The Evils of a Diverse Fan Base Debunked

When it comes to sports, Washington, D.C. has an identity crisis that’s suspiciously similar to one that Los Angeles deals with. The Washington Post recently undertook a major survey to attempt to discover what the average D.C. sports fan is like. It turns out that they tend to:

– Come from diverse geographies
– Hold on to their sports allegiances even after moving to D.C.
– Support D.C. teams only when they are doing well over a period of time

It’s the same broad collection of stereotypes that have been placed on Los Angeles sports fans for years – we are fair-weather fans at best, with just as many people being transplants and still fans of other teams than supporters of the local sports franchises. Sure, you’ll go to a Lakers game, but only if you can get good seats and can find a nice shirt that covers the New York Knicks tattoo on your bicep.

It would be liberating to be able to write about how these stereotypes are wrong. But some stereotypes are grounded in fact. The Washington Post has quantified for D.C. sports fans what I’ve seen here in Los Angeles since I moved here in 1993. How could I argue? I’m a San Francisco Giants fan who only goes to Dodger Stadium to quietly root for whatever team the Dodgers are playing.

Los Angeles (and D.C.) has a shared sports culture that’s radically different than places like New York, Boston or Philadelphia – places whose fans are likely to give you the most grief about the “fickle” or transient nature of your sports identity. Ironically, these are also the same places that are likely to have tens of thousands of fans who left the cities they love only to carry their sports identities with them. The bigger question isn’t if Los Angeles and D.C. sports fans are – to a large percentage – made up of fans of other teams. The bigger question is why this matters.

We are in the midst of a fairly radical demographic shift in the United States, as the population becomes increasingly diverse. We’ve been encouraged to embrace the melting pot and all of the wonderful things that it can bring to our lives (taco trucks, Shakira videos, Gogol Bordello). But as they listen to Tom Schnabel on KCRW or read the latest Haruki Murakami tome, even the most culturally-sensitive NPR contributor feels the friction caused by the swirl of multiculturalism rubbing up against the ingrained need for homogeny that drove early man into tribes eons ago.

Our increasingly diverse (and shrinking, thanks to technology like The Internets) world is exciting, but also unnerving and fraught with peril. Should you attempt to order in halting Spanish at the taco stand to be culturally sensitive? Or will that only embarrass the cashier who probably speaks better English than you do? When you nod your head to the old-school soul music being played when you walk into Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, are you showing appreciation for a uniquely American (and African-American) form of music? Or do you just look like Steve Martin from “The Jerk”?

It’s hard to confront the thorny issues that multiculturalism presents in daily life, unless you have the platform of a stand-up special or cable TV show that lets you swear. But sports have always been a Bizarro Funhouse version of real life, and our approach to multiculturalism in sports at a basic level is pretty consistent: we don’t like it and consider it a sign of weakness in a city and its fan base.

If nothing else, sports teams are a sense of shared interest for a community. After all, they didn’t win the game – we did. It’s easy to fall back on the cliché of a city “rallying around a sports team,” these things happen. At its best, a sports team can bring together a diverse group of individuals with a common passion for a team and its success. Going to a place like Dodger Stadium doesn’t just build bonds between generations of fans – it builds bonds within a fan base that otherwise would have little to do with each other beyond cutting each other off on the freeway and standing in line at Pink’s.

So what happens when these bonds are tested by an influx of “outsiders” who are clutching to their old sports allegiances instead of “getting with the program” and rooting for the home team? Essentially, it turns very awkward, exposing the gap between “native” Angelinos and recent immigrants to the city who refuse to “assimilate” into the sports culture. It’s embarrassing for long-time residents and something that’s easy for outsiders to mock. How can Los Angeles have a “culture” when every sports fan roots for a different team?

In practice, I think it’s great that Los Angeles sports fans are diverse. It’s great to go into a bar on a football game day and see fans rooting for teams from all over the country. No matter what game is on, chances are there will be some fans of one or both teams there. It creates an energy that is different than having the entire city root for “your team” only to the exclusion of any other team. I’ll take a broad spectrum of sports fans over fans living in a vacuum any day of the week.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles (and I suspect, D.C.) sports fans aren’t allowed to claim this sports multiculturalism as a plus; rather, it has to be treated as a charge to be defended against or the dirty secret we just don’t talk about. Never mind the fact that there are so many people in Los Angeles that our teams only need a fraction of the sports population to be healthy and have a fan base rivaling many other teams considered to have their own fan “nations;” the fact that Los Angeles fans don’t all rally around the same team deserves shame and derision.

Los Angeles and D.C. have diverse sports fan bases made up of local fans along with fans that bring their loyalties with them. This might be the exception now, but I suspect that it’s what sports fans in cities across the United States will be dealing with in years to come as boundaries between cities and countries become blurred.

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