The Seattle Sounders face the Philadelphia Union this weekend. From a soccer perspective, the matchup isn’t too enticing. Despite the signing of USMNT player Maurice Edu, Philadelphia seems destined for another lackluster season. The Sounders, seemingly becoming the juggernaut Seattle’s always wanted, should roll. However this matchup, though nationally insignificant, plays a psychodrama for me every season.
In all other professional sports my allegiance is staunchly Philly. When the Sounders play the Union is the only time I see “PHI” in the corner of my screen and do not cheer for that team. My folks hail from South Philly and Bucks County, and I was raised on TastyKakes and hoagies, but not a fiber of my being relates to the Union. And that got me thinking about the curious nature of fandom. How it is an inheritance, a community and a culture.
My grandfather, Leo Coyle, was buried with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports page in his casket. In his 82 years on this mortal coil, he saw the Phillies win one World Series championship, but never an Eagles Super Bowl.
From my father and my grandfather, I inherited my Philadelphia fundamentalism for the Eagles, Phillies and Flyers. It is a deep, atavistic aspect of my character that connects me to my family and my past much like a religion or a national identity. It is a legacy you carry forward, an inheritance you are both blessed and burdened with. Like any inheritance, it bestows a communal consciousness. You know the foods, songs and poems of your people. It connects you to your family as both anchor and polestar.
Steve Kelley, former sportswriter for the Seattle Times, wrote a column when Cliff Lee spurned the Rangers and the Yankees to sign with the Phillies back in 2010. He wrote about how his father, a long-time Philadelphia sports fan, would have been so proud to see this coveted star choose Philadelphia. But his father was long dead and all Kelley could do was share his excitement with the memory of his father. I broke down reading this column. I started sobbing for no reason other than that, one day, the Eagles will win a big game, and I won’t have my father to share it with.
But my father never cheered for the Philadelphia Union.
All fandom starts as communal because we identify with our home. Proud New Yorkers became Yankees fans, proud Angelenos Dodgers fans. In 1977, when the Seattle Mariners permanently brought Major League Baseball to the Pacific Northwest, Seattleites supported the team merely because they were Seattle’s. There was no deep connection to the team, not yet.
Think of all the fair weather Seahawks fans last season. Many Seattleites who never cared a bit about the Seahawks were genuinely, and deservedly, excited during the Super Bowl run. Maybe they didn’t all have 12 tattoos, but something big and good had happened to their city. Sports success engenders a sense of pride by association. Maybe pride isn’t right, maybe it is greatness by association, or accomplishment. Maybe it is as simple as relevance. Seattle wins the Super Bowl and the nation can no longer ignore that city tucked up in the corner of the country. When our sporting institutions win, we feel, finally, recognized.
My wife Kennan was flabbergasted that she fell in love with a typical American sports fan. She was born and raised in Ballard, but back in 2005, when Mike Holmgren had led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl, she had no idea why there was a blue 12 flag flying from the Space Needle. Not raised to love professional sports, she took the popular counter position and espoused the greedy and vacuous nature of the whole enterprise.
She has never once taken a shine to the Eagles or Phillies, but we have fallen, together, deeper into our Sounders devotion. It was fairly easy for me to fall in love with the Rave Green, I know how to be besotted by a team. She had more fits and starts. She used to scoff when I’d dig around the internet for a bootleg feed of an Open Cup game. She’d complain I was “getting too into it”, making it less fun with my intensity and moping around the house after a loss. Now she is Sounders-til-she-dies.
I should have recognized the point of no return last August on vacation in Belfair. Dempsey had joined the team, the Sounders were locking in, having won three in a row, and had travelled to Houston to take on the red hot Dynamo. The cabin we were staying at had no television, so we drove around North Shore Road until we found the Udder Room Bar and asked if we could catch the game. We were the only people in the bar, sitting watch a crappy broadcast of the Sounders get pounded by Giles Barnes and the Dynamo. We were supposed to be on a vacation. We watched the whole game.
Sports gives us permission to feel something ineffable and unifying. Maybe it is a fault of modern culture, or masculine mores in general, but too little are we allowed to feel. Fandom is one such outlet.
In the book I often quote, Soccernomics, authors Kuper and Szymanski discuss the tangible social benefits of World Cups, Olympics and other global competitions. After listing the appallingly low economic benefit of nations hosting such competitions, Kuper and Szymanski explain that the happiness quotient of a city skyrockets when their teams do well. Sporting success, and hosting sporting greatness, makes people feel connected, less alone. Crime plummets, suicide rates fall, and productivity increases. Why? The human animal is a social animal. Too often we toil in a shallow fiefdom of our own mind, getting and spending and forgetting those we share life with. Sports reminds us we are not alone.
Fandom is a passion. It allows you to lead a more wholehearted life, as being a fan admits a longing for connection. Being a fan makes you vulnerable. It gives you permission to hope and cry, and hug your father.