Why Can’t I Stop Rooting for a God-Awful Sports Team?

Once I attended a Washington Wizards open apply at D.C.’s Capital One Area earlier this month, the main focus was extra on spectator leisure than Rocky-style exercises. The season opener was per week away, and the gamers ran drills at half pace and engaged in foolish expertise competitions for followers, together with a basketball model of Join 4. However as a lifelong Wiz devotee, I used to be having an awestruck, love-you-man second. Right here I used to be posing for a photo with Phil freakin Chenier. Franchise royalty. My childhood idol. Again within the Seventies, when Chenier was draining jumpers and sporting a Richard Pryor mustache, the crew routinely chased titles. Today? Not a lot.

Being an NBA fan who loves the Wizards is a bit like being a foodie who adores turnips: It simply doesn’t make sense. For the reason that 2000–01 season, solely the Knicks and Timberwolves have lost more games. The franchise final superior past the second spherical of the playoffs in 1979 (again after they had been known as the Bullets), and so they’ve missed the playoffs 16 of the previous 25 years. We followers have endured 40-plus years of frustration and disappointment, primarily from the standard points—dangerous protection, dangerous draft picks, dangerous trades—however generally from … weirder ones: One All-Star participant was charged with a gun felony involving a teammate, and one other was as soon as suspended with out pay for being obese. It’s all #SoWizards, to make use of a Twitter hashtag.

And but, I made it out to the open apply with just a few hundred followers on a Tuesday night time, carrying a Wizards T-shirt and feeling the faint, irrational heat of preseason hope. Anybody can root for a winner. That’s straightforward. Final season, the NFL groups with the top-selling merchandise had been the Cowboys, 49ers, Patriots, Steelers, and Chiefs. Every crew completed with a successful file. In Philadelphia, the at the moment undefeated Eagles and the World Sequence–sure Phillies have generated a 20 p.c or extra improve in enterprise for native eating places, sports activities bars, and memorabilia shops.

However rooting for the middling Wizards takes guts at finest and is downright masochism at worst. Nonetheless, regardless that the crew is extra prone to convey me agony than elation, I can’t fathom supporting another franchise. The identical is definitely true of my fellow Wizards followers—and plenty of followers of different perennial losers (hey, the Detroit Lions by some means nonetheless have followers). So why will we keep hooked?

My Wizards fandom started within the D.C. suburbs within the ’70s, after I was a Bullets-crazed child devouring field scores on the sports activities web page, capturing jumpers on a yard dust court docket, and pretending to be Chenier. I used to be 12 when the Bullets paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to have a good time their solely title, and the following 44 years have introduced numerous dangerous recollections: Final season, the Wizards by some means blew a 35-point lead towards the L.A. Clippers. The worst half? I wasn’t shocked.

Latest ache ought to really feel stronger than childhood pleasure, I’d assume—even for followers like me, whose assist was handed down geographically. However these deep, die-hard roots can affect our grownup habits. “Early studying is extremely highly effective and exhausting to erase,” Chris Crandall, a psychology professor on the College of Kansas who has studied fan allegiance, advised me. The crew’s success 50 years in the past could have boosted my childhood loyalty, Crandall defined, and their subsequent failures didn’t take away it. A brand new perspective (“Wow, these guys stink”) primarily “lays over the previous one, however the previous one continues to be there,” Crandall stated. “And it’s very tough to do away with it.”

I’m at the least sufficiently old to recollect the crew’s lone championship. The highest reminiscence for Wizards followers of their 30s might be John Wall’s dramatic game-winning three-pointer in Sport 6 of the Japanese Convention semifinals. The Wizards, in fact, then misplaced Sport 7. However one motive followers stick round is the perverse delight they’ve of their fandom, Edward Hirt, a professor on the College of Indiana who has studied sports-fan psychology, advised me. Rooting for the Lakers or the Dallas Cowboys is like carrying khakis: You hardly stand out in a crowd. Loving the Wizards provides me a defiant sense of individuality. “Do you need to be like all people else, or do you need to be totally different?” Hirt stated. “The reply is neither. We need to be a bit little bit of each. We like feeling like we belong, however we don’t need to be seen as a clone of all people else, both.”

