Bandwagon Fans

by | Sep 24, 2023 | Commentary, Oddball

Bandwagon fans are the economic engine of sports. Being a bandwagon fan means less misery, but it also means less joy.

Football is upon us

Nothing beats the beginning of football season. We dispel the wretched heat and bring forth wondrous winter sports. Goodbye yard work, hello football! Every season begins with optimism—often irrational optimism—but optimism feels great regardless of its logic.

In the beginning, the end goals don’t matter. Just to see the big uglies converge on the line of scrimmage, to see passes thrown and tackles made—the experience of football itself brings joy. As Brady Hoke likes to say, it’s good to hear football.

Last year I started football season by watching Northwestern and Nebraska duke it out in Ireland (on TV). The teams looked awful, but damn did I enjoy that game. Plus, I have a great memory of Pat Fitzgerald jumping for joy after obtaining his first and only win for the season. What a buffoon.

This year I watched Louisville and Georgia Tech go at it. In week ten I won’t be willing to waste my time watching Louisville or Georgia Tech play. Not without Lamar Jackson or the triple option. But week 1? Give it to me.

Michigan for the win

This year the end goal has imposed itself even in week one. My favorite team, the Michigan Wolverines, have a legit shot to win it all. In fact, I think they have the best shot. We fans scry into every play, hoping to divine what it may portend for the playoffs. Was that perfect pass by J.J. McCarthy perfect enough? Should we be worried that a defensive back caught up to Blake Corum? The end of the season looms unnaturally large this year.

A shot of the Big House (Michigan stadium).
Even with these crappy seats, there’s no better place to see a game

I haven’t felt this sort of optimism since 2007, a year which wrought a decade of disaster. I was in seventh grade the last time Michigan won a national championship. I didn’t like sports at that time, so if I saw any game that year it was probably just the Ohio State game. I honestly don’t remember. All this is to say the last time I was this excited at the beginning of football season my hopes and dreams were quickly set on fire and thrown off a cliff.

Regardless of my teenage indifference, I have always claimed an allegiance to Michigan. Most of this stemmed from people asking me in elementary school whether I wanted Ohio State or Michigan to win. I lived in Ohio, but went with Michigan because my parents were divorced and my dad worked for the university hospital in Ann Arbor. Ohio State fans are also the worst. Only the deplorable Philadelphia (pick any sport) fans compete with the Buckeyes for the title of most intolerable fan base in America.

I would be remiss if I denied the other appeals of Michigan as a young child. First, Michigan won. This was the ’90s and during that time Michigan usually won The Game. Also, cool people seemed to like Michigan more. Although I didn’t really understand it at the time, the influence of the Fab Five had reached me. I just knew that hucklebucks tended to like Ohio State and cool urbanites tended to like Michigan. Finally, what may have had more sway to third grade me than I usually admit—I preferred Michigan’s colors.

So I guess you could say I was a bandwagon fan. As I got older and more into football, I stuck with it even as Ohio State went on a phenomenal run and Michigan stumbled with some poor coaching hires. The Ohio State fans became even more intolerable during this period. Living in Ohio, surrounded by these annoying people, fueled my desire to see Michigan return to the top.

The bandwagon phenomenon

Sometimes I feel silly dedicating time and emotional energy supporting a team for a school I never attended, do not live in the same state as, and only have a loose association with through my dead father. I mean, he worked there for around twenty years, but he’s also been dead for almost a decade and we were never particularly close.

I feel infinitely less silly when I meet life-long Midwesterners who claim to be die-hard Alabama fans. Recently worked with one. I always have to ask, “have you been to the state of Alabama?” It’s a strange backwater that will make you suspect you have crossed over into a third-world apartheid country decorated with American flags. These Alabama fans tend to belong to Generation Z. They’re the college football equivalent to all my classmates who fell in league with the Cowboys and 49ers during the ’90s.

The thing is, the bandwagon presents the most accessible entry for the casual sports fan. The bandwagon team will be on prime time, talking heads will discuss them ad nauseam, they will make for great conversation fodder, and they brings that sweet satisfaction of success (unless, like elementary school me, you decide to jump on the Buffalo Bills bandwagon because you took a random swing when asked who you want to win the Super Bowl…four years in a row). A team has to provide something exciting to snag fans outside the region.

The bandwagon especially made sense back before the dawn of infinite viewing options. Here in southwest Ohio, every 1990s NBA game featured the Bulls. I remember the first time I saw the Cleveland Cavaliers (lose to the Bulls) and I thought, “Huh, Ohio has a basketball team? When did that happen?” Not once before the Cavs drafted LeBron James had I ever seen a single individual wearing their gear. But the Bulls? Everywhere.

