I watched the American League Championship Series with great interest last week, because the Boston Red Sox were competing. As a former Boston resident, I follow the team with mild interest that develops into intense interest in August, passion in September, and fervor in October.
Unless they’re having a bad year, in which case my mild interest turns to bleak depression in August. By September, I manage to ignore the sport entirely, pretending to be indifferent when the New York Yankees make it to the playoffs.
My question is, why do I care? I no longer live in Boston, so they can’t be considered my “home team.” And even if I did, what is the difference between the Red Sox and any other team? The teams trade players around like commodities, so the home-town hero one year is often the hated enemy the next. Fans find it hard to feel loyalty to players who don’t control their own fate, or free agents who will sell their loyalty to the highest bidder.
Worse, the cost of actually going to the ballpark has become so ridiculous that it’s now a form of entertainment reserved for the wealthy. Sure, you could probably afford to go sit in the nosebleed seats a couple of times a year, but it would be much cheaper and more comfortable to watch the game on TV at home. When I was a kid, the only games you could watch on TV were local games. As the technology of cable television developed, you could view games between teams anywhere. So it seems the geographical proximity of a team has become meaningless. I call this phenomenon “dislocation.”
When I was a kid, I believed that people had to be fans of their local team, as though it was some kind of regional genetic imperative. My old friend Sally is from Oklahoma, which has no professional sports teams (other than an Arena Football League team). The population of that state is so starved for sports entertainment that Sally thinks nothing of driving over 3 hours to Dallas to see a Texas Rangers game. Because of this dislocation from any specific team, she has no team loyalty. She views all professional sports teams equally, and enjoys any game between any two teams. This used to confuse me, and I thought of her as some kind of sports mutant, like an albino.
I suspect that younger generations of sports fans will have more in common with Sally than with me. They can be fans of any team, or not be specific fans of any team – location is no longer relevant.
About 15 years ago, a phenomenon called “fantasy sports” blossomed. It was the product of two factors: technology and dislocation. It enables players to construct their own imaginary teams of players – teams they control in the same way the real professional teams are controlled. Statistics are compiled on player performance, and the team composed of the best players wins. Now the fans are the owners, turning the game on its head. A billion-dollar industry has emerged that feeds on the statistical exhaust of professional leagues. Because fantasy sports enthusiasts can “own” any player they want, location is not a factor.
Fantasy leagues seem to satisfy a craving I’ve never had – the need to control the makeup of a successful team. I suspect this is a natural evolutionary step for any serious fan, which I am not. Except for tonight, when the first game of the World Series is being played between the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox. Tonight, I care.