Three Fandoms

Jul 13, 2021

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This post has been bouncing around in my head for months. If you were to ask me "what's the biggest thing you've learned since you started doing this full time?", my answer would be that there are three different types of fandom. This is not Goldilocks here - they're not too hot, too cold, and just right - there's just.. three. And I'd like to talk about them.

Here's what sent me down this path. Although I don't follow him anymore (that's my way of letting you know that I rage-unfollowed him during the college basketball season), someone retweeted this Seth Davis tweet and it found its way to my tl.

This is probably the most common fandom. But nearly the exact inverse of my own. This is fandom of a sport, not a team. Of all the things in life that make me raise my hand like Josh Baskin and say "I don't get it" (and there's a lot of things), this is probably number one.

I need to be careful here. My hatred of "go UCLA! go North Carolina! go Michigan!" is not a hatred of "go sports!". I love it when the kid who fumbled in the first quarter returns a punt in the fourth quarter to win a game. I love any and all "sports!" moments.

For example, I watched this college baseball clip about 75 times last month. This was Arkansas putting away a way-too-close series against Nebraska in early June. The first packed stadium college sports moment I had seen in a long time. I love a moment like this:

In the same way, I loved attending Abilene Christian over Texas in the first round in Indianapolis. Who doesn't enjoy a good upset? I think that's common across all fandoms.

The difference: Seth Davis is cheering for the best to be the best. Talking about how exciting a season will be because it looks like the "good" teams will be good again. He gets what he wants every single NCAA Tournament (can you imagine?). Zero investment, zero disappointment. It's not go team, it's go teams.

That's the biggest difference I see between my "writing about college sports" fandom and his "writing about college sports" fandom. Save for a small piece of the Saturday Final Four games, I didn't watch any of the NCAA Tournament after we lost. There is one college basketball season, and once that season is complete, the sport is finished for the year. As I've said before, if Illinois is not involved in bowl season (which has been 15 of the 21 seasons since 2000), I barely watch any bowl games. Sometimes I don't even watch the title game. I'm not a college football fan - I'm an Illini football fan. If there's a final minute kickoff return to win some random bowl game, I'll see the clip on Twitter.

I'm not saying this is "correct". This is not some contest to see who is the most devoted. I'm saying that my fandom is simple: I like Illini football, not college football. I like Illini basketball, not college basketball. I enjoy a good "sports!" moment, and I really love a good "sports!" moment when it includes the Illini, but I'm never going to enjoy watching a Michigan-Indiana basketball game. I'm probably never going to watch a Michigan-Indiana basketball game. I want them both to lose.

As a result, I don't have an ounce of "go Big Ten!" in my bones. I can't even imagine pulling for another Big Ten team during bowl season or during the NCAA Tournament. You're telling me I'm supposed to sit there at the 2020 Ohio State-Illinois basketball game, with Ohio State fans taunting Carmen and I as Liddell pushed the lead to 10+, taking away our chance to win the 2020 Big Ten title, and then hope those same Ohio State fans get their wish when the NCAA Tournament starts? No way. Incapable. They're the enemy then and they're the enemy now. We love no other.

So let's describe my fandom as We Love No Other and let's describe Seth Davis' fandom as "go UCLA! go North Carolina! go Michigan!". Davis is a Duke grad, but that never seems to come into play (which I understand for someone in the media, although I wish everyone in the media would just be like SVP/Maryland and lead with it). A dream Final Four for Seth Davis is Duke, UNC, Kentucky, and Kansas. To him, the best coaches with the best teams playing the best games. I couldn't care an ounce about any of those things. I want my team to win full stop.

(I'm writing this article at Einstein Bros. Care to guess the song that just came on? Yep - Here's Where The Story Ends by The Sundays. The very song I chose as the basis for my "I can't believe we just lost to Loyola" article. Life is pain.)

There's also a third fandom I've observed. Let's call it the fandom of my kids' generation, although it's certainly not isolated to 25 year-olds. This is not really a shot at their type of fandom. Think of it more as a 48 year-old guy trying to understand the younger generation. It's my dad looking at my Andre Agassi tennis outfits and wondering what was wrong with me. (I have no answer in 2021.)

A quick recap for those who don't know my story. I married a single mom, so I went from 31 year-old bachelor to father of a 9, 11, and 13 year-old overnight. I have no parenting advice from birth to age eight - all I know is the 9-to-18 part.

As a result, parenting somewhat centered around cell phones and social media for me. The debates about what age they get phones of their own, the debates about when it's OK to be on certain social media platforms, the massive parental executive power that came with the "turn data off" toggle (10 times worse than "you're grounded from the car"). And I believe these things shaped the way they view sports.

