Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-industrial Complex at Its Own Game
By Craig Calcaterra
I got off to a bad start with Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game.
Here’s the passage that did me in, which is on the second page of the “Introduction”: “There was talk about the possibility of superfan groups like the Seattle Seahawks’ famous ‘Twelfth Man.’”
Actually, the 12th Man is a Texas A&M tradition, started in 1922, and one that Aggies take seriously. When the Seahawks attempted to appropriate the 12th Man, they were promptly sued by Texas A&M and now pay the Aggies for limited rights to use the university’s trademark. (Read more here.)
As a Texas A&M former student, it was not lost on me that my reaction was consistent with that of a serious fan — the kind of fan Craig Calcaterra addresses in his book. However, I was also bothered by incomplete research.
But I get ahead of myself.
I’m a fan of Craig Calcaterra’s work — I’ve been a paid subscriber to his Cup of Coffee newsletter since he started it, and I appreciate his insight into baseball as well as his wry style. When I learned he was writing a book on fandom, I pre-ordered a copy. As a Colorado Rockies fan, I am living the odyssey that is fandom, always on the hunt for those who can explain this bizarre experience.
Calcaterra’s book is effective in providing a strategy for fans; at times, though, it is less successful in its approach.
In the “Introduction,” Calcaterra makes his strategy clear, writing, “[G]iving up your sports fandom is not what this book is about. I’m interested in trying to find a way to hold on to that which we love about sports while not being used or taken advantage of by a sports-industrial complex that wants to leverage our loyalty for its own purposes.” That’s the sweet spot many sports fans are seeking.
Part I is “The State of Modern Fandom,” in which Calcaterra addresses ways the “sports-industrial complex” (a useful term) exploits fans as well as the communities in which they live. He explores topics such as the myth of winning as “healing” a city; communities being forced to pay for expensive stadiums; issues of gentrification; tanking; labor exploitation; and propagandistic appeals to patriotism.
These are all significant problems in spots — his focus is not just baseball — and Calcaterra uses this analysis to provide a context for the advice he will give in Part II, “How to Be a Fan in the Twenty-First Century.” His counsel is clear: Be a fair-weather fan; root for players, not teams; be a casual fan; and support activism. His final suggestion is to be a “metafan,” a concept I never fully understood, though I think he’s recommending that fans use their sports fandom to take advantage of sports-adjacent activities, such as gaming, memorabilia collection, and fantasy sports rather than giving into the team’s latest PR blitz.
He closes with this line: “My fandom belongs to me. Not them. I can pursue it any way I want to. And so can you.” It’s good advice, something fans everywhere would be wise to remember.
For me, however, Rethinking Fandom felt like it perhaps should have been an essay rather than an book, a point Calcaterra has alluded to elsewhere. As he told Jeremy Greco in a recent interview, “It’s a short book. More of a radical pamphlet or manifesto than anything else. That was on purpose.”
If you’re a serious sports fan — and that’s presumably the audience for this book — then you don’t need a detailed analysis of tanking or stadium construction or the problematic behavior of some players because you already know all of this. You’re gutted by this. It’s probably why you’re reading Rethinking Fandom. You’re interested in the second part of this book because you are seeking strategies to help you navigate the situation in which you find yourself. (Thinking of you, Party Deck and McGregor Square!)
That’s not to say Calcaterra’s points aren’t sound. They are. I’m just unconvinced that a book is the best medium for this message.
Now, let me spend a few paragraphs on a writing issue that bothered me.
I found the lack of consistent documentation disorienting. When Calcaterra made the error about the 12th Man, I started looking for sources. Some are informally cited, such as Bill Simmons’ Now I Can Die in Peace and Lindsay Gibbs and Ayesha Khan’s “The Kaepernick Effect: The Anthem Protests Are Spreading” and Howard Bryant’s The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.
Given the genre in which Rethinking Fandom works, a kind of self-help book/manifesto, informal documentation is appropriate. However, I wish the attribution of sources were more consistent. There are no notes, no bibliography, and nothing on the website.
When Calcaterra references a “2018 study” (p. 12), I want to read the study. When he writes, “Psychologists refer to a phenomenon called ‘durability bias’ . . .” I’d like see some names (p. 157). When he makes reference to a 2019 USA Today story, I’d like to be able to locate it (p. 39).
Similarly, when he asserts, “To the extent that psychologists have studied sports fandom — a very, very small field of study, it should be noted . . .” (pp. 11-12), I’d like some details because this area has received academic attention. (See, for example Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson’s Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan, Andrew C. Billings and Kenyon A. Brown’s Evolution of the Modern Sports Fan: Communicative Approaches, George Dohrmann’s Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom, Daniel L. Wann and Jeffrey D. James’ Sport Fans The Psychology and Social Impact of Fandom, Stacey Pope’s The Feminization of Sports Fandom A Sociological Study, Chip Scarinzi’s Diehards: Why Fans Care So Much About Sports, and Eric C. Tarver’s The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity.)
As a reader, I needed Calcaterra to show his work — if nothing else in a bibliography. Books like Rethinking Fandom necessarily participate in a kind of academic dialogue: That is, the author is entering a conversation that’s been going on for some time. Rethinking Fandom would benefit from a stronger accounting of its place in that conversation.
Rethinking Fandom is a useful book and a quick read that provides a range of strategies for fans trying to mediate their fandom in a system designed to exploit them. We live in times when having those strategies is useful.
Perhaps a public reading in McGregor Square is in order.