Sports Team Fandoms as a Model Organism for Understanding Discourse

This post follows from a discussion this morning which has already been blogged once, but in which I introduced an idea that would benefit from further elaboration and clarification. Namely:

There is an entire infrastructure built around the mythos of each team and numerous parallel conversations, but at the end of the season there is a win-loss record and people are butthurt in proportion to how wrong the mythos they bought into was. – From the logs

Now a sport discrete1 competitions, for which there is a winner and one or more losers.2 During the course of a competition rules are set and firm,3 though they may be amended from season to season or rarely over the course of a season. At the end of the competition there is a final score which determines the winner, and over the series of competitions which compose a season a champion can be determined which by the determining criteria was the best competitor over the span of competitions. From here out I'll focus on Baseball as the primary example and it is a favorite of mine for a number of reasons, many of which I've written on before.

In Major League Baseball there are 30 teams divided among two leagues of 15 teams each. The two leagues each have a championship series for which the winner is said to have "won the pennant" and the winners of each league face each other in the "World Series" to determine an overall champion. Further each league is divided into three roughly geographic divisions and the team with the best record in each division at the end of the regular season "wins" their division. In this arrangement one team gets to be the champion of everything, another gets be the champion of their league alone, and the other four or five teams get the meager consolation of having won their division.4 The other 22 to 24 teams end the season with no sort of championship. If they've won more games than they have lost they might claim the consolation of having had a "winning record", but even then there are teams which necessarily must have lost more games than they have won if anyone is to have a "winning record" and a person might be wondering "How these teams continue to persist in being?" if they aren't winning any sorts of championships or even having winning records. The Pittsburgh Pirates went 20 consecutive seasons without a winning record, from 1992 through 2012. The Chicago Cubs haven't won the World Series since 1908 or the Pennant since 1945. An interlude:

clark the pervert cub

The Cubs Mascot – From Deadspin

Now the answer to "How these teams continue to persist in being?" is that surrounding each team is a media apparatus and the economic fate of that media apparatus is tied to the fate of the local team. In the early days of Major League Baseball the outlet was newspaper sports columnists and reporters, eventually radio came to the party, and now regional broadcast and cable television channels are in the mix. Without a team to cover and broadcast their continued existence isn't justified. The result is that during most games there are two television broadcast teams, two radio broadcast teams, two sets of print reporters and columnists, and maybe a national writer or twelve. The result is that each fanbase gets to experience the game and the season with commentary that is as charitable to their side as possible. Vocabularies develop around this. An especially poor season is a "rebuilding year" with the premise that the team is developing talent in their minor league farm system and engaging in transactions with the aim of embettering the team's future outcomes. You also get situations like the Miami Marlins where the draw isn't the team, but a couple superstars like Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez.5 In the worst case they can resort to using a team's storied past as a crutch, or simple sell the game as an occasion to drink beer.

The one exception to situation where each fanbase gets their own broadcast is in the playoffs where there is a single television broadcast team. Devoted fans will seriously rage about the coverage that is ever so slightly less charitable to their own team while also being gracious in covering the other team, but at this point every team has already won some sort of trophy, even if it is just the privilege of competing as the wild card. Once a team's made it this far turning the media keys to the kingdom over to national broadcasters isn't that likely to  keep them from buying tickets and watching games in the future.

So if you want a laboratory or data set for understanding how languages can be fractured in parallel for the furtherance of some cause, try following a couple sports teams for a while. The exercise is sure to be educational.


  1. As opposed to politics which presents discreet competition, or at least the illusion of competition.   

  2. This includes the outcome of a "draw" perfectly. A drawn or tied match is one in which the competitors are all losers for failing to defeat the opposition.  

  3. This is not to suggest though that enforcement or application of rules is ever absolute or correct. Every system has to have some quanta modicum of uncertainty affecting it.  

  4. Thanks to a relatively recent change in 1994 which coincided with the expansion from two divisions to three, a fourth team gets to enter the playoffs and compete for the League and Overall championships by virtue of having the best record in the league without being a division champion. The system was amended yet again in 2012 where the two teams in that position had to play a single game for the privilege of competing in the playoffs. This is referred to as the "Wild Card".  

  5. These are two standouts who under better management and ownership might be traded for the better part of a better team, but… Jeffery Loria has a tendency to run teams into the ground through mismanagement or the Montreal Expos wouldn't have become the Washington Nationals.  

One thought on “Sports Team Fandoms as a Model Organism for Understanding Discourse

  1. Correction applied and is visible per:

    mircea_popescu: "Every system has to have some quanta of uncertainty affecting it." < < that's not a correct use of the term. a quanta is a fixed, measurable, known quantity which quantifies a quantized system, such as 1 is the quanta of binary computing. in physics and so the surrounding world, (macroscopic)energy is usually hν, ie planck's constant (the quanta) times the frequency. mircea_popescu: well technically quanta is the plural of quantum, so