As mentioned, you're not on the team. You never were.
Actually, once upon a time, you were. Your ancestors were, anyway. In the Middle Ages, peasants played an early version of soccer, and entire villages were pitted against each other - men, women and children, booting a pig's bladder back and forth. Games happened in the context of carnival, folk celebrations in which there was dancing, feasting, masquerading and physical activity for every single person. Picture yourself as part of that village vs. village pig bladder boot-a-thon. You'd know everyone on your team, no need for jerseys, or shirts vs skins. You might watch a foot race as part of the festivities, but when the dancing came, or the bladder soccer, not to mention the feasting, everyone participated. Universal involvement. Direct emotional investment.
Communal movement and revelry was a profound source of social bonding which goes way, way back in human history, excellently detailed in Barbara Ehrenreich's book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (this is my second article drawing from it, I love it so goddam much)(here's a link to the first)(so if you're wondering where I'm getting any of the facts in this article from, there's your answer)(and read the book - it'll blow your miiiiiiiiind!!!).
Nowadays, kids play various sports in community and school teams. Again, the emotional investment makes complete sense. It's my team. I'm either on the field, or waiting for my chance to get out there. Go team!
Noam Chomsky described a moment in high school where he suddenly wondered why he was expected to cheer for his school team. He didn't know anyone on it. Why did it matter to him whether they won or lost? Perhaps he attended a big school. I went to a little one. I did know the players. Some were my best friends. I wanted them to win. That's the last time I remember feeling that sensation. And it was real.
With the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, the players are all drawn from the country they represent. That connection makes sense. They spring from that region's genetic stock. A winning Spanish team means, by extension, that Spanish genes produce better soccer players.
But it's easy to knock that argument down. There are athletic Spaniards, but also fat Spaniards, skinny Spaniards, intellectual Spaniards, nautical Spaniards, Spaniards who live in front of their computers. To argue that an entire people, defined by geographic, political, religious or traditional boundaries, have uniform abilities, superiorities, inferiorities, proclivities, etc, is absurd. There are Spanish cops, Spanish junkies, Spanish clowns, Spanish drag queens, Spanish pastry chefs, Spanish beggars, Spanish accountants, Spanish piano teachers, and Spanish tailors. Tall Spaniards, short Spaniards, Spaniards with coke-bottle glasses, barrel-chested Spaniards and Spaniards with peg legs. Soccer might have a stronger prominence in Spanish culture than it does in countries whose teams never come close to winning, but the general Spanish population is as varied as any that of any nation.
And really, all of the seemingly logical justifications for why people identify with a team that I presented a few paragraphs ago also fall apart, if you apply the slightest scrutiny. Kids are just as likely, if not more, to get excited about the victories of their favourite professional team as they are about the school or little league team they actually play on. Average high schoolers might be bullied by the jocks, or feel ineligible to be part of the dating pool because of the social hierarchy the athletes sit at the crown of. The biggest US colleges command the most fervent and loyal fans, and these are the ones where it's least likely that the average student will ever encounter any of the team members anywhere other than seeing them in the stadium. Furthermore, people fervently cheer for schools they never attended, in parts of the country they've never visited. With professional teams, if there's a player who actually comes from the city he plays for, it's a coincidence. If the fans love a player, or an entire team, and the owner finds it profitable to trade him or them... to hell with the fans, that trade is made!
And yet the identification is tremendous. And powerful. And emotional. As a Sports Illustrated writer expressed it in 1992:
Sports have become so desentimentalized that it's hard to believe anyone can even root for the same team from one year to the next. Neither players nor owners seem to acknowledge the fans' loyalty, much less repay it. And yet every time you walk into a ballpark or flip on ESPN, there seem to be more and more superfans, megafans, uberfans; fans who yell louder, dress louder, spend more, suffer more, exult more and even seem to care more.
So leave logic behind. Consider the powerful, illogical emotions involved. This widespread phenomenon has something to tell us about being human. There's an instinctive and powerful pull to be part of something bigger. We evolved in families, villages, tribes, clans. We hunted in groups. We fended off predators by stamping and chanting in unison (or so theorizes Barbara Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Streets). We farmed communally. For hundreds of thousands of years, there's been a strong adaptive advantage in feeling the pull to be part of a group. I am them. They are me. Their efforts are mine, and vice versa. I look out for them, they've got my back too. The solitary grump was left to fend for himself, and had a harder time surviving and passing down his genes. In Ancient Greece, the worst punishment wasn't death, it was exile.
In the genteel West, we don't fight off predatory animals anymore. Hunting is a pastime. Family farms are disappearing. Battalion style combat involves a very small percentage of us. So this survival mechanism that was essential for our survival for millennia has found itself with nothing to do, no function to fulfill. Leaving a void. And sports fandom filled it.
