Exploring the concept of fluid sports fandom
While driving recently, I stumbled upon a BBC Radio 4 segment exploring gender-fluidity. Presented by Victoria Derbyshire, the latest edition of AntiSocial featured Charlie Deakin Davies of the Trans Creative Collective, who spoke eloquently about their journey. Laced with intellectual rigour, the discussion resonated with me on a deep – albeit tangential – level. Though it may seem trivial or insensitive, I drew parallels between non-binary identity and my experience as a capricious sports fan as Charlie spoke. Just as gender-fluid people celebrate humanity beyond arbitrary labels, I thought, perhaps sports fans can enjoy different teams without feeling ashamed. Perhaps an entirely new kind of fan can be acknowledged amid such liberalism – a fan who refuses to be identified by their support of specific club(s).
Of course, this is a topic close to my heart. After all, I wrote a book about my unending quest to make sense of taboo sporting allegiances – Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart. In short, I was once a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, only to later identify with the New York Yankees, their sworn nemesis, when Red Sox ownership purchased Liverpool FC, kryptonite to Tranmere Rovers, my only non-negotiable love. I declared an everlasting affection for the Yankees in Conflict, published in 2020, but my sports fandom has remained complicated in the intervening years. So much so, Deakin Davies’ poignant radio analysis struck a chord with me, and I want to explore those emotions in greater detail.
In many ways, for the past decade, I have lived in the gloom of internalised sports fan shame – a struggle similar to, though much less important than, that of a gender-fluid person yet to come out. The fear of scorn, bullying, judgement, cancellation, misunderstanding and mockery is near-ubiquitous, and a sufficiently safe outlet for expression rarely presents itself. I even alluded to this challenge in the epilogue to Conflict, writing as follows:
“For years, I was stuck in the wrong body. Not in the classic sense of gender identity or sexuality, you understand, but in relation to my fandom of various Major League Baseball teams. Through fear of judgment, stigma and professional repercussions, I lived a lie, or more accurately several lies, losing myself as a result.
Writing this book has been a cathartic experience, and opening up about my struggles is exceptionally rewarding. I’m currently enjoying relief from the pent-up fear, anxiety and confusion. I’m finally living my truth, and that is a wonderful feeling.
In telling my story and admitting grave transgressions in the court of baseball opinion, I have derived great motivation and inspiration from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Equating mere baseball allegiance with any of those core concerns is myopic, but the spirit of discovery and emancipation fostered by that brave movement is certainly mutual to my journey.
In retrospect, caring too much has been a common factor in all my mental breakdowns. That baseline insecurity and frustrated narcissism lends itself to shyness, obsession, anger, depression, anxiety and social paralysis. For too long, I lived my life in the context of other people, attempting to fit in at great internal expense. My taboo baseball fandom was informed by that concept, and I modified my emotions for too long.
The first 24 years of my life were ruled by emotional immaturity. I had only a tenuous grasp of the real world, and my place within it seemed a harsh inconvenience. I developed fake personas just to fit in, neglecting my inner values for some vague, transient notion of communal respect.
After meeting Patrycja, I experienced a series of revelations. I did a lot of growing up – and fast. I discovered the uncomfortable truth that there is little overarching meaning to life except that which we create ourselves. Accordingly, we may as well create positive internal dialogue, because unceasing intramural chatter is all we can ever be sure of.
Through gritted teeth and innumerable meltdowns, I learned to stop giving a fuck about the opinions of other people. Nobody really gives a shit. And in the rare instance that they do give a shit, the modern attention span means they will scroll onwards after 30 seconds of indignation anyway, searching for the next nugget of instantly gratifying drama.
The sooner we understand that no single person holds more than a modicum of wider significance, the sooner we can get on with living happier lives. In the elaborate timespan of global history, what I say, do and achieve has infinitesimal importance. To a great extent, I do not matter. Therefore, your reactions to my story are also inconsequential.
