NTSF 109: Shifting allegiances in a digital age, Champions League groups hit halfway point, Olympic medal for sale and more…
Wednesday morning really left me with a lot of time to think, and boy was there plenty to think about. I was up before 4:00 am, waking up to drive my wife to the airport for a week away on business. (Sweetheart that she was, having been up awake all night unable to sleep, she had a cup of coffee in hand for me as soon as I walked in the kitchen.) As I drove home in the pre-dawn fog of a cool autumnal morning, her plane turned northward for the short hop to Portland before jetting eastward to DC, I tuned the dial to the local sports-radio station here in Eugene. Mike and Mike in the Morning met my ears, and what else would they be discussing on an October weekday but NFL football?
The topic of discussion? The two Mikes were polling fans about what matters more on any given Sunday, a win by a favorite team or a win for a person’s fantasy team. Or, more aptly, they were asking what got a fan more worked up — a loss by a favorite team or a loss by the fantasy team. By and large, the results made my head swim as one after another the callers voted en masse that, if forced to choose just one team’s victory in a given week, they’d pick their fantasy squads’ success.
Loyalty these days, it seems, goes only so far as individual gratification. While I must admit that I have been cajoled into trying my hand at various fantasy sports, it was precisely this diversion of my focus away from my ingrained rooting interests that has always turned me off and left my teams ignored within weeks. I found myself at the beginning refusing to pick a player from a multitude of teams which for one reason or another drew my unabashed ire. Apparently it is just another non-traditional trait of mine, though, as the proliferation and popularity of fantasy sports has created a wider population of fans with split loyalties.
What has spawned this seismic shift in the way we follow our teams? Perhaps it is the result of more and more fans staying home from stadiums to click between a weekend’s games from the comfort of home, as Frank Deford recently wrote about, that has detached us from ownership in a given franchise. As technology allows us to see sports from around the globe with a touch of the remote or a few keystrokes, we disconnect more and more from the tumult and the roar of the live experience. And thus so many fans are left searching for a more visceral and engaged way to get their vicarious thrills from sporting events — and in that petri dish it is no wonder that fantasy sports have gestated and ballooned into the monster industry they’ve become. Seeking some means of competition for themselves in our increasingly sedentary lives, fantasy fans find it in statistical manipulation of another man’s achievements.
Two dynamics have occurred with this shift in focus. First, as Steve Rushin recently detailed, we are finding greater empathy by and large when our rivals lose. As I was recently discussing with one of my fellow writers here, a guy who regularly engages in the pursuit of fantasy, he will find himself on some given weekends in a position where he’s got a key starter in his fantasy lineup playing against his favorite franchise. He’ll spend his Sunday afternoon watching, hoping that player does well while the rival loses. Fantasy can work as the salve that allows us to put things in perspective if the rival ends up winning — “Hey, at least my fantasy stud racked up the points!”
And if that’s not enough, look no further than the move in college football from merely rooting for your local team or your alma mater to rooting for the entire conference in which your team plays. Rivalry games still hold sway, but when that rival is playing out of conference the matter of schedule strength leads fans to pull for a team they were originally programmed to loathe. With the ultimate goal a national championship, it behooves you to hope that the opponents on your team’s schedule win out as much as possible in the rest of their games to bolster strength of schedule — which means rooting for your conference foes to win when they’re not playing your own team.
Secondly, as a fellow writer here at Sports Nickel just wrote yesterday, we’re seeing people less bashful than in the past to ride the coattails of a success. The bandwagon fan seems to have flourished in an era where loyalty rarely extends beyond a player on one’s fantasy team. Did your team not make the playoffs this year? If you’ve got a favorite player you’re always calling upon in fantasy, there’s probably a good chance you can just cheer for his team in the playoffs instead! These fans naturally come out of the woodwork in the greatest numbers in the area surrounding the team’s natural fan base, but in leagues with nationwide appeal and such ease in finding any team’s telecast the woodwork’s cracks run from sea to shining sea.
This is not to say that every fan has this dilemma — there are plenty of classicists who eschew the world of fantasy and stick to the familiar cadence of the partisan spectator. But then I got to thinking even more about things. Fantasy sports can’t bear the entire blame for the division of our fanhood. I look at my own platter of sports which I follow regularly, noting how many of these sports were next to impossible to keep up with before satellites and the internet drew me in deeper and deeper. I find myself engaged in my own fantasy land of sorts, bouncing virtually between North America and the other inhabited continents in search of the next thrill, the next spectacle, the next breathtaking athletic feat. While I don’t split my loyalties within a given sports league, I nevertheless find myself with so many rooting interests that none get the fullest attention each deserves.
It’s the same dilemma I’m forced to deal with every week when sitting down to tap out this column — which events most grabbed my attention in a given week? In my daily life I find myself bouncing rapidly from football to tennis to hockey to cycling to soccer to skiing to swimming to baseball in a constant fluctuating cycle of attentions. So while I might not split my loyalties between a franchise and a self-configured roster conglomeration in any given sport, the fact remains that in this ADHD-addled society I’m as guilty as the fantasy fanatic in rapidly shifting my allegiances and making split-second decisions on what is really important. I look for favorite teams’ scores in every sport week after week, but when you’re so spread across the spectrum it makes it that much easier to brush off a loss for any one team.
There’s always going to be somewhere else, ultimately, to feel the vicarious thrill of victory soon enough again. When one team is in the doldrums it makes it that much easier to shift the focus elsewhere. A digital age has made it easier than ever to pick our poisons and divert our loyalty across the board. So I guess, in a very non-traditional way, you could say the end result is that guys like me are really no different than those who do get their kicks from playing GM every weekend. It’s just a different approach to solving the same deficit in feeling ownership in any one team in this age of astronomical salaries and a new uniform every other year…