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And the crowd goes wild!” This oft-repeated phrase represents the reality of twenty-first-century spectator sports, which are routinely watched by millions of people across a nation or across the world. It also represents a wide range of spectator behavior, ranging from rooting for the home team to rioting in the streets. The words rooter, booster, adoring multitude, football hooligan, soccer mom, hockey dad, and the viewers at home conjure images of fans watching sports with various levels of intensity. Some of these words have positive connotations and some negative, but they all describe a similar experience that touches the lives of a large segment of the world’s population.
During the past millennium the number of people who watch sporting events has grown from a few in person spectators to enormous television and live audiences, and as the audiences have grown, the pressure of fan (short for fanatic) expectations has modified sports and society, often eclipsing the action on the field and distorting the purpose of sports. With the advent of mass communication mediums such as radio and television during the twentieth century, the base population that could experience sporting events in real time expanded exponentially.
Fans have existed as long as sports. Sports require specialized skill, so not all people can participate. The unskilled have had to be content to watch. The ancient Olympic Games of Greece provided spectacle as well as a way of determining the best athletes and honoring the gods. The ultimate venue for sports fans in the ancient world was undoubtedly the Roman Colosseum, where sixty thousand spectators could watch gladiators battle to the death. Medieval jousting tournaments provided mass entertainment as well as military training and display. Large crowds also watched blood sports such as bear baiting or bullfighting, and these sports continued to be popular into the modern age. The crowds always went wild for those sports, but relatively few people actually witnessed them.
During the late nineteenth century entrepreneurs built larger venues for spectator sports as leisure time and in-comes grew for the middle classes, and by the 1920s seating capacity at some exceeded that of the Colosseum. These secular cathedrals to sports allowed thousands to watch their favorite teams at one time. Civic pride became invested in a city’s ability to provide venues for their citizens, and construction of these facilities outstripped that of other entertainment venues such as opera houses or theaters as the middle class absorbed working-class sports into their dominant culture.
As the popularity of sports spread, fans in cities distant from the action could follow the fortunes of their favorites in newspapers and in periodicals such as the Police Gazette in the United States and the Sporting Life in Great Britain. Young boys were regaled with stories such as Tom Brown’s School Days in Britain or the popular Frank Merriwell series in the United States, which blended sports with morality tales to nurture manly virtue in readers. The wealthy abandoned popular sports, withdrawing behind the walls of golf, yacht, and tennis clubs, and held events with fewer, but presumably, more refined fans.
When radio began to broadcast major sporting events such as the World Series and championship prize fights, the number of sports fans exploded. Prior to radio, fans clustered about businesses with telephone or telegraph connections where scores or updates were posted as an inducement to shoppers or as a public service. By the 1920s major sporting events such as boxing title matches, college bowl games, and the World Series could be enjoyed by fans a continent away from the action. The expansion of team loyalties meant that a fan of the Chicago Cubs might find a kindred soul in Florida or California, and the new medium also helped widen the appeal of sports within U.S. culture.
Radio, people have argued, was the media that best suited baseball. The slow pace of the game allowed a sportscaster such as Graham MacNamee, who was at the microphone for the first broadcast of a World Series game in 1923, or Ronald Reagan, whose first job in the entertainment industry was as a baseball announcer, to fill the time between pitches with biographical and statistical information on the players or to discuss the finer points of baseball strategy. The lack of a visual image allowed creative radio personalities to embellish routine plays, which made the games more exciting for fans, who were compelled to imagine visual images to supplement the narrative coming over the radio waves.
After World War II television eroded radio’s dominance in sports broadcasting. In the United States sporting preferences shifted toward football, which was better suited to television as a spectacle. College football, formerly the province of the educated classes, reached out to new fans as first radio and then television began to broadcast the games to an often-nationwide audience.
The pool of fans grew to include those fans who never actually attended a school but who formed an emotional attachment to a school through the media. This attachment was especially powerful when the school embodied a particular cultural trait or existed in a region with little competition from other sporting activities. The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame University reached across geographic borders to win fans among U.S. Catholics. The team’s popularity among even non-Catholics also helped ease its full assimilation into the mainstream of U.S. culture. The University of Nebraska Cornhuskers provided a unifying symbol for an entire state whose residents had little in else in common.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) approached television gingerly, fearing that it would decrease gate receipts, but professional football embraced the new medium of television and in the process won a central place in the hearts of U.S. fans. The popularity of the National Football League and other broadcast sports in the United States began to draw enormous sums of money to the sporting world through television revenue, and television and sports formed a symbiotic relationship that created an upward spiral of popularity among fans.
