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April 16. That’s the day I originally pitched this article to the esteemed editors of this site. You may be confused as to why I pitched an article two months ago but only got around to writing it now. On April 16, the Washington Capitals — my favorite team and the team whose fortunes I cared about more than anything for the past 20 years — fell into a 0-2 series hole in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs; last night they won their first ever championship.
I’m not ashamed to admit that when I first pitched this idea, I was done. Angry. Defeated. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the NHL knows that the Capitals are the kings of the cocktease. Great teams, with great stars and great talent, who flame out and fail spectacularly when it matters. Their record when leading in playoff series, when they have the chance to close out and win a series, and in elimination games, is laughable. And after watching their first two playoff games this year seem to follow that same old script of heartbreak, I was done.
It must be so much easier, more pleasurable to just not care that much about sports. To watch only when it’s convenient, barely paying attention, wanting your team to win, but not really caring if they lose.
That’s what I desperately wanted. I envied those fans who cruised through life without that passion and could just enjoy the ride no matter the end. To not be hung up, invested in the fortunes of a team I was certain would crush my heart and soul as they had on every occasion in the past.
Until they won.
Now, you might think that the championship has changed my perspective. But instead, as I watched the celebrations with my girlfriend, who knew nothing about hockey before we started dating and could easily be labeled as bandwagon as they come, my view strengthened. Watching her get all excited at their victory with me, and getting excited at my excitement (the video she captured of me ugly crying tears of joy will likely be used for blackmail forever) was just as genuine as all the other fans celebrating the win. She is a fan, even though she barely knows anything about the team before this year. Yet this was a text she sent me from a wedding during Game 3 of the final when we were separated by two states.
See, giant sports fans always want to get into a dick measuring contest when it comes to fandom. There are all these notions about what “real fans” are. Someone who doesn’t know your team’s history, not a real fan. Someone who leaves before the end of the game when you’re losing, not a real fan. Someone who doesn’t agree with you that the team’s GM/coach/star player should be launched into an active volcano, not a real fan. If they boo or don’t boo the team getting blown out at home, if they do or don’t go to every game during the years when they’re basement dwellers, if they do or don’t eat, sleep, and breathe this team. All of this how we attempt to define the fandom of others, and make ourselves feel superior in our fandom. It’s all bullshit.
I’ll admit, I fell into the trap in a certain way. I was rooting against Vegas throughout these playoffs largely because their “lifelong fans” (I tease, but I know there are a lot of people like Dillon who were fans of this team back when they were going to be the Vegas Aces) hadn’t “earned” a championship. To be in existence one year, breeze through the playoffs, and win a championship on your first try feels wrong. To accomplish something that the Sabres, Canucks, Browns, Chargers, Cardinals, Magic, Rangers, Indians, and Mariners have never done in centuries of combined futility just feels wrong. But it isn’t, and the Vegas fans should feel damn proud for their accomplishments. They’re no less fans than die-hard Toronto Maple Leafs fans who have suffered for almost half a century.
In fact, being a diehard fan is, objectively, not as emotionally healthy as being a bandwagon fan. Diehard fans lose years off their lives dealing with the turmoil and stress of their team’s performance, while bandwagon fans can largely live their lives in peace. They enjoy the game and enjoy their team’s success, but it doesn’t define them. And when their favorite team starts it’s inevitable period of being the league laughingstock, they don’t feel compelled to be a “real fan” and take the barbs and jabs from other fans. They can just let that fandom lay dormant, to be resurrected when they are given something to root for again.
To me, the only unacceptable practice in sports fandom is frontrunning: dropping your team’s fandom and switching to the team that’s having all the success. Think all those fans in the 70s who “became” Steelers fans or fans of the Cowboys in the 80s. It’s fine if you were actually fans of those teams and then they started winning, but if you’re choosing a team purely based on whether they’re winning or not that’s unacceptable. And dropping your rooting interests to back a winner is a bush league move.
But it’s fine to not be devoted to a team 100% of the time. It’s even okay to shift your rooting interests to your partner’s team in instances where it doesn’t conflict with your own. Jennie loves tennis, and even though I have a few players I like I’ll generally join in her rooting interests whenever she wants to watch because it doesn’t matter that much to me. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nowhere in the book of fandom does it say you must be 100% devoted to your team 100% of the time.
So I speak to you now, fans of perpetual losers like the Browns, Bengals, Tampa Rays, Florida Panthers, Sabres, and Charlotte Hornets. To you fans of perpetual chokers like the Texas Rangers, Blues, and Michigan football. To you fans of once-proud franchises that are now constant disappointments like the Islanders, Bulls, Cowboys, Orioles, and Texas football. It’s okay to let go. It’s fine, it’s healthy. No one should mock you for putting your own happiness above that of a team that doesn’t care about you. And if you jump back on board once they’re back to respectability, that’s fine too. You’re not more of a fan for enduring all those emotional scars, and you won’t enjoy the win any less than the “real fans.”
Be loyal to your team, be kind and accepting of all fans no matter when they came into the dysfunctional family that is the fanbase of every team, and remember that the refs are always biased against your team. Those are the only things you ever need to remember to be a true fan. And if someone calls you “bandwagon” because you didn’t watch every single regular season and preseason game this year, because you don’t wear a jersey to the championship watch party, or because you didn’t have the heart to watch your team go 0-16, tell them to shove it. You’re just as much a fan as they are.
From someone who fell off the fandom and jumped back on the bandwagon after the demons were exercised, the championship champagne still tastes just as sweet. .