When I told my mother I was writing an article about sports, she paused. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I thought you just said you were writing an article about sports.”
It’s true that aside from brief stints in soccer when I was younger — and a dictatorial turn as captain of my middle school dodgeball intramural team — I’ve never been much for sports. I enjoy the citywide support when one of Toronto’s teams makes it to the playoffs, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as someone who follows sports closely.
But if there’s one aspect of sports that has always fascinated me, it’s team loyalty. More precisely, how do fans pick their team allegiances, and how do they come to feel so strongly about them?
With many fans I’ve observed, the connection was clear. They rooted for Toronto teams because they were from the city. But with others, the reason for their allegiance was less apparent. I was curious to investigate the reasons these fans backed the teams they did, whether personal or arbitrary.
A recurring theme I discovered among students I spoke to was the influence of parents or other family members in picking a team.
My colleague, Aidan Currie, roots for the Buffalo Bills and Montreal Canadiens, though he has never lived in either city. Currie explained that his mother lived in Buffalo for nine years and actually worked for the Bills during that time, while his father is from Québec. When he first became interested in football, he wanted a team to root for, and his mother suggested the Bills.
I asked Currie if he had ever experienced ‘anti-Habs prejudice,’ rooting for Montréal’s team while living in Toronto. He told me about an incident in which a Leafs superfan grabbed his Canadiens toque and threw it into the snow, in what can only be described as the most Canadian incident of bullying ever.
Lila Shapiro, a McGill University student and friend of mine from middle school, was responsible for a period where I rooted for the Montreal Canadiens, having been a fan since about 13. “That’s going to be what gets me into heaven,” said Shapiro.
Shapiro’s parents are both from Montréal, and before she lived there, they would frequently visit her grandparents for holidays. But the main reason she cited for her loyalty to the Habs was the influence of her older brother Josh. “If he was a Leafs fan, honestly, I probably would have been a Leafs fan, but thank God that’s not the case,” she added.
Other students also cited personal attachments to a specific city as reason for rooting for their sports teams. Joe Gluck, a U of T student who used to live in Vancouver, said that he became a Vancouver Canucks fan when he started collecting hockey cards at the age of 10, although his family was living in New Jersey at the time.
When his family later moved back to Vancouver, however, he was no longer as invested, and he was also disappointed by the team’s loss of the Stanley Cup in 2011.
I asked Gluck if he had considered becoming a Leafs fan since starting university in Toronto.
“I have too much self respect to root for the Leafs,” he said, but he did add that he enjoys the feeling of the whole city rooting for one of its teams together, such as when the Blue Jays made it to the playoffs in 2016.
One of the more interesting rationales behind team allegiances I heard came from U of T student Robbie Raskin. Raskin follows several sports, including hockey, Canadian football, and soccer. He noted that, especially in European soccer, some teams have certain geopolitical backgrounds, which affected his likelihood to support them.
“In Spain I’d cheer for Real Madrid over Barcelona because Barca is historically associated with separatism, which reminds me of Montréal’s teams here and turns me off,” said Raskin.
York University student Eitan Cohen — no relation — became a fan of the New England Patriots in high school at the encouragement of his brother-in-law, who took him to a Bills vs. Patriots game.
I knew that due to their success, the Patriots are known for having an abundance of bandwagon fans, which refers to those who jump on board with a team when they’re doing well. I asked Cohen how he felt about people referring to him this way.
“I usually just laugh and play along with it, because there’s no use in arguing,” he said, adding, “it’s not my fault they’re so good.”
Currie supported the idea of jumping on the bandwagon, noting that it gives sports fans a chance to get involved when their team doesn’t make it to the playoffs. “If a team’s doing well and your team isn’t in the playoffs, then go ahead, cheer for the best team,” he said.
Others were less approving. “I think it kind of flies in the face of what being a fan means,” said Raskin. “I think loyalty is the main aspect of supporting a team.”
Disclosure: Aidan Currie is The Varsity’s Deputy News Editor.