My observation - keep in mind, this is the old guy observing his kids interacting with their friends - is that their fandom is something like this:

  • Not only must you have a team, you must have a stance on players. Manning vs. Brady. LeBron vs. Kobe. You like your teams and all, but you also like players. Someone is from Indianapolis, so they're a Pacers fan, but they also like Damian Lillard so they're a casual Portland fan and they came down on the Russ side of the Russ vs. Harden debate so they like the Wizards now. Fandom is constantly in motion.
  • When debating team vs. team, it's very personal. It's not "Missouri fans are..." vs. "but Illinois fans are..." as much as it's "this Missouri fan is a {clown emoji}". There's still fanbase hatred, but it gets so personal. "Imagine being a fan who things {thing some guy tweeted}".
  • It's also, for lack of a better term, shameless? There's really no point where you feel like you need to shut up. When Northwestern wins their 5th straight football game against us, there's not a thing I can say to a Northwestern fan. I'll still bury subtle jokes in posts here and there, but I'm mostly trapped by our losing streak until we win again. I know my place in the debate and have to just sit here and take it until my team breaks the streak. For the fandom I'm discussing here, there's really no moment like that. The day after a devastating loss, pick a different angle of how to mock the rival you just lost to.

The day after the Illinois win over Michigan was when I noticed this the most. It's hard to think of a more embarrassing Big Ten basketball loss in the last five years. Confetti is loaded in the cannons, the signs are courtside - Michigan will beat Illinois and lock up the Big Ten title. And Illinois is playing without their first-team All American, so this one is over before it started. Pop the champagne.

Illinois 76, Michigan 53

The next day, at least in my mentions, Michigan fans didn't slow an ounce. One of the more embarrassing home losses in recent memory - one that Michigan had postponed because they wanted more practice time after their layoff - and Illinois settled the season-long debate with an emphatic victory on Michigan's home floor. Had Illinois lost, I was prepared to sit there in Crisler and watch the trophy celebration. They'd have earned it, and I'd need to shut up and take it. Michigan lost - the second-worst home loss for a top-2 team in the history of the AP poll - and Fandom #1 fans acknowledged it, and the Fandom #2 fans talked about it, and the Fandom #3 fans... found other ways to insult Illinois.

And it's not just Michigan. There are Fandom #3 fans in every fanbase. Had Illinois lost, Fandom 3 Illini fans would have been finding other ways to insult Michigan fans. Illinois bowed out in the 2nd Round and Michigan made the Elite Eight and Fandom #3 fans mostly felt like it was the same (title or bust).

Again, I'm half observing and half "I don't get it" here. I'm not necessarily saying it's wrong - just new and different. If I'm insulting it, I'd be insulting my own sons.

It's also... fandom formed into weapons at times? It's not this deeply personal devotion where losses ruin your month and titles make your decade. It's more a mental armory where you need to know what weapon to use in a Tatis Jr. vs. Trout debate. "Where do you stand?" seems to be so very important. Way more important than "one team and only one team until I die".

I'll give an example. The other day my son texted me to ask how Illinois football recruiting was going. It was Thursday at 4:50 pm. I'm guessing he was at happy hour with some coworkers, and I'm guessing they were Missouri fans, and I'm guessing he didn't have anything in his "football recruiting debate" arsenal. Unfortunately, I couldn't give him any help. Missouri has 11 players committed, and 10 of the 11 are ranked higher than anyone in our class.

He was mostly searching out a stance to take. Wanted to land on something like "Bielema will turn around recruiting at Illinois". And those debates have happened at happy hour for decades. At the core, fandom is fandom, and I have my team, and you have your team, and we debate who is better.

The difference, as I've observed lately, is that my son and his friends seem much more worried about that debate than the outcome of the games. And when I add that to my interactions on Twitter (both Illini fans and fans of other teams), the actual game results don't seem to matter much? There's no volume button anymore. Missouri fans used to be 10 when they'd win Braggin' Rights and 1 when they'd lose. Now, for Fandom #3, it's a constant 8?

With three different fandoms, it's no surprise that everyone starts talking past each other. Maybe the best way to say this is to just use the Braggin' Rights game. Missouri, somehow, has won three in a row. Ayo never beat Missouri, hard as that is for me to believe. I see three main reactions to that:

Fandom #1 - "This win (or loss) ruins my holidays. When we lose, my Missouri neighbor hangs a tiger tail on my front door and I have to just sit there and take it. Please, someone, find a way to beat them so I can come up with a prank of my own."

Fandom #2 - "Isn't college basketball the greatest? Illinois had a top-25 each of the last two years yet Missouri found a way to beat them. This last time on campus. Go Missouri! Go Illinois! Go college basketball!"

Fandom #3 - "Yeah, well the entire Missouri fanbase is still a bunch of clowns. I don't care if you've won three in a row - you still suck. You haven't had a player like Ayo in 20 years. Enjoy having to be in Columbia, losers."

As someone engrossed in Fandom #1 for the last 35 years, I'm not sure I will ever fully understand Fandom #2 or Fandom #3. With #2, I can't view sports through any lens other than devotion. Openly hoping for the blue bloods to dominate college basketball is the grossest thing I can imagine.

