As I wrote before, sometimes sports heroes need to be viewed from a distance. Similarly, a bit of squinting is sometimes needed to understand why someone follows a particular team, when there is no readily apparent geographic connection by neighborhood, city, or even state or county (in the British sense of counties, not the American).
Blackburn, for instance. It’s a town in Lancashire, England, and all I know about it I learned from a Beatles song, Wikipedia, and World Soccer. Basically, there are 4,000 holes there, remnants of a textile industry, and Blackburn Rovers Football Club.
I’ve never been to Blackburn. I doubt I ever will. I’ve met people from Manchester, Leigh-On-Sea, East Grinstead, Liverpool, London, but never Blackburn. But I assume it exists.
Until now, I had always pictured it as full of coal and iron, but apparently that’s wrong (a history of textiles, weaving, and cotton was more like it). So I don’t even know what the town’s about, although I do know they sport the Lancashire Rose as part of their emblem, famous for a connection to the War of the Roses.
No, wait. I meant Wars, plural.
Blackburn Rovers have had fortunes rise and fall with no practical bearing on my life. And yet I’ve always thought about Blackburn, at least from time to time, for the past 25-30 years. All because of a song and a matter of timing.
When I was 10 (or maybe 11), my dad and I started watching weekly Premier League highlight shows on TBS. It was the first time I’d had a chance to see top-flight English soccer, and it felt like I’d gained admission to a privileged club.
The player who first caught my eye, Alan Shearer, would go on to secure my longstanding allegiance to his hometown club, Newcastle United. But at the time, he sported the blue-and-white, halved-vertically kit of Blackburn Rovers, and I was enchanted. I loved the color palette and the jersey pattern. And the name: “Blackburn Rovers”. It sounded a dramatic name depicting a dynamic bunch of go-getters. And, because it was English soccer, I felt that sort of smug joy that niche fans crave (see High Fidelity) – obviously English soccer has never been exactly a boutique interest, but honestly, if you were in Hamilton, Montana in the early 90s, most people wouldn’t have known a Blackburn Rover from a Land Rover – actually, that’s not true, because everyone would have known a Land Rover.
If not many others shared that interest in soccer, save the scientists at the Rocky Mountain Labs and a few others who helped populate the summer pick-up soccer games, well, that was okay with me. I needed a special story of who I was and what I liked.
Really, when it comes to picking a team to support in a sport you like, if you don’t have a local side, you can always use an arbitrary reason, like the story that’s the most fun to tell. Some people call this bandwagon-jumping, but that’s only true if you happen to choose a team that wins all the time, like the Patriots or Manchester City. That’s just cheating.
Anyway, until I was 9, I didn’t have to choose randomly for teams to follow. I lived in Santa Rosa, California; as that was the peak time of life for developing rooting obsessions, I naturally adopted the Giants, the A’s, the 49ers, and the Warriors as my forever teams. But what about kids who grew up in Montana?
Kids in Hamilton choose the Seahawks, the Mariners, the Packers, the Broncos, later the Rockies. Those were the closest big league franchises. But there were others. I remember at least one fan of the Miami Dolphins; my friend Vaughn had, as his second favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, even though he had never been east of Minneapolis. While still roughly geographic, in most cases, these choices could be said to stretch the credibility of calling a team ‘local’.
So when you don’t have a local team, how do you pick a team with no inherent association other than random circumstance, one string of storyline that tugs at your attention?
And Blackburn’s story was good, until it wasn’t. They won the title, and then Alan Shearer left for Newcastle United. Blackburn stayed in the Premier League, and then ran into trouble and fell away, dropping all the way to League One in 2017-18 before rebounding to the League Championship the next year. (League One sounds pretty good, but it’s actually the third division. And the League Championship is the second division. Got it?)
So since I was a fan by choice, I let my attention wander away from Blackburn a bit, like a player from Wycombe Wanderers. But every now and then, I check the standings to see how they’re doing. If they’re fighting for promotion, I feel a spark of pleasure. If they’re solidly mid-table as they are currently, I feel satisfied that the orbit of life remains stable. If they appear to be plummeting towards relegation, well, I feel a passing pity. But it is my choice. It’s the same sort of benevolent indifference with which I can check on the status of Hellas Verona in Serie A after reading A Season With Verona.
That’s the nice thing about being a fan by choice. It isn’t as cruel as being a fan by faith. And you’re less apt to get all frenzied and mean. It gives you a team to follow to measure how well a given season is going, even if you don’t have anything personal invested in the outcome.
Fan by choice vs. fan by faith. Not faith as in the belief in a celestial beautiful truth, but that visceral, in-the-guts knowledge that Your Team, your city, your state, your people are fundamentally and morally better than everyone (of course, coming from the guts, that’s also completely full of s**t, but no one cares).
Fan by faith can be a weird thing. Take Newcastle United. When Alan Shearer joined them, I chose to switch over to following the Magpies. Shearer’s long gone, but still I follow them, through agonies and joys, but mostly agonies (already suffered through one relegation, and another is likely this year). For some reason, that choice mutated into a faith, an addiction as unshakeable as that to the San Francisco Giants.
To be a fan by faith composes a weird part of your identity and emotional well-being that has nothing to do with you, your own talents, your own contributions. You’ve chosen this particular team as a totem for your value in the cosmos. You call them “we” even though you’ve never entered the locker room and would be arrested if you did.
Weird. But just wait ’til next year when we win everything. Then it will all make sense.