Some fans appreciate the game intellectually, the athletes and plays interacting like chess pieces on a grand scale. But since the 60s and 70s, the fans have started participating more and more. As much as possible.
The wave. Chants. Songs: by the mid 90s, German fans created and memorized thirty to fifty songs. Some original, some set to familiar rock songs.
Face paint. Jerseys. Costumes, both elaborate and simple (cheeseheads for Packers fans, viking helmets for Vikings fans, pig snouts for Redskins fans)(all of which became popular long before ready-made versions were available in team stores). Famous fans (Big Dawg, for the Cleveland Browns, the green men (spandex bodysuit-clad Canucks fans, who always sit behind the opponents' penalty box), Crazy George, the San Diego Chicken).
Dancing. South American fans dance to the beat of drums they bring and play themselves. Sao Paolo's Corinthians soccer team have an organization of fans called the Hawks of the Faithful, who sing a song called "Fly, Hawk" and stretch their arms out, turning from side to side, imitating birds in flight. English soccer fans in the 70s pogo jumped, making sections of the crowd seem to heave like rough water. English soccer fans also invented "synchro-clapping," with their hands held over their heads. A psychologist, baffled by how such coordination could be achieved with no leader (before the jumbotron), said "How this remarkable precision is achieved, within what most people would see as a disorderly rabble, is a mystery… it is orderly to an almost absurd extent."
All of these elements actually fit the pattern of traditional carnival quite well, it turns out. Jerseys, pig snouts and face paint directly mimic the kind of carnival costuming one still sees in Rio or New Orleans. Costumes of any kind bestow anonymity, and level normal social roles. The guy in the pig snout next to you might earn ten times your salary, but you're both wearing the same snout, you're both engaged in the same emotional situation, going through the same literal and figurative ups and downs together. And the game itself excites the politician and the Oscar winning filmmaker as much as it does the machinist and the dry-waller. The famous fan or the furry mascot is the carnival's king of fools: a deliberate inversion of the actual power hierarchy to allow peasants to blow off steam. Carnival feasting became gorging concession stand hot dogs, peanuts, crackerjacks, nachos with gloopy liquid cheese-like stuff, and endless paper cups of watery beer. Tailgate parties have been common since the 50s, with music, cheering, and grilled meats as well as any food associated with the region, which is routinely traded for beer among strangers in the parking lot, as usual social norms of keeping boundaries are temporarily relaxed.
As opposed to theatres, the fans sit facing each other in the stadium. A fan's line of sight includes thousands of other fans. And in the age of TV and jumbotrons fans are often given moments in the spotlight - an enticing possibility for anyone in any seat. It's what gave Pamela Anderson her big break.
The fan may not participate in the game directly, but he's actively part of the overall event, which includes the game, just like carnival included pig-bladder booting. And this participation is active. Intensely so, in some cases. Susan Faludi wrote of the Cleveland Browns fans "the Dawgs":
Rabid fans increasingly became focused not on helping the players perform but on cultivating their own performances. The show in the stands began to conflict with, even undermine, the drama on the gridiron.
Purists might dislike this kind of fandom, but their scoffs are easily drown out by the rapturous joy of the fans, who may only half-understand the intricacies of the rules and the relationships and histories of the players, teams and leagues. But make no mistake, those cries are real, and so is the joy. You'll hear it in the stands, in the bars, and in living rooms. Even the fans who aren't at the arena will costume themselves in jerseys, and feast on pizza, chips and bottles of beer.
And maybe this incarnation will wither and die. This style of fandom and fan participation grew organically out of the natural impulses of the common spectator, in the cheapest seats. It took a while for the businessmen to realize the income potential from this culture and fully exploit it, but they're right on board with that now. Between 1980 and 2003, American cities saw the erection of one hundred and one stadiums, each with a capacity of 70 000 or so. The cost of this must have been tremendous. Stadiums are routinely named after corporate sponsors now. Seats in many cities have become prohibitively expensive for the exact fans who made the games such events in the first place. Season tickets are bought by the very wealthy, and are often done so as a status symbol. English soccer stadiums don't have standing room sections anymore, where the cheapest admission used to be, and where the fan traditions emerged from. Jerseys, hats, flags and paraphernalia of all kinds are sold in the team store and in other stores all over the city, raking in truckloads of cash. Songs aren't sung spontaneously anymore, nor are chants, they're prompted by the jumbotron, as is the Wave.
I'm certainly not predicting a decline in sports fandom. The strength of the culture in spite of this overall commercialization shows its power. But if the primal need of people to gather and celebrate together, to sing, move, costume up and abandon one's usual role isn't satisfied in the stadiums, it'll find a way to emerge somewhere else, like a persistent bubble in the wallpaper that simply refuses to be flattened for long and pops up somewhere else, somewhere unexpected, but just as strong, and showing the same shape it had before, if you take the time to give it a good look.