When faced with this concept of futility, we tend to invest in things that help us escape its definitive tone. In that context, sports matter, and those people who view baseball as their chief alleviator of uselessness will find treason in my rooting for the New York Yankees after once adoring the Boston Red Sox.
However, in the broader scheme of life, and in our grander place among the tapestry of human existence, my interest in one baseball team over another has almost no consequence. Most people will raise an eyebrow, shrug insouciantly and sigh uncaringly before worrying about something else - some new thing that seems important but is actually rather meaningless as well.
Nobody cares. Everybody has their own problems that do not mean anything to anybody else. Such is the isolating complexity of chronic self-doubt and untamed arrogance. Such is the unsolvable dilemma of life.”
In many areas – gender, religion, sexuality – we are throwing off the shackles of regurgitated bigotry, but sports fandom seems beholden to ancient toxic strictures. Broadly, this is an age of emancipation, and as highlighted by the Radio 4 debate, everything is fluid nowadays, so why should our sporting allegiances be exempt from that phenomenon? I contend they should not. Rather, each individual should be allowed to enjoy sports however they want – free from ridicule and shame.
Though it is difficult for some cynics to comprehend, there are people out there who, like me, admire the Yankees and Red Sox. However, those people – exceedingly rare and admittedly unorthodox – lack the confidence and platform to vocalise their nonconformism. Ultimately, it is easier to internalise unpopular passions than to express them wholly, and that is a recipe for pent-up angst.
Globalisation and the changing sports fan
Traditionally, sports fandom was arbitrary and one-dimensional. Historically, our favourite teams were largely predetermined – chiefly by geographical proximity or familial kinship. One generation passed allegiances to the next like treasured heirlooms, and challenging the automated status quo carried serious consequences, including banishment and ostracisation. However, in a time of rampant globalisation, where our planet shrinks every day, those conventional catalysts of fandom are less influential. Whereas previous generations had access to few local sports teams, the complete digitisation of life provides the modern fan with instant, incessant access to all sports teams. Civic pride is suitably diluted, and a global market gnaws at our fingertips – Real Madrid and the Dallas Cowboys suddenly vying for the attention once monopolised by nearby minnows.
Sports are increasingly packaged and sold to us as entertainment, and maybe we should treat them as such. You would never stick exclusively to one streaming platform, or subscribe to a lone YouTube channel, so why bind yourself to one team per sport? There is a whole world out there – a free market, indeed, of clubs competing for the attention and affection of captive audiences. Fluid fandom – where consumers engage with different teams sporadically – is the logical endpoint of such a dynamic, and shopping around for value and contentment represents sound economics.
Racked by cognitive dissonance, rigid fans often tolerate egregious transgressions by their allotted teams, so long as the probability of winning is increased. Hence Astros fans defending sign-stealing. Hence Yankees fan cheering for Aroldis Chapman. Hence Giants fans lauding Barry Bonds. On the contrary, fluid fans flex and scale their support, aligning sporting passion with personal values. As such, fluid fans can pivot when parsimonious team owners refuse to invest, or when aloof team presidents say something dumb. Rationally, then, rigid fans seem destined for misery, while fluid fans are programmed to seek joy.
Introducing The Fluid Fan™
Olympic gold medallist Angela Ruggiero has been at the vanguard of this movement for years. As the CEO and cofounder of The Sports Innovation Lab, Ruggiero has built a prosperous second career in ‘fan intelligence,’ using data to help clients better understand their audiences. In February 2020, The Sports Innovation Lab published a fascinating report – The Fluid Fan™ is Here: How to engage the continuously changing fluid fan – that described how fluid fans have become more willing to change allegiances, follow individual players and participate in disparate fan communities than their predecessors.