With #3, I really struggle with stance over outcome. Yes, you might think that Missouri fans are clowns, but those clowns have had the Braggin' Rights trophy for more than 1,000 days. They own us right now, and that has to be acknowledged or else our glorious 8-year and 9-year winning streaks in the series mean nothing. I need those streaks to mean something.

That's what it comes down to, really. I need that LOL Hat removed from Evanston and displayed in Champaign as soon as humanly possible. The moment it returns will be glorious for me. And it will be glorious because of the six years without it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. If I don't acknowledge the 1, the 10 won't feel like anything.

Hey look at that. My phone buzzes with texts in three different group texts and it looks like a top-100 recruit just picked Illinois.

Robert: Underwood beats Bill Self for a recruit
Seth Davis: Underwood beats Bill Self for a recruit
My son: Underwood beats Bill Self for a recruit

Forget everything I said. We all agree!


IlliniJoe81 on July 13, 2021 @ 03:38 PM

There are also the casual fans. They jump on the bandwagon when things are going well and disappear when nothing interesting is happening. They only read headlines and don't follow the team at all beyond watching games and having conversations with hardcore fans. I was a casual Illini fan from 1999 through 2003 and sometimes I wish I could go back to that. Seems less painful than living through every agonizing detail of Kentucky hiring your assistant coaches and poaching one of your two best players of the last 15 years.

That Michigan win made almost everything worth it though.

Also it's quite satisfying to have defended Chester Frazier from his critics and now see him come back and help us as an assistant coach even more than he did on the court as a player. It means more to Fan #1 types and someday in 15 years we will win it all and it will be glorious.

larue on July 13, 2021 @ 05:22 PM

I guess I don't fit neatly in any of those. I live and die with the Illini, had season basketball tickets for 50+ years and have gone to (some) football games for longer than that.

On the other hand, I'll watch most any college basketball game that's on, and I watch every bowl game I can. Those are my sports, and about the only ones I watch these days except NBA playoffs.

And when I was young, I loved Earl Monroe, so was a Bullets fan, then a Knicks fan. If a Detroit Lions game was on, I'd watch to see what Lem Barney would do. Don't really have favorite players like that now.

carty on July 13, 2021 @ 07:00 PM

WHWizard on July 13, 2021 @ 09:12 PM

I'm that fan who takes it VERY personally, especially a loss. I'll not be able to fall asleep and when I finally do I'll wake up in the middle of the night still sulking. And I certainly enhance and enrich my vocabulary.............. F Bombs away...............

And when we win, the POST GAME show is on MAXIMUM volume.

I L L Baby!!

Gadwallgetter on July 13, 2021 @ 11:42 PM

I’m a #1 for sure! I can’t stand to watch the NCAA tourney if Illini aren’t in it or already eliminated!

blackdeath on July 14, 2021 @ 07:43 AM

Group 1 here too. No way can I ever, ever have good wishes for any B1G team (or their fans). I came to Illini fandom as a kid during the Mike White years and remember the venom from other conference teams when lowly Illinois finally showed signs of life and more.

No interest in good things happening to any other B1G team. Simple as that.

Ellisrt1031 on July 14, 2021 @ 04:29 PM

I agree with this although I have to pretend to root for the Buckeyes in the National Football Championship game to make my wife happy. But never vs. Illini.

TRC on July 14, 2021 @ 09:30 AM

I am a #1 and embrace the label/alma mater lyric "we love no other." I will watch the tourney or a bowl game when it's not the Illini but, if I am honest with myself, it's mostly to root against a team I dislike (I have become a de facto Clemson "fan" because SOMEONE needs to beat Nick Saban). I will NEVER understand the "gotta root for the Big 10" crowd. How can I hate OSU (or Michigan or Iowa or . . . ) 354 days of the year, but root for them when they play a bowl game. To me that is high treason.

IlliniBobLoblaw on July 14, 2021 @ 01:00 PM

I will NEVER understand the "gotta root for the Big 10" crowd

I guess for me it's more like "a rising tide lifts all boats", so I tend to want to see the BIG do good generally. Whether or not yet another tOSU playoff appearance raises the BIG tide and/or lifts our boat is debatable though :-)

Chief4ever on July 16, 2021 @ 12:30 AM

Larue's Fan type is MUCH more common than anything you described. You can love your team AND be a fan of the sport. If you don't watch the championship game when your team is not in it, it means a lot less. It NEEDS to mean something. Not every bowl game, but definitely some, the big ones. DEFINITELY the Final Four. Or how does it mean anything?

HailToTheOrange on July 16, 2021 @ 11:40 AM

I'd say at least half of the IB readership / subs fall into category 1 (myself included), so the notion that select bowl games and the tournament DEFINITELY NEED to mean something in order for illini athletics to MEAN something is just false. You can define broad buckets of fandom, but you can't tell someone they're less of a fan if they're not in yours.

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