Proliferation Of Choices
Television expanded the popularity of sports within U.S. culture, and programs such as the American Broad-casting Company’s Wide World of Sports introduced new sports that appealed to people who traditionally ignored sports. Members of the two-television family could now separate by viewing choices, with the males watching football while females watched figure skating. During the late 1980s the proliferation of cable television channels further diversified fan opportunities, with channels or pay-per-view packages devoted to major sports, as fans of poker, billiards, bass fishing, and a dizzying array of other sports enjoyed their own niche programs. The cable sports channel ESPN offered fans the chance to catch up on news from their favorite sports twenty-four hours a day, and ESPN Classic allowed young and old enthusiasts to watch the best games and matches from past years. For those fans who would rather argue than watch, or argue after watching, radio regained popularity by offering sports talk shows on which fans could comment on their favorite teams or sports, and television followed suit with celebrity argument and/or interview programs.
Outside the United States football (soccer) reigns supreme, and the quadrennial World Cup matches are watched by a large percentage of the world’s population. Each nation has other folk sports, such as cricket in the United Kingdom, that have gained a wider following within and without its borders through television. Rugby, horseracing, and other sports are also popular among fans worldwide and have likewise benefited from television’s constant courtship of people eighteen to forty-nine years old, who spend the most money and therefore are coveted by advertisers.
Today even fans in remote areas can follow their favorite sports. However, why would they would want to? Fans watch sports, whether on television or in person, because it fulfills a need.
Some fans watch a sport because they played the sport in their youth, and watching it allows them to relive past thrills and agonies. Young fans can sit at the feet of their elders and absorb the lore of the sport from men and women who played the sport when they were young. The former athletes can remember, often with advantage, the exploits of their youth and recapture some small part of the joy they felt while competing. Such fan groups are often quite exclusive, being open only to the initiated, and members share the common language of the sport, which is typically incomprehensible to those who did not play.
For some, spectator sports are social events and an excuse to hold gatherings of friends. The sports party has become a hallowed ritual for millions who gather with their friends to discuss the team’s chances before, during, and after the game while consuming elaborate feasts, which are no less impressive because of the simplicity of the fare. These parties may occur in a residence, at a tailgate party in the parking lot outside the stadium or field, or in a business constructed for such celebrations: the sports bar. Sports enthusiasts across the world charter buses, planes, or trains to carry them to contests. These groupings usually are less exclusive and attract a wide cross-section of fans, from the ex-athlete to the casual fan.
Young fans can dream of one day taking their place on the field, and many visualize themselves making the moves of their heroes while playing in the backyard or on the street. A time-honored tradition is the crowd of young fans who surrounds athletes for autographs, although the value of memorabilia in the latter decades of the twentieth century gave rise to a more mercenary class of athlete and fan. When a fan party includes the initiated, it often serves as a rite of passage for young enthusiasts as they learn the folkways involved in spending a lifetime enamored with a sport.
Following a team or sport also provides a venue for consumption, and the sports-memorabilia and licensed-product markets bring in millions annually. During the 1990s economic boom, baseball cards and other memorabilia prices set record highs and spawned their own subculture. Every professional team, college team, and many high school teams offer a wide array of product choices from current uniforms to classic replicas and the hats, clocks, and other bric-a-brac to complement them.
Finally, many fans use sports to escape from the drudgeries of everyday life. Following a team or a sport provides the opportunity to connect to something larger than the individual and to transcend everyday cares. When a player such as the U.S. basketball star Michael Jordan or the British soccer star David Beckham does the impossible, the escapist fan can forget for the moment his or her own powerlessness and the futility of a humdrum existence.
Sports offer a thrilling way for teams or individuals to compete for dominance, but the result rarely carries permanent consequences for real life. Many people would dispute the latter point, and often civic, regional, or even national pride becomes intertwined in the action, which adds to the vicarious thrill gained from rooting for the home team. During the Cold War the quadrennial Olympic Games became a venue for competition that often served as an alternative to more serious conflict. Tremendous controversies surrounded how Olympic team points should be awarded or whether men’s and women’s results should be kept separate. The lofty goals of the Olympic movement descended to the level of a playground argument in the competition for allegiance among nonaligned nations in the global struggle, and fans from the opposing sides gleefully joined in the fray, questioning the amateur standing, the drug use, or even the biological sex of the athletes from the other side.
