Tuesday, May 21

On the twisted economics of fandom

One of my favourite books is Fred Exeley’s A Fan’s Notes. A Fictional Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1968). Exley’s novel of the intersections of fandom, American Football, alcoholism and madness contains a statement that for me sits at the heart of what sports – and in particular, Rugby – can, or at least could, offer.

Writing of the New York Giants, Exley states:

“The giants were my delight, my folly, my anodyne, my intellectual stimulation …an island of directness in a world of circumspection…a life-giving, an exalting force”.

This is similar in sentiment to what has become almost a cliche in writing about Rugby in New Zealand, John Mulgan’s statement in Report on Experience ( orig.1947) that in its succinct inclusiveness has the value of a post-colonial aphorism:

“Rugby football was the best of all our pleasures: it was religion and desire and fulfilment all in one” [John Mulgan, Report on Experience (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984) p.7].

I am also often reminded that, as the great South African writer J.M. Coetzee (1992) has noted, rugby operates as a release from time, a release from entropy, offering “the allure of time redeemed from chronicity” [ J.M. Coetzee, “Four Notes on Rugby” ed. J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point. Essays and Interviews, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) 123.]

What this means is that in rugby time speeds up and slows down, everyday time is forgotten and we became caught up in the drama unfolding before us.

Part of being a fan is sticking with a team through all the ups and downs not only of a single season but over multiple seasons. Once the choice of team is made the logic of fandom tends to demand that this is a pact of loyalty. Yet this is not ever really a reciprocal loyalty. Fans are in fact pledging loyalty to a business, a corporation. This is a type of economic exchange in which the hard-core fans continue their identity, association and, let’s be clear, purchase of a product that to all intent and purposes fails to deliver on the often extravagant promises. Not only do we pay to attend, we then pay to have a limited, overpriced choice of food and beverages, we pay to be subjected to inane and amateur pre- and mid-game ‘entertainment’, we pay for a decidedly limited ‘programme’ and all of those before we watch the game. Or we pay for a Sky TV subscription, despite the games and especially despite the inane commentary. We do this because of the expectation that ‘our’ team will deliver – if not the winning of the championship, then at least the winning of the conference – or at poor last, the winning of the game. Even beneath this we hope to experience – even if in a lost game – those moments of transcendent excitement, agility, brilliance, courage and skill that will survive the often mundane play that occurs in most sporting encounters. In effect we purchase brief moments of transcendence, encountered in collective experiences of transgressive identity. This is tribal transcendence, in which the team represents, however briefly, the possibilities that we, the tribe believe somehow embody ‘us’.

The owners (and here the NZRFU) however have a different outlook. This was reinforced by reading Dave Zirin’s incisively brilliant and angry “Bad Sports. How the owners are ruining the games we love” (Scribner, 2010). Zirin is one of those rare sportswriters who takes the analysis into a wider engagement with politics, economics, society and culture. In short, this is how sports writing ought to be- but too often isn’t. Zirin is a sports critic – or rather, a writer of sports criticism – in the same way others are critics of literature, or society, or culture. Zirin’s concern is that the owners, in so blatantly and brutally treating sports as a business- and in demanding public money for stadiums- are expressing complete disdain for the fans.

Fans are mugs and idealists all at once – we want to believe the best, the impossible- yet in doing so we are often taken for a ride by the business of the ‘team’. We can choose not to turn up, not to watch – yet, by our own twisted logic – that the owners count upon – we feel disloyal if we do so. The constant changes in team uniforms are part of this. I refuse to buy a team jersey because in the end all I am doing is giving even more money to the business of the team. For years I continued to attend in person in the spirit of hope that, however briefly, this team, these players, will provide a moment of transcendence and excitement that I can, in all honestly, respond to in an utterly transgressive manner. Because fandom is, if we are honest, the experience of transgressive behaviour – in many forms, behaviour that, if encountered outside of the game, would seem even stranger than when we do it within the bounded confines of the game. It is a site for and sight of irrationality. And this is what professional sport counts on – the willingness to purchase participation within a bounded environment of transgressive irrationality. 

At the moment, in a very telling problem for rugby, for it seems it is only the home games of the Warriors that can provide this in New Zealand. The contrast between the Chiefs-Hurricanes game and crowd and that of the Warriors-Cowboys game and crowd was a reminder of what Rugby has lost – and failed to deliver – over the past decade. 

In considering those quotes I started with, yesterday they applied only to the Warriors… and I’m struggling to remember when they last applied to rugby.