What is a Fan?
"Fan" is short for "fanatic." A fan is a person with a passion. In fact, to be a true fan of something is to place it above all things. To be a fan is to have commitment and zeal - and maybe even in quantities that some might find excessive. A fan doesn't care about that. A fan pursues his passion with gusto.
Many people claim to be football fans. What does a football fan look like? What demographic characteristics define a fan, say, of the local NFL team, or of NFL football in general? It certainly isn’t related to factors like age, sex, or race. Football fans come in every shape and size. There is a universality among football fans that transcends such cultural and physical markers. Football is transcultural. It brings people together – even across boundaries of generation, education, socio-economic status, political affiliation, and physical appearance. There is a mutual love of team and sport that binds this “otherness” into “community.”
Local communities of fans rally around the local team, gathering at specific times and at specific places, e.g. the local stadium or sports bar. Fans gather to discuss, to sing the praises of the team, and at times even argue about what is best for the local franchise and for the sport in general. Fans listen to talk radio, and maybe weigh in sometimes. Fans watch the NFL Network and local sportcasts, and they likely read articles in sports newspapers, magazines, or the Internet.
Fans share their passion with those around them, perhaps wearing an identifying mark of the team or of the sport, or perhaps decorating their homes and property with such symbols. There may be ritual words and gestures known to other fans when they greet one another, when they cheer something positive, when they lament something negative, or when they participate on game day.
Fans observe a cycle, a season. There is the ever-new excitement of the draft, of contract negotiations, of new players coming on and old players departing, of the pre-season games. There is opening Sunday. There is a regular season. There are the playoffs, leading to the culmination of the football year: the Super Bowl. In addition, there are special occasions, such as all-star games and other events during the course of the year. A true fan participates with, and joins in, the cycle of the season. Even during the off season, there are things fans can do to hold onto their zeal. The season provides a personal and community framework that is both excitingly fresh and comfortably familiar.
Fans have a reverence for the past. There is a Hall of Fame, there are trophies and rings and sculptures. There are statistics. There are cards honoring iconic heroes. There are tributes and feasts and opportunities to call to mind times of glory, as well as to commiserate times of trial. Fans watch videos, read books, and talk with one another about what came before.
Fans are ever hopeful for the future. No matter how terrible last season was, true fans come back with the faith and hope to look forward. For they know that anything is possible “on any given Sunday.” They stand by their team, win or lose - even when their heroes throw interceptions or fumble the ball. They are always there to cheer their kicker through the taunts of the opposition. They will greet the team at the airport in victory and in defeat.
Being a fan is a family affair. Children are brought in at an early age – often as babies, being initiated and photographed with a ball or a team logo well before reaching an age old enough to decide for himself which team to follow – or even to be a fan at all. In fact, a true fan feels more that the team and sport have chosen him, grabbed hold of him, and shaped him - and not vice versa. There is a trans-generational character of family fan life as older fans pass on not only knowledge and factual information, but also customs and traditions, to the younger fans. These in turn will pass the heritage on to posterity. Season tickets are sometimes put in wills.
Family life of a football fan family revolves around the game and the team. The family is eager for Sunday to come. And when it does, young and old gather in stadiums or around televisions. There is often tailgating and grilling of food and the serving of drinks. There is special food and ritual that goes with game day – both regular Sunday games and those outside the Sunday cycle. Birthdays and holidays are specially blessed for fans and their families, as gifts often bear the images of their favorite teams and players. Fan families may toss around a ball or participate more fully in the sport – in both organized and spontaneous ways. Their homes and offices bear reminders of their passion, love, and devotion for the game.
There is often great social pressure to be a fan – particularly at certain times of the season. Many people are quick to describe themselves as fans, but do not bear the fruit of fanhood. They may think that a fan is someone who simply says that he is a fan. Such people may wear a jersey on occasion, or even watch a game once in a while. There are people who claim fanship only when the weather is nice, when the team is winning, or only on Super Bowl Sunday. But one wonders if such people are just going through the motions, seeking the benefits of being a fan without bearing the cost of fanship. There are indeed those who will abandon the team when it is losing, when the coach or owner makes an unpopular decision, when the ball bounces the wrong way, or when another distraction comes along competing for attention. On any given Sunday, one can observe the motion of crowds to determine where people’s passions are to be found.
To be a fan is indeed to be a “fanatic.” It is to love one’s passion above all things – to the point even of irrationality. A fan’s life is governed - in time and space, in family life and social fabric, in good times and bad - by that which makes him what he is.