by Keith Aksel
Recently I had an exchange with a friend regarding fans of my newly-minted hometown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In casual text-message conversation, my Pittsburgh-loyalist compadre claimed Philly sports fans were the “worst” fans out there. Although I'm not yet a fan of my town’s teams, it struck me that this sort of claim is made all the time about fan bases. New York Yankees fans can be “raucous,” Golden State Warriors fans are “front-runners,” and all L.A. fans have “better things to do” than sports.
But can we actually distill fan bases down to such attributes? Is it really that simple to definitively say Philadelphia fans are bad, Pittsburgh fans are good, and Miami fans are just distracted? Like a good historian, I think the best response is to say that these stereotypes are always more complicated than they seem, and they might obscure as much about certain fanbases as they reveal.
Most outsiders first think of Philadelphia fans by their memories of Veterans Stadium, or “the Vet,” the south-side home to the Eagles and Phillies between the 1970s and early 2000s. Philly fan lore largely resides in the legacy of the Vet, as the classic cookie-cutter stadium was the site of a number of infamous incidents, including fans urinating in lavatory sinks, and rampant fights in the cheap seats (all nicely summarized in this local blog article). From these accounts, it seems like Philly fans have perpetrated unseemly boy’s club-type behavior during a good chunk of their history. For many Americans, such behavior is a marker of a decidedly “bad” fan base.
But do these stories alone make Philadelphia fans bad? The full picture is a little more challenging to make out. Against this background of unruliness, today’s Eagles fans fill up Lincoln Financial Field like clockwork every home game (I certainly can’t say that for my Bengals). On a midweek meaningless March game I attended against the cellar-dwelling Brooklyn Nets, the 76ers still attracted a sizeable and engaged crowd, far beyond what I witnessed attending a Denver Nuggets end-of-season game last season. Fans in this town seem to care about their teams more than the average city, if local sports radio is any indication. Philadelphia sports’ struggles have recently led to endless streams of obsessive on-air rants about inept Phillies management and poor effort at the plate. Fans here have taken losing personally. At least to those born-and-bred in the city of brotherly love, losing is not a cause to tune your teams out, it’s a cause to get more invested in them.
Despite the reputation of the Vet, most fans across the Philly sports scene act like civilized people, and like English soccer hooligans, a small, rambunctious minority has dominated the way we remember the whole of the fan base. Knowing that entrenched loyalty lies behind the sometimes unruly behavior of Philadelphia fans, should we so easily label those fans as bad or good? I think categorizing Philadelphia fans may be a trickier process than just dredging up what happened at the Vet in the 1980s.
Personally, I’m not ready to call Philadelphia fans good or bad. In fact, I’m not sure making such a distinction actually helps us as fans at all, beyond just fueling rivalries against cities we don’t like. But the concept of categorizing fans bases is worth thinking about more critically, especially as it reveals our personal preferences in the process. Discussing good and bad fans helps us identify what we value in fandom. For instance, do you view the welcoming and appreciative atmosphere at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium (which is famous for its kind fans) as the embodiment of what fandom should be, or a mark of football-loving softies? Are Cleveland Browns fans who threw beer bottles at referees in support of their team a reflection of deep and loyal passion, or a primal, undeveloped mentality? Does the prospect of profanity-laced diatribes directed at a fan wearing an opposing team’s jersey in an away arena signify the mark of appropriate home-crowd treatment, or a despicable display of bad behavior?
Depending on your perspective on these questions, you can come to grips with how and why you view other fan bases as good, bad, or something else entirely. Thinking critically about our view of fandom can make watching sports a tad more interesting to even the “best” fans out there.
1. I am, of course, referring to the 2001 Cleveland-Jacksonville game in which Browns fans threw bottles at officials after a controversial decision to review a previous play after the ball had been snapped. See the event right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-teMkx2vgA