In a time before the Big Ten Network, League Pass, and a million streaming options, the broadcast games were either regional or noteworthy. It’s still that way for the casual sports fan because, if you’re casual, you’re not forking over money for every NFL and NBA game. Still, with a normal TV package I can now watch every Michigan game, something that was not true in the ’90s.

Perhaps the most interesting bandwagon fan I’ve met roots for these teams:

  1. Ohio State Buckeyes (football)
  2. Kentucky Wildcats (basketball)
  3. San Francisco 49ers
  4. Detroit Pistons
  5. New York Yankees

He’s one of the most passionate fans I know, even for the lowly Detroit Pistons. How did this happen? How could he have aligned with these seemingly unconnected teams? It’s the bandwagon—you just have to go back to when he was ten years old and the 49ers won a Super Bowl, the Pistons won the NBA Championship, all the while Ohio State and Kentucky were the most consistent representatives of their respective sports on television regionally. Perennial bandwagon Yankees need no explanation. He jumped on the bandwagon and, like me with Michigan, never hopped off.

Bandwagon nirvana

If the point of sports is to make you happy, do bandwagon fans have it all figured out?

In Ohio, the most bandwagon-y fans you’ll find of my generation are dual Ohio State and Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Talk college football and they’re all about state pride. Talk the pros and none of that state pride stuff matters. I know one of these who, as a native Clevelander, really had no reason to support the Steelers other than the fact that they used to run all over their Ohio divisional rivals. Then, a few years ago when they began to decline and the Browns began to ascend, he decided that he would change preferences to the Browns.

“What about all that Steelers gear you own?” I asked. He just shrugged his shoulders.

Another fan I know matter-of-factly told me that he would become a Bengals fan because Joe Burrow seemed likely to lead them to a Super Bowl. This was right after Joe Burrow led them to a Super Bowl. The point of sports is to make you feel good, he claimed. The Bengals were good and close enough to attend the games, so he would become a fan until they sucked again. This sort of fan malleability can only be described as a blasphemy against sports, right?

Maybe, but there’s also a certain logic to it.

Many Dharmic religions incorporate a concept known as “duhkha,” which translates to mean “suffering” or “unhappiness.” Craving and desire cause suffering, so minimizing cravings and desires will maximize happiness. Regarding sports, perhaps the logical conclusion would be to simply abstain from participating. After all, only one team emerges victorious at the end of each year so devotion to any one team means more misery than happiness. But this means one also misses out on the joy of sports. One mustn’t be an ascetic, after all.

Buddhist monk on a mountaintop. Image by
This looks nice and all, but it’s a weird way to enjoy sports.

The bandwagon presents a Middle Way. It may not end in a championship, but it will probably provide a winning record. If the bandwagon fails to produce results, there are plenty of other bandwagons available. It allows for engagement without attachment. Zen.

My bandwagon

In college sports, I remain resolute in my devotion to Michigan athletics. In fact, when a Michigan sports team does well I will watch it even if I do not usually watch that sport. Things like softball, baseball, hockey, wrestling, and even gymnastics. Suckers like me are why the Big Ten Network rakes in so much money.

When it comes to pro sports I tend to hop on bandwagons. I do show preference for the Bengals. This dates back to my childhood, when I thought the tiger stripes were super cool. However, this preference lacks the passion I display for Michigan athletics. I always root for the pro teams with the most Michigan players, the best Michigan players, or the most prominent Michigan players.

In the professional football, my bandwagon hitches to the teams with the most successful Michigan players. For a long time this made me a very happy New England Patriots fan, but the minute Tom Brady went to Tampa Bay I supported the Buccaneers. Now, I couldn’t care less about Tampa Bay but I have a soft spot for New England due to the high number of Michigan players on their roster. When two teams I don’t care much about meet in the Super Bowl, I look at their rosters for Michigan players.

In the NBA my rooting interests are super weird. I still lean toward Michigan-heavy rosters, but these are less common in the NBA and I pretty much only watch the playoffs. Last year, the most Michigan-heavy roster, the Orlando Magic, stood no chance of reaching the playoffs and I didn’t see them play a single game.

My real bandwagon in the NBA involves coaches and team style. I love pass-heavy, movement-heavy offenses with lots of spacing. Teams that run pick and roll over and over again drive me nuts. Over the years this has meant Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, and Steve Kerr. Pretty bandwagon-y, but I will contend that this is a more successful style of play. The players just happen to dislike it. Most coaches lack the ethos to attract free agents to such a system, so they are forced to implement offenses that cater to star players who want to play a selfish style of basketball (I’m convinced that John Beilein, if given a roster of selfless players, could have been a very successful NBA coach, but I digress).

