Game On: Bandwagoning

Growing up, I would watch football with my family every Sunday. My parents were both fanatics and knew more intricacies of the game than anybody I knew. As students at the University of Washington, they became devoted Seahawks fans and raised us the same way. It seemed like their way of assimilating to American culture. They might know nothing about American film, and still refer to Leonardo DiCaprio as “that blonde guy from Titanic,” but every Sunday they would sit my sisters and me down in front of the TV so  we could watch the Seahawks play.

Coming to college, I always had to defend my love for the Seahawks. People would give me a confused look and ask, “But wait… aren’t you from New Jersey?” I would launch into my tirade: “My parents met, went to school in, and were married in Seattle! That that’s where my oldest sister was born and Seattle is where my family was formed. The Seahawks are the team I learned to love from the people who taught me football, and supporting any other team would be a betrayal of the home I grew up in.”

But instead of hearing all of this, people would just see the Seahawks consistent playoff runs and two straight Super Bowl appearances and scoff, “Ugh, bandwagoner.” The insult always got under my skin.

But I had never really analyzed why it bothered me until I started watching basketball at Tufts. Over winter break one year, my dad watched a game with me enthusiastically. I was amazed at how much he knew about the sport and why, if he cared so much, this was the first game we were ever watching together. His response surprised me even more.

“Oh I used to watch basketball all of the time, I was a huge Lakers fan!”

“Baba!” I called out, appalled. “You’re a bandwagoner!”

My father first came to this country in 1984 to get his Masters at Virginia Tech. After two years, he moved to Seattle, where he lived for many years, got married, and had his first daughter. Years later, he moved back to the east coast where I was born. None of these places are even remotely related to Los Angeles (or Minneapolis, the city where the Lakers were originally located for about 13 years until relocating to LA).

Conveniently though, the Lakers had won five championships within the decade my dad came to America. Their lineup included Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and the team was likely to continue winning.

Now, after all of my arguing with strangers who barely knew me and defending my Seahawks fandom, I was learning that my own father was a bandwagoner. But my dad wasn’t fazed.

“Those were the only games that were on, Shreya,” he replied coolly. “You couldn’t just pull up the stream to any game you wanted to watch. You watched the games that were shown on TV and those games involved the best teams. Teams like the Lakers.”

His explanation seemed to make sense to me, but it still didn’t sit quite right. Hidden in his statement was an admission that he liked the Lakers because they were good, and that felt wrong. Fandom is supposed to be out of a genuine and tried relationship with a team. I didn’t love the Seahawks because they won and I wanted people to know it. I had an absolute and authentic connection with the team; winning is just the icing on the cake.

I don’t think this innate need for a genuine connection is unique to sports. I spent the spring semester of my junior year abroad in Madrid. For a couple of weekends, I’d travel to other cities in Europe. On every trip, without fail, one of my friends  would ask, “What do the locals here do? I don’t want to be a tourist.” This seemed strange to me considering the fact that, we were literally tourists. There was no way we could escape that label when we were only staying for a weekend. Regardless, we had a strong desire to create a genuine connection to the city we were in. Sightseeing and taking pictures of landmarks made it clear that we didn’t know the city or belong.

Part of me sees our aversion to bandwagoning in the same light: as part of an  aspiration to be considered authentic. Another part of me sees the label as a gatekeeping mechanism. Fandom is a curious thing;there’s no technical way to prove your status. Franchises want to grow their bases in order to increase merchandise and ticket sales, but fans themselves might feel the opposite way. For Eagles fans who suffered through watching their team try and fail to make it past the first weekend of the Playoffs for almost a decade, it was a thrill seeing the team win the Super Bowl last year. Cheering alongside them were plenty of people who lived “just outside of Philly” and hadn’t watched a game for years. Labeling these “other” fans as “bandwagoners” allows “genuine” fans to claim they rank above the others. This twinge of a hierarchy makes the name sting and forces fans like me to defend ourselves when someone tries to tell us our fandom is inferior to theirs.  

As a term, bandwagoning also conveys the idea that your devotion isn’t true unless it’s tested. Being a fan of a team that consistently wins is easy. Maintaining your fandom of a team that goes 2-14 is a lot harder. The general view is that if you can be a fan of the latter, then you must be tried and true “genuine” fan of the sport. I’m just as guilty of this line of thinking as anyone else.

I had the misfortune of watching the most recent Super Bowl gamewith a group of Patriots fans. As Tom Brady and the Patriots made their third straight Super Bowl appearance and won their sixth Super Bowl Championship, my friend cheered along loudly. Despite him growing up in New England, this was the first football game he had seen all season. While I watched almost every single game, he struggles to understand the rules for punting. I rolled my eyes and held back my urge to slander the Patriots in front of this group of rowdy fans.

Under my breath I scoffed, “You’re not even a Patriots fan, you’re just a fan of winning.”

He smirked and responded, “What’s wrong with winning?”

Of course, there is nothing logically wrong with winning. The point of the game is to put more points on the board than the opponent and teams that can do that should be celebrated. But fandom, at its core, is highly illogical. I can parse out all the reasons Baba was a Lakers fan and understand the rationale. Regardless, when someone labels me a “bandwagoner,” it will always sting.

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