“For decades, the sports and entertainment industry has operated differently than other businesses,” explained the report. “It has relied on enormously popular sports properties with generations of diehard fans defined by geography, loyalty, and rivalry. Despite this success, the diehard fan is not the path to growth for the sports and entertainment industry. There is a new path to growth, and that is the Fluid Fan. Fluid Fans are open to change, empowered to choose, and continuously evolving. They move from one form of entertainment to another. They consume sports media and content in shorter bursts of interest instead of longer, committed periods of ritualistic spectatorship.”
I certainly identify with this description, and many sports fans would if freed from the toxic stigma surrounding their allegiances. Following the release of Conflict, I’m known ostensibly as a Yankees fan, and that is undeniably true, but I do not hate the Red Sox, as per typical Bronx automaticity. In fact, I have tremendous respect for the Red Sox, and – shock horror – I even have fond memories from my time rooting for them as a kid. I still enjoy the work of Red Sox uberfan Jared Carrabis, and I will happily watch a midsummer game from Fenway Park. To some, those revelations are sacrilege, but to others – the fluid fans and mature adults among us – they are common sense.
You see, here is the rub: I like many teams, in many sports, in many countries. I’m mesmerised by the Dodgers’ pristine brand. I’m agog at the Cubs’ beautiful ballpark. I’m fascinated by the Seattle Mariners’ recently-snapped playoff drought. I respect the Cardinals’ fine tradition. I admire the passion of Oakland A’s fans. I appreciate the clashing baseball philosophies of Miami, Colorado, Arizona, San Diego and San Francisco. There is something to like and dislike about every team that has ever existed, so all rooting choices are shallow and arbitrary.
Take football as another example. Yes, I have been a devout Tranmere Rovers fan since birth, and love for that club oozes through my blood, but I still enjoy – if not quite adore – other teams. I still yearn for Galatasaray to fulfil its monolithic potential. I still want Boca Juniors to beat River Plate. I still like to see Juventus do well in Serie A. Similar connections dot my sporting conscience, and I have largely ineffable synergy with PSV and Ajax; Legia Warsaw and Wisła Kraków; Club América and FC København.
Then we have the landmine of broader North American sports, and attempting to navigate the boobytrapped arena of NFL, NBA and NHL fandom as an Englishman far removed from the hub of daily action. I’m no gridiron scholar, but again, several teams intrigue me – from the Cowboys’ illustrious glitz to the Packers’ quirky fan ownership; from the 49ers’ iconic uniforms to the Saints’ embodiment of New Orleans pride; from the Patriots’ metronomic greatness to the Dolphins’ fabled history. Heck, I even cheered for the Seahawks during the infamous Fail Mary game, while Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow may be the coolest man alive right now. Add in fleeting hockey interests (Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Bruins, Golden Knights, Kraken) and occasional basketball dalliances (Lakers, Celtics, Warriors) – and, well, the lack of civic ties encourages my sports promiscuity.
Amid such an ecosystem – where fans have access to every club around the world at their fingertips – teams that do not embrace supporter fluidity will be left behind. More specifically, teams that do not make their games, content, merchandise and memberships instantly accessible to everyone are doomed to obsolescence. Leagues and teams are gradually bypassing legacy networks in favour of instantaneous, direct-to-consumer alternatives, and those who refuse to keep up are committing commercial suicide. Take Galatasaray or the Tokyo Giants, for instance. Right now, I cannot easily watch their games. I want to. I’m ready to give them my money for a reliable product. But neither team has embraced fluid fans – a shortcoming that will undercut and erode traditional advantages they once took for granted.
The difference between bandwagon, fair-weather and fluid fans
Upon reading the litany of sporting powerhouses to which I’m attracted, many readers will recoil in horror. A slew of labels will instantly spring to mind – bandwagon fan; frontrunner; gloryhunter. None of those slurs bother me because they are inaccurate. More pertinently, prejudice will always exist, but it is nobody’s business which teams I root for. Nobody can tell me – or you – how to be a fan, just as nobody can tell me – or you – how to identify on any given day. So do what makes you happy, regardless of external opinions.
