Rethinking fandom: how to beat the sports-industrial complex at its own game
By Craig Calcaterra
I got off to a bad start with Rethinking fandom: how to beat the sports-industrial complex at its own game.
Here’s the passage that killed me, which is on the second page of the “Introduction”: “The possibility of superfan groups like the Seattle Seahawks’ famous ‘Twelfth Man’ was discussed.”
Actually, the 12th man is a Texas A&M tradition that began in 1922 and one that the Aggies take very seriously. When the Seahawks tried to seize the 12th Man, Texas A&M immediately sued them and now pay the Aggies for limited rights to use the university’s trademark. (Read more here.)
As a former Texas A&M student, it was not lost on me that my reaction was consistent with that of a serious fan, the kind of fan that Craig Calcaterra is targeting in his book. However, I was also bothered by the incomplete research.
But I anticipate.
I am a fan of Craig Calcaterra’s work – I have been a paid subscriber to his Cup of coffee newsletter since he started it, and I appreciate his knowledge of baseball as well as his tongue-in-cheek style. When I found out that he was writing a book about the fandom, I ordered a copy in advance. As a fan of the Colorado Rockies, I am living the odyssey that is the fandom, always on the hunt for those who can explain this strange experience.
Calcaterra’s book is effective in giving fans a strategy; sometimes, however, he is less successful in his approach.
In the “Introduction,” Calcaterra makes his strategy clear, writing: “[G]This book is not about arousing your love of sports. I’m interested in trying to find a way to hold on to what we love about the sport without being used or taken advantage of by a sports-industrial complex that wants to harness our loyalty for their own ends.” That’s the sweet spot that many sports fans are looking for.
Part I is “The State of Modern Fandom,” in which Calcaterra addresses the ways in which the “sports-industrial complex” (a useful term) exploits fans, as well as the communities in which they live. He explores themes such as the myth of winning as “healing” a city; communities forced to pay for expensive stadiums; gentrification issues; Deposit; labor exploitation; and propagandistic appeals to patriotism.
These are all significant issues in places: His focus isn’t just baseball, and Calcaterra uses this analysis to provide context for the advice he’ll give in Part II, “Being a Fan in the 21st Century.” His advice is clear: Be a fan of good weather; root for players, not teams; be a casual fan; and support activism. His final suggestion is to be a “metafan”, a concept I never fully understood, although I think he recommends that fans use their love of sports to take advantage of sports-related activities such as games, memorabilia collection and fantasy sports instead of giving in the team’s latest PR blitz.
Close with this line: “My fandom belongs to me. They do not. I can chase it however I want. And you can too.” It’s good advice, something that fans around the world should remember.
For me, however, rethink the fandom I felt that perhaps it should have been an essay rather than a book, a point Calcaterra has alluded to elsewhere. As she told Jeremy Greco in a recent interview, “It’s a short book. More a radical pamphlet or manifesto than anything else. That was on purpose.”
If you’re a serious sports fan, and presumably that’s the audience for this book, then you don’t need a detailed analysis of tank or stadium building or the problematic behavior of some players because you already know all of this. You are devastated by this. That’s probably why you’re reading rethink the fandom. He is interested in the second part of this book because he is looking for strategies to help him navigate the situation he finds himself in. (Thinking of you, Party Deck and McGregor Square!)
That’s not to say Calcaterra’s points aren’t solid. They are. I’m just not convinced that a book is the best medium to convey this message.
Now let me spend a few paragraphs on a writing problem that bothered me.
I found the lack of consistent documentation misleading. When Calcaterra made the mistake about Man 12, I started looking for sources. Some are quoted informally, like Bill Simmons. Now I can die in peace and “The Kaepernick Effect: The Anthem Protests Are Spreading” by Lindsay Gibbs and Ayesha Khan and Howard Bryant The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.
Given the genre in which rethink the fandom works, a kind of self-help book / manifesto, informal documentation is appropriate. However, he would like the attribution of sources to be more consistent. There are no notes, no bibliography, or anything on the website.
When Calcaterra refers to a “2018 study” (p. 12), I want to read the study. When he writes, “psychologists refer to a phenomenon called ‘durability bias’…” I would like to see some names (p. 157) When he refers to a 2019 USA Today story, I wish I could locate it (p. 39).
Similarly, when he states: “To the extent that psychologists have studied sports fanaticism, a very, very small field of study must be taken into account. . .” (pp. 11-12), I would like some details because this area has received scholarly attention. (See, for example, Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson’s Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You: Dilemmas of the Modern FanAndrew C. Billings and Kenyon A. Brown Evolution of the modern sports fan: communicative approachesby George Dohrman Superfans: Into the Heart of the Obsessive Sports FanDaniel L. Wann and Jeffrey D. James’ Sports fans The psychology and social impact of fandomStacy Pope The feminization of sports fanaticism: a sociological studyby Chip Scarinzi Diehards: Why fans care so much about sportsand Eric C. Tarver The team self: sports fanaticism and the reproduction of identity.)
As a reader, he needed Calcaterra to showcase his work, at least in a bibliography. books like rethink the fandom necessarily engage in a kind of scholarly dialogue: That is, the author is entering into a conversation that has been going on for some time. rethink the fandom he would benefit from stronger accounting of his place in that conversation.
rethink the fandom is a useful and quick read book that provides a variety of strategies for fans trying to mediate their hobby in a system designed to exploit them. We live in times where having those strategies is useful.
Perhaps a public reading in McGregor Square is in order.