Supporting a loser satisfies each of these wishes. I can commune with fellow followers at a sports activities bar or recreation, however after I stroll by way of an airport, even in D.C., I’m usually the one man carrying a Wizards cap. And actually, I like that. My Wiz fandom, Andrew Billings, a sports-media professor on the College of Alabama, advised me, sends a message to the world: “How loyal am I? I root for the Washington Wizards.” (Which, let’s be actual, can be a terrific T-shirt). In a 2015 research of scholars from seven universities, soccer followers had been 55 p.c much less prone to put on crew attire following a defeat in contrast with a win. However those that do are making a press release: I’m not a fair-weather fan; I’m devoted and reliable.

These noble qualities clarify why followers of awful groups despise fair-weather followers, Hirt added. Bandwagon followers skip the struggling however embrace the glory. If the Wizards by some means reached the NBA Finals this 12 months, I’d be each thrilled and infuriated by the mobs of rapturous followers at downtown watch events. The place had been these bandwagon yahoos in 2001, when the crew completed 19–63?

However perhaps successful issues lower than we predict—even for die-hard followers who react to every loss with a primal scream. In a single 2019 research, followers of a faculty soccer crew felt a two-day rise in vanity after a victory. However vanity ranges didn’t drop considerably amongst shedding followers. One of many causes: Even when your crew loses, you may elevate your vanity just by commiserating with mates, Billings, a co-author, stated.

Sure, struggling sucks, however struggling collectively has some upsides. It may be a social glue that intensifies bonds with the crew and fellow followers. “Going by way of this hardship together with your sports activities crew makes you more likely to stay with them,” Omri Gillath, a psychology professor on the College of Kansas, advised me. Followers don’t simply take pleasure in mirrored glory, or BIRG, as psychologists name it; additionally they BIRF—take pleasure in mirrored failure. “It’s about having a group of people who perceive you and like the identical factor that you just do,” Gillath stated.

Final season, a good friend and I attended the Wizards’ residence finale, and so they received shellacked by the equally awful Knicks. However my good friend and I loved laughs over pregame beers. We made sarcastic feedback because the Wiz turned a ten–0 lead right into a 22-point deficit. I purchased an end-of-the-season discounted T-shirt on the crew retailer. Listening to Knicks followers hoot about their victory was annoying, however we had enjoyable. And we bonded.

However rooting for a shedding crew could also be a dying phenomenon. Sports activities betting and streaming have made sports activities extra solitary and fewer tied to the place you reside—undercutting a few of the causes followers endure their god-awful groups. “Geographic loyalty is especially highly effective for older generations, partly as a result of they weren’t almost as cell with their jobs or their careers as youthful individuals are,” Billings stated. “I dwell in Alabama. If I needed to be a Golden State Warriors fan, I may entry all 82 of their regular-season video games in a manner that was not doable for older generations after they constructed their fandom.” Youthful followers can also be extra prone to comply with a single participant than a specific crew, Billings believes.

Let’s be clear: Profitable is manner higher than shedding. A 2013 research discovered that on the Monday after NFL video games, followers of shedding groups had been extra prone to eat saturated fat and sugars in contrast with followers of successful groups. However I really consider—and perhaps that is loser speak—that my a long time of Wizards fandom have made me a greater human. I’ve well-developed coping expertise. My mates and I are like Statler and Waldorf, the crusty hecklers on The Muppet Present: We handle head-smacking losses with well-timed quips. I don’t get too elated after a victory—though victories imply extra after they’re uncommon—or too down after a defeat. Hell, perhaps it’s even made me extra empathetic to folks’s challenges. In spite of everything, most of us in life can relate extra just like the continuously struggling Wizards than the trophy-hoisting Warriors.

Although I do know higher, I’m optimistic this season gained’t be a #SoWizards 12 months. Perhaps the crew will jell. Perhaps the younger gamers will develop. Perhaps the veterans will keep wholesome. Or, you recognize, perhaps not. A struggling sports activities franchise, I’ve determined, is like your fool brother or jackass uncle. Regardless of all their apparent flaws, you continue to love them. And so I’ll cherish disco-era Bullets recollections, have a good time the sudden victories, cling to silly hope, and brace myself for the worst. In the event that they miss the playoffs—once more—nicely, there’s all the time subsequent 12 months.

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