So-called bandwagon fans are shrouded in stigma. Throughout sports, few protagonists receive more abuse than fans who change loyalties. Google yields 6 million results for ‘bandwagon fan,’ with people mocked in blogs, derided in videos and teased in reels. What is so bad about bandwagoners? Well, people tend to conflate sports fandom with the other, more conventional relationships in life – romantic trysts, chiefly, whose religious overtones consider infidelity and adultery to be mortal sins. We take sports far too seriously, in other words, and people project their own insecurities onto others.
I have no issue with bandwagon fans. If people pay their money for a ticket, they can enjoy the game however they want – even taking off a Real Madrid shirt to reveal a Barcelona jersey, for all I care. In reality, though, there are clear differences between fluid fans and bandwagon fans that are often misunderstood. The former is broadly unmoved by success, while the latter is solely motivated by success. Fluid fans enjoy success as a happy coincidence of their affiliations with specific teams, but they do not seek glory entirely. Remember, the Yankees have not won the World Series for 14 years, and the Cowboys last won a Super Bowl in 1995, but I still follow both organisations. A bandwagon fan would discard them after each agonising playoff loss.
As such, another frequent taunt – that of the fair-weather fan – is similarly redundant when describing my sporting interests. I giddily watch meaningless September ballgames between the hapless Colorado Rockies and Miami Marlins – two teams who have never won their respective divisions. I keenly check the results of Wisła, even though they are now in the Polish second division. And I even keep an eye on Vauxhall Motors, a club within walking distance of my house currently mired in the ninth tier of English football. I’m drawn not to success, per se, but rather to classy aesthetics, enjoyable vibes and absorbing stories. And the best stories are often forged in hardship.
“Part of the fair-weather fan judgment lies in the terminology,” writes Jack Bowen for OnlySky. “Fair-weather fans aren’t actually fans in the true sense. ‘Fan’ is derived from ‘fanatic’ – one who supports their respective team with uncritical devotion and zeal. As such, we may consider referring to the fair-weather fan with a more accurate and positive term: the aficionado – ‘a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about an activity, subject or pastime.’”
To that end, maybe fluid fans are not fans at all. Maybe we are aficionados, as Bowen argues, or connoisseurs. Perhaps we are savants, or polymaths, or neurodiverse sporting consumers. Alternatively, perhaps sexuality offers the best simulacrum of my sporting fandom. Just because pansexuals can be attracted to people regardless of their gender, it does not mean they are attracted to all people. Likewise, fluid sports fans – or whatever we call them – can enjoy many teams in many sports, but they do not associate with all teams in all sports. We can actively and consistently dislike many teams, in fact – a line of demarcation from bandwagoners and fair-weather acolytes.
It is okay – and often irresistible – to root for multiple sports teams
Undoubtedly, riding the highs and lows with a particular team heightens the emotional impact of victory and defeat. As a lifelong Tranmere fan who followed the club for 17 years before seeing them lift a trophy, I can certainly attest to the euphoric potential of delayed gratification. However, enduring tedious hardship is not the only way to intensify eventual glory. Last year, for example, I was consumed by Real Madrid’s miraculous Champions League run, packed with improbable comebacks and unlikely goals that had me skipping around my living room in glee. I even attended their momentous semi-final against Manchester City, marvelling at the skill of Luka Modrić and Karim Benzema. I did not need a prior association with Real to appreciate the depths of their epochal majesty.
Of course, it is acceptable to ask a fluid fan what happens when two of their favourite teams meet, especially in a major game. Many detractors anticipate wild oscillations in mood and identification, but that is not my experience. Rather, for me, a leading persona often comes to the fore in such circumstances – not unlike ‘alters’ in borderline personality disorder (BPD) or dissociative identity disorder (DID). And while it is generally unwise to liken innocuous sports fandom to serious personality disorders, fluid fans can have multiple alter egos that exist – and thrive – in parallel universes. Momentary excitement leaves an eternal footprint in this regard, and siloed identities can occur simultaneously.