By participating in sports as spectators, fans gain a feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves, and often times this feeling leads to extreme or bizarre behavior. During the 1996 World Cup finals, in a game pitting the United States against Colombia, a Colombian defenseman inadvertently kicked the ball into his own goal, which counted as a score for the United States and led to his team’s defeat. A week later, the player was dead, gunned down in the street by an irate fan. Some British soccer fans are notorious for their violence, and these soccer hooligans, along with similar fans from other nations, often eclipse the headlines earned by the teams they root for. When a team wins or loses a championship or sometimes a regular season game, police often face a night of rioting. Parents watching their children’s games have often become irate and even violent when the breaks go against their children. In Chicago a man watching his son’s hockey game became so enraged by the decisions made by the team’s coach that he beat the coach to death.
Even when fan behavior is not violent, it is often still bizarre, especially when television is present. Even casual National Football League viewers have seen fans in northern cities standing bare-chested in subzero weather, and during the 1970s one fan with a multicolored Afro wig seemed to attend every televised game. The early years of Monday Night Football were marked by a carnival atmosphere in the stands as women, often exotic dancers in search of publicity, performed suggestively for the cameras. One fan has made a career of impersonating players or referees to gain access to the field at important sporting matches. Games in various sports have been interrupted by streakers running naked across the field while officials give chase, and Morgana the Kissing Bandit, a well-endowed woman, made a career of turning up at sporting events to interrupt the action by kissing players.
Brazilian soccer games often resemble giant parties, with drums being pounded throughout, the fans singing, and flags waving. Beach balls are bounced around stadiums by fans who, when not so engaged, often take time out to do the wave, a synchronized movement of fans standing up in sequence so that it resembles an ocean wave. At basketball games fans behind the backboard often have balloons or towels that are waved in an attempt to distract opposing players when they shoot foul shots. In the television age the fan has often become an integral part of the action, rather than a passive spectator, and the notion that their actions matter has spurred fans to ever-greater exertions.
Sometimes fans suffer for their few seconds of fame. During a football game between the Baltimore Colts and the Miami Dolphins in 1971, an exuberant fan ran onto the field and passed close to the Colts defensive huddle. Mike Curtis, the middle linebacker for the Colts, proved his reputation for hitting by viciously knocking the fan to the ground. The man later lost his job and had to spend considerable time in the hospital because of the injuries he received. In a soccer game in Belgium in 1985, fans attacking the opposition crowd were held up at a barrier fence. When those behind continued to push, the fence collapsed, and thirty-nine were killed and hundreds injured. During the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, a young fan named “Bart-man,” hoping to take a souvenir home from the game, tipped a foul ball out of the Cub leftfielder’s glove, giving the Marlins another chance, which they exploited to win the game and the series. Bartman received tremendous attention from the media, and when his name became public, he received hate mail and death threats from other fans who were livid that the young man had helped extend the Cubs’ absence from the World Series.
Such actions, and the emotions caused by them, have become part of the spectacle of modern sports, inseparable from the behavior of the true enthusiast.
Sports provide a way for fans who are so inclined to act out their personal dramas. This behavior is not a modern phenomenon, however, and from the beginning of sports as a spectacle, fan behavior has often bordered on the psychotic. At the ancient Roman gladiatorial matches, when given the chance, fans screamed for the life or death of the unlucky loser of a match. Bullfight fans have attempted or succeeded in crippling the animal adversary of their favorites, and horseracing fans have likewise interfered with the performance of horses or jockeys. These actions most often occur in the context of gambling on sports, another area of participation enjoyed by fans. Early baseball games were often marred by the sound of gunfire as fans (known then as “cranks”) in the stadium attempted to distract players on the field, and in one case a war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras after a soccer game.
Whether merely enjoying the action or reveling in the spectacle, fans transformed the act of watching games and in some cases threatened the meaning of sports. In the early twenty-first century the Internet has opened whole new vistas for fan participation. Fantasy sports are a multimillion-dollar business in the United States, and some people argue that fantasy sports hold the potential to alter the bond between fan and team that has been a mark of the sports fan in the past because lineups are assembled from players of various teams, weakening the traditional ties. Television’s need for new programming has also made sports of pastimes and will continue to influence the evolution of what it means to be a fan.
Whatever the result, the fan occupies a central place within the world of competitive sports at all levels and in nearly all areas of the planet. With television few people cannot be a fan of some sport, and the growth of the fan base, along with the idea that the spectator is part of the action, has altered both sports and culture.
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