One of the most interesting passages in Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s memoir of being a fanatical Arsenal “supporter” as they say over there, involves the manager of an opposing team deriding the idea that his job is to provide football fans with an entertaining experience:
This game against Stoke was very much in the mould—a goalless first half, and then, amid rising discontent, two late goals (ironically, given the towering height of Stoke’s several centre-halves, headed in by the two smallest players on the pitch, Sansom and Rollins). Nobody, not even someone like me, would have been able to remember the game had it not been for the post-match press conference, when Alan Durban became angered by the hostility of the journalists towards his team and his tactics. “If you want entertainment,” he snarled, “go and watch clowns.”
It became one of the most famous football quotes of the decade. The quality papers in particular loved it for its effortless summary of modern football culture: here was conclusive proof that the game had gone to the dogs, that nobody cared about anything other than results any more, that the Corinthian spirit was dead, that hats were no longer thrown in the air. One could see their point. Why should football be different from every other branch of the leisure industry? You won’t find too many Hollywood producers and West End theatre impresarios sneering at the public’s desire to be diverted, so why should football managers get away with it?
Fever Pitch is among other things an illustration of how what hard core fans like Hornby are seeking isn’t really entertainment: it’s more a form of catharsis. But even catharsis isn’t the right word, since the whole point of the mimesis is that what is being witnessed is an imitation of life rather than life itself, while for the hard core fan the game is life itself.
All of which is by way of saying that last night’s game drove home to me the difference between two types of fan experience, which I will call the fevered or obsessive, and the casual or consumerist. The former seeks transcendence,the latter a bit of fun. I root for the Broncos largely because my wife is a fan, and she is a fan because she grew up watching the games on TV every Sunday with her family. That tradition has continued, and we had gatherings every week this season, during the course of which I saw just about every snap of the Broncos’ games, including their preaseason contests.
This level of involvement, at least for me, creates an almost inadvertent level of expertise regarding a team, which itself is a typical hallmark of a hard core (fevered/obsessive) fan. But I’ve never been that kind of fan in regard to Denver, although I have developed a certain affection for them, and would like them to win, and would especially (of course) have liked them to win yesterday. I’m not certain why this is, but I believe it has something to do with being unable to develop a genuine emotional attachment to a team that I didn’t root for when I was a child. In fact I’m sure I would have been much more emotionally invested if the Lions had been in the Super Bowl, even though I hardly ever see them play, and I doubt I can name more than six players on their current roster, so I can hardly say I’m a real Lions fan any more either.
So in regard to the Broncos I’m a casual consumer: I enjoy their games, I want them to win, but basically it’s just entertainment. In other words, by my own standards, I’m not a real fan: a status that I’ve only managed to maintain in regard to the University of Michigan football team. Being a casual consumer of sports entertainment definitely has its advantages. When Michigan lost to Ohio State in the 1970s I would literally be depressed about it for days, while I had more or less forgotten about last night’s game thirty minutes after it ended. But it also means a transcendent emotional experience (positive or negative) is not something Peyton Manning and his successors are ever going to deliver to me.