Overall, my rooting interests change from year to year in the NBA and NFL. In the NBA, I have no idea who I’ll root for until the playoffs begin. In the NFL, the teams all exist on a spectrum. I may have positive, neutral, or negative feelings about a team. These feelings may be permanent or they may be temporary. In fact, the negative feelings may have more sway than the positive feelings.

The hater wagon

I have been described as “a hater.” I hate LeBron James and I always root against him. In the NFL, I hate the Cowboys and the Steelers. For a long time I had neutral feelings about the Browns, but since they forked over a record amount of money to put a serial rapist on their roster, I hate them, too. I used to really like the Golden State Warriors, but for their choice to keep Draymond Green and trade Jordan Poole, I hate them.

Extenuating circumstances notwithstanding (good NBA coach or Michigan players), I generally dislike teams from California, Texas, Florida, and New York. That would just be New York City, but I don’t like the Buffalo Bills because they’re named after some asshole who is famous for shooting a bunch of bison so trains wouldn’t be delayed. I don’t like the Carolina Panthers because their colors are hideous. Same goes for the Denver Broncos and their ugly ass logo. I don’t like any team with a quarterback who attended Ohio State or Alabama (when New England plays, I root for the defense and against the offense).

I think most fans are somewhat similar in that hate drives their rooting interests in any given game more than actual fandom. For a long time I hated Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers because all the pundits had the audacity to claim they were better than Tom Brady. I’m starting to dislike Patrick Mahomes because he’s so freakishly talented that I fear he could approach Brady’s Super Bowl total. Personally, I don’t know how sports fans can have any passion without a laundry list of players and teams they hate. You have to be pretty zen to avoid the pitfall of hatred.

Become dedicated to a specific team and the hate wagon becomes unavoidable. There will be conference or division rivals that will persistently keep your team from advancing toward a championship. A bandwagon team consistently beat your team out for recruits or free agents. Stay with a team long enough and you’ll have to go through the despair of abysmal failure. During these times you’ll hate list will grow and grow. The ritual of consuming sports will become infuriating and make you question the whole exercise. But until you’ve gone through those rough times as a sports fan, you’ll have no idea what it means to experience true joy through sports.

The problem with the bandwagon

I was always happy when Brady won a Super Bowl or Kobe won a ring. It was great to see Jordan Poole win a championship ring even though it stung that he left college a year too early (like many Michigan basketball players). But when Michigan beat Ohio State in 2021, I felt joy. Elation. A bandwagon fan can never have that. A zen approach to sports can’t have that.

In sports we often talk about developing players in terms of floors and ceilings. The floor is the least you can expect from a player, while the ceiling indicates the player’s maximum potential. The bandwagon presents a high floor, low ceiling situation. You reduce the likelihood of suffering, but you also eliminate the ability to arrive at the heightened excitement that sports provides the dedicated fan. Think of being a dedicated fan as riding a rollercoaster. The bandwagon, then, would be a leisurely drive through the country.

While the Buddhists may be right for seeking the middle road in life, sports provides an explicit escape from life. Sports provides an outlet for our passions by allowing us to redirect them into trivial games. For this same reason we watch movies full of thrills, drama, and action. We want excitement in life, but we also want to be free of consequences.

My wife tends to multitask between her cell phone and the television when we watch movies or shows. She always misses all the nuances and never really gets all the way into whatever we’re watching. I think the only time she truly experiences a movie is when we go to the theater. When we leave, we always have discussions about the film that we can’t have about things we watch at home. Flipping back and forth between the show and her phone, the suspension of disbelief cannot take hold. She cannot become lost in the narrative.

Bandwagon fans cannot appreciate the grand narrative with all its many nuances right before their eyes. That’s okay. People who become wholly immersed in sports and take them way too seriously probably cause themselves an undue amount of suffering. There’s just too much. But I recommend picking one team from your favorite sport and allow that team to overwhelm your emotions. For everything else, the bandwagon provides a nice diversion.

Circling the bandwagon

Today, at my daughter’s soccer practice, I passed a man, slightly older than me, wearing a brand new Colorado Buffaloes shirt. Never before have I seen someone wear Colorado gear in Ohio and this man clearly had never attended college. I imagine this person as a teenager, in Ohio, strutting around with a Dallas Cowboys Deion Sanders jersey.

Deion Sanders
Fan of this guy? You’re o the bandwagon.

As much as passionate fans hate the bandwagon, it’s undeniable that the bandwagon is the economic engine that powers sports. It’s why kids who have never seen Michael Jordan play basketball wear Jordans. It’s why winning teams sell more tickets than losing teams. Success feeds the bandwagon and the bandwagon feeds success. Every team should aspire to have a large bandwagon, but if you’ve rode a bandwagon for a while, considering increasing your emotional investment. Only then can you truly appreciate the ecstasy of sports fandom.

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