For instance, after living and dying with every Red Sox pitch between 2005 and 2008 – including a glorious championship in 2007 – part of me will always be a Masshole, keen to wear a Manny Ramírez shirsey while supping beers on the Green Monster. But by the same token, after falling in love with the Yankees in 2014, part of me will always be a diehard bleacher creature, reminiscing about Derek Jeter at every available opportunity. For so long, these personas have been mutually exclusive – forbidden by the laws of sporting hatred – but the rise of sports fluidity offers a route to harmonious coexistence.
Sports fans can learn a lot from gender-fluid expression
Just as gender-fluid people do not choose their gender on a given day, I do not consciously pick my sports teams each morning. It just happens naturally – inside out, rather than outside in. There is no concerted, conscious choice to identify with the Yankees, Red Sox or any other team at specific times. It just happens. It just is. Some days, I feel more aligned with one team than another. Other days, I feel unmoved by any teams. There is also a deep introversion to my sports fandom that makes seismic shifts – between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, say, or between Ajax and Juventus – seem subtle. In turn, without an expressive outlet, that imperceptible change causes internalised frustration, which often overflows into passive-aggressive agitation.
Once again, I can relate to gender-fluid fluctuation – typically triggered by internal or external factors – in this area. Various things – scents, songs, television shows, clothes, conversations – can spark stronger feelings of stereotypical ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ in gender-fluid people. Likewise, my interest in particular sports teams is often exacerbated by my circumstances. For example, watching Fever Pitch stimulates the Red Sox fan in me, while hearing any Joe DiMaggio story activates my latent Yankee rooter. The same vacillation occurs in football – Tranmere notwithstanding – and many other sports. As an obsessive-compulsive multipotentialite, I struggle to resist these inquisitive urges.
The cult of sports fandom
Overall, there is a poisonous tribalism to traditional sports fandom that stunts our enjoyment of the central art. Blind faith encourages distorted vision and toxic intolerance, with hatred becoming the common glue of sports rhetoric. However, fluid fans can rise above that petty sniping. Fluid fans can watch a Yankees-Red Sox game and appreciate both teams – their histories, traditions, brands and players – without being consumed by vitriol, which is tiring and misery-making. After all, sports are supposed to provide fun escapism, not torturous agony, and the fluid fan embodies that mission – seeking light entertainment rather than deep indoctrination.
To that end, there are cult-like dynamics to traditional sports fanbases, including in-groups and out-groups among devotees – a hierarchy of influence decided by extremes of knowledge, passion and loyalty. If you cannot identify the top 20 prospects of a chosen baseball team, alpha fans will disown you. If you do not use trendy soccer vernacular – gegenpress; low block; expected goals – hipster gurus will chastise you. And if you do not keep abreast of every free agent rumour, basketball doyens will denigrate you. But what if you do not want sports to occupy such a large space in your life? What if you do not want a vicarious defeat to eat you up and make you miserable all week? What if you just want sports to make you happy for a few hours each weekend? There has to be an outlet for that hobbyist spirit. We must make sports fandom more inclusive and less extreme.
Broaching the concept of sports fan free agency, where fantasy becomes reality
“Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city,” Jerry Seinfeld once said in a famous comedy routine. “You are actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt – they hate him now. ‘Boo! Different shirt! Boo!’”
Privately, though, people have long been curious about more flexible fandom, as evidenced by the advent and proliferation of fantasy sports since the 1980s. A new issue quickly emerged in this field: players perplexed when good outcomes for their fantasy teams concurred with bad outcomes for their real-life teams. Internal discord and fragmented attention duly enveloped modern fandom, and consensus on an effective workaround has never been reached. Today, more than 62 million people play fantasy sports in North America alone, according to the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association, all demonstrating degrees of fluid fandom. Most do not even realise it.
