On the Meaning of Being a Fan: One Perspective

Jared Wickerham - Getty Images

It is impossible to tell others how to be fans, but it is possible to share one fan's story.

September was a brutal month for me as a sports fan.

We've all been there before, certainly some of us more than others. If you're a fan of multiple teams, there are periods when it appears that the form of one team will influence the form of another, even in a different league or different sport. Most of the time, a week or weekend will finish with a mixed result, so if one team had a particularly bad loss, well the win from another beloved team will even things out. But there are times that seem like following a particular group of teams is like gambling, and when the streak is hot, life is good! But when the streak is bad, it seems there's no refuge, and on some level, sports are supposed to provide some enjoyment, some entertainment from a regular daily existence. For me, September was a cold streak like none I can remember.

The Molding of a Fan

I grew up in Michigan, near Detroit, and therefore root for the Detroit teams in all of the professional sports. Being from a place with major pro sports, I was lucky in the sense that my teams were easy to pick. I didn't need to hem and haw over which baseball team I would follow, for example. I was a Detroit Tigers fan. And so on.

I got hooked on sports in 1988, when I was just getting into school. The Detroit Pistons were in the NBA Finals that year. They played the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pistons lost that year, but they came back to beat the Lakers the next year in the Finals, then won a second title the following year. Basically, in my very first years of knowing about and caring about sports, I had a team that lost a title and won the very next year. I learned the highs and lows from the very start.

One of the key narratives for fans of Detroit's teams is that it seems like at any given time, one team is very good and maybe even pushing for a championship, while another team is absolutely awful, and the other two teams are in the middle. For nearly all of my life, the Lions have been the awful team, while the Red Wings and Pistons have traded time at the top, winning multiple titles each. The Pistons have been bad too, and the Tigers have been all over the place. Its this sense of equilibrium that gives the fans perspective, making it clear that a team cannot compete for a title every year, but titles usually come in cycles, so if you give it time, a bad team will turn things around eventually. It isn't scientific, as the Lions have been bad for decades, with a few pretty good years mixed in, and the Red Wings being elite for nearly 20 years.

If I grew up in a different place, would my perspective be different? No doubt. I have no idea if I would fathom the concept of hope if I was from Cleveland, and I am sure I would be as demanding as any Laker fan if I grew up in Southern California. We are molded by our environments, and I think the Detroit environment gave me a level head, that success is hard to achieve, and failure a part of the overall process.

The Process of Selecting a Team

When I moved to Southern California in 2005, I originally had no intention of selecting any local teams to root for. I already had my teams, they would always be my teams, end of story.

But then I realized I had an opportunity. Michigan had no professional soccer team. I could pick a soccer team!

Sometime in 2006, I decided I needed to pick an MLS team. It was of course between Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy won a title in 2005, as I remembered watching on my TV with crappy rabbit ears. I didn't want to jump on the bandwagon, that takes no effort whatsoever. I tentatively decided to go with Chivas USA, then when the Galaxy announced they had signed David Beckham, my decision was made. I was not going to be somebody who joined a team when the prospects were rosiest, I was going to see a team get built from nearly the ground floor. With my training as a Detroit sports fan, I figured it would be that much sweeter when success was realized.

Here's the deal: if you root for Chivas USA, you picked them too. You were not born into it (I assume there aren't many seven year-olds reading this blog), and of course, location most likely played a part, but you had to make a conscious choice. For many Galaxy fans who jumped aboard between 1996-2004, the geography probably played a big role in making their selections for them, but every single Chivas fan had a choice, and you all chose Chivas, just like me. Our rationale may have differed, but the age of the team meant we had an opportunity to do something that many fans never even consider: we had the agency to decide.

Consequences

Chivas were good the first few years after I became a fan, so that was a good sign for my selection. No, they didn't win any trophies, but they were building what looked like a good foundation for the future, and really starting to turn some heads.

The past three seasons, however, have been more bad than good, and in stretches like the current one, when Chivas literally can't score or earn any points, I wonder what I've gotten myself into. Yes, I knew Chivas were going to be underdogs, but I didn't know I'd have to deal with not only insults about the team, but also despicable treatment from strangers, just for liking a certain team (on that front, I may have been naive, but I don't get called racist epithets for liking the Pistons, for example). I didn't realize this team would become the league's whipping boy, in more ways than one, or that I would need to be concerned about the team's literal future.

Heading into the Future Unknown

Chivas' current losing streak couldn't come at a worse time for the team's sales staff, who are hustling to try and convince current season ticket holders to renew for next year. I've heard a lot of talk from Chivas' fans who are saying they are considering not renewing. I'm sure there are some of you who aren't even telling people - you're just cutting bait quietly.

I can't tell you how to be a fan. I don't think there is one right way to be a fan. Since professional sports are first and foremost a business, the strategy of "voting with the pocketbook" is absolutely valid and one that can give management and owners pause. It also helps to validate my theory that if Chivas were winning regularly, they would be retaining and bringing in more fans, since its pretty tough to sell a potential fan on a continually losing product. So, if you are inclined to let Jorge Vergara know that you aren't happy with this team and won't renew your tickets for next year, go ahead.

At the same time, I can't implore you to stick with this team no matter what. If I was confident that Chivas followed the Detroit model and would eventually pull through and become successful, then I would have no problem advocating that folks tough it out. But even the Lions prove to be the exception to the rule in Detroit, and if Chivas follow on that path, it will be decades, if ever, before the team gets its act together.

The truth is that Chivas USA are in a moment of transition. Transition to what is unknown, and I've already written about the spectrum of possibilities, at least in the next year or so. Given the club's and owner's track record, I am hesitant to be really excited about the future of the team, or if there really is a future. But none of us knows what the future holds. It can be anything from winning a title in LA to moving out of town, and anything in between. If the team is going to turn the ship around in a big way, you're going to want to stick around now, to remember the process from the worst times to the best. If the club's future isn't ultimately in Southern California, you don't want to be the fools who followed the team even when a move was as clear as day. I understand.

In the end, I can't give you any unsolicited advice as to how to proceed. Its been a rough couple of months in particular, with really no bright spots, and watching a beloved team lose over and over again can crush the soul. I know you are sick of it, and so am I. We support the team, but they just can't get their act together.

But I'm going to stick with the team anyway. I've never dropped a team, and I'm not about to start. For all the doom and gloom of the Michigan weather and economy, it seems the place produces optimists. The road may get better, or it may be more of the same. I may get left with the moving expenses. But when Chivas get back into a lofty position, when they make a final or win silverware or even at this point get back in the playoffs, I will look back at this post, to remind me of that vital first lesson as a sports fan, that these things happen in cycles.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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