Grantland logo

Carles in Charge: Competitive Fandom in the Social Media Age

In the first of a running series, Carles discusses the Detroit Pistons bench-fan incident, mediocrity, and ‘living the dream.’

Do I have a realistic chance of becoming the face of a franchise’s fan base in my lifetime?

After watching these chill bros ‘go viral’ for sitting in two courtside seats, I am left trying to reevaluate my goals and expectations as a fan. Part of me feels jealous of their newfound 15,000 pageviews of fame. Los Angeles has Jack Nicholson. New York has Spike Lee. Detroit now has two random dudes who dress like suburban swag tweens.

‘Being a fan’ can turn into a competitive experience, where we are all eager to showcase our devotion and commitment to our chosen team. The majority of us compensate by reading every possible long tail analysis article about the team. Our opinions are annoyingly informed. However, if you are wealthy, you are able to purchase the holy grail of fandom: season tickets in a seat that you don’t have to reach via ‘walk of shame.’ Without premium seats, you don’t have the opportunity to leave your impact on the game, whether it is by heckling an overweight player or making a sign that provides LOL-able commentary. You actually have to pay for the opportunity to have a priceless experience.

And yet, it seems more difficult than ever to get people to pay to be ‘just another face in the crowd.’ Why would you pay to provide the background landscape on the home viewer’s HD television? Upcoming generations no longer value the social currency equated with ‘just being there,’ because we are allegedly already everywhere with the power of hashtags, 4G wireless networks, and enslaved content publishers. If you’re going to show up, everyone just wants to have the opportunity to broadcast their VIP experience via one of those Facebook photo posts where the lucky fan stands that close to the court and smiles in his Lakers jersey. Then, as the thumbs-ups and the ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE SO CLOSE. SO JEALOUS’ and the ‘Say what’s up to Kobe’-s start rolling in, the fan is happier to exist as a VIP on social media than to roll as a VIP in the actual stadium.

Attending a live sporting event forces consumers to analyze a monetary and emotional break-even point. Is it really worth it for mass-market suburbanite families to make the trip all the way to the stadium in order to watch some meaningless, a la carte regular-season game from the upper level? After the team jogs through the motions, a bad basketball game can turn into an almost dehumanizing consumer experience. You feel as if you’ve been ‘taken to the cleaners’ by the franchise. Both experiences are sad for similar reasons. In the days of leagues that are looking to build ‘parity’ into collective bargaining agreements and building compressed schedules that ensure lousy play, it is easier to have a relationship from an arm’s-length distance to your favorite team.

Sure, I know that when there is an important game, it can be a special feeling to ‘be in the building,’ but sometimes I find myself feeling more comfortable watching the game on TV, refreshing social networks so I can feel like I am monitoring the conversation as it happens. I can’t imagine reading a snarky tweet from a parody Twitter account after the game because it just resonates more while everyone is watching. It seems as if the identifiable community is no longer found in the bleachers, but in the cloud, talking about the game. We find ourselves more able to empathize with text on a glowing laptop screen than with the halfhearted cheers of miserable and/or misled fans.

I remember when I was young and I felt excited thinking about how a fan can impact a game. I thought that maybe one day, I could be one of those people who cared enough to attend every game, sit close, and cheer loud. Then, when you get older, you start to witness the typically inverse relationship between the proximity of your seat to the court versus the level of genuine rooting interest. There’s just something sad in thinking about a lower-middle-class 10-year-old boy ‘banished’ to the upper deck while some rich dude’s friend who is in town on business gets to go to the game. Somehow we all turn into post-reverse-classists who assume that basically no one should be allowed to watch live sports from nice seats. We are the other 99 percent of sports fans.

But maybe the Detroit Chill Bros will give us hope that one day we can purchase the right to be an authentic fan. While there are more ways than ever to connect to the game, there are fewer opportunities to immerse yourself in the purest sense of fandom.

Until then, I am stuck in the other 99 percent, agonizing about paying for parking in a distant lot, concession stand prices, and refusing to see myself in the face of the average guy I have to sit next to.

I miss the days when we smeared ice cream on our faces for the love of the game, not to go viral.

Carles is a staff writer for Grantland. He also created the authentic content farm HIPSTER RUNOFF.


Previously from Carles:
The Mediocre Quarterback and You
Consuming Sports in Our Crowded Meme Economy
Galaxy-Red Bulls Preview: Goodbye David Beckham?
Does Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto Sound Enough Like Coldplay?
Ryan Adams’ New Album: Too Coherent
Metals and Feist’s Escape From the Mainstream
The Buzzworthy NFL

To comment on this story through Facebook, click here.