Indeed, to everyone but traditional fans, the concept of loyalty in sport has become oxymoronic – an alien concept from another age. The 2004 Red Sox are rightly lauded across New England for embodying Yankee hatred en route to a World Series title, but six of the players on that Boston roster later played for the Yankees. Meanwhile, John Henry once owned parts of both franchises simultaneously, a far cry from mere private rooting, so perhaps none of this matters at all. If owners can diversify their portfolios, divesting and investing on a whim, why must fans linger in situ? And if players can swap jerseys for big contracts, riding the free agency carousel, why must fans lurk in purgatory? Maybe they should not. Maybe they should regain control of their destiny.
Live your truth and cheer for whoever you want
Adding another layer to the discussion, some people watch sports impartially, without feeling the need to identify with either team on display in a specific game. Sure, there are matches that fail to pique my interest, and matches where I do not associate with either team, but expecting to watch vast amounts of sport and elude partisan pondering is unrealistic. We gain opinions, instincts and preferences by osmosis, and increased participation correlates with manifold associations. The more we watch, listen and read, the more teams we naturally like and dislike.
For so many years, I never understood that. In fact, I actively fought it. For over a decade, I worried and fretted about the many teams in my passionate penumbra, trying to minimise affiliations and delete stray feelings. In many ways, my struggle was dysphoric: I felt a profound sense of unease and dissatisfaction with my identity as a sports fan. Yet with maturity came self-understanding, and with self-understanding came confidence. Contrary to minimalist decluttering, so sacrosanct in our milieu, I now believe more can sometimes make us happier – by obliterating the arbitrary rules that deprive us of spontaneous joy.
As such, you do not have to explain why you like specific sports teams. You do not have to caveat every opinion or qualify every exultation. You do not have to pay taxes in Los Angeles to cheer for the Dodgers, nor do you have to be a Michigan graduate to wear a Wolverines hoodie. You do not need German ancestors to appreciate Bayern Munich, nor do you require season tickets to validate a passionate opinion about Celtic or Rangers. Stop playing that game. Stop complying with that charade. Stop rewriting history to make the present more bearable. Instead, become a fluid fan. Wear what you want. Watch what you want. Cheer when you want, for whoever you want, at whatever volume you want. Let your heart explore freely, rather than welding it to a set course.
Some people like apples. Some people like oranges. Some people like both. Some people liked apples as a kid but grew to prefer oranges as an adult. Some people liked oranges as a teenager then appreciated apples as a pensioner. Some people prefer grapes to apples or oranges. And the beautiful thing is that nobody can say who is right or wrong. Nobody can dictate your truth. So live and let live. Grow up and move on. Have the courage to stop holding yourself back.
Ultimately, some of the conclusions I drew in Conflict remain useful. The sports fandom of any one individual is staggeringly insignificant in the grand scheme of our existence. Viewed from a cosmic perspective, sports do not matter, so our mere interactions with sports protagonists – teams, managers, players, owners – are even more irrelevant. However, amid the plodding granularity of everyday life, sports do matter, mainly as a source of escapism. To that end, my journey continues, even after writing the book. I’m still learning about myself, and my sports fandom, every single day, and I’m thankful for the nuggets of wisdom that feed a more pragmatic outlook.
AntiSocial on Radio 4 delivered such nuggets recently, and I’m grateful for the insights imparted by Charlie Deakin Davies and others. The Trans Creative Collective does great work, and I’m sure Charlie’s erudite opinions helped scores of people listening to the radio that day – including me, even though I’m neither transgender nor gender-fluid. Rarely have I been more enlightened by a piece of media content. I still have plenty to learn, including about my own implicit biases, and comparing sports fandom to gender identity feels clunky, but this is what came out when I sat down to write. This is what has been waiting to come out for many years, and I have finally found the words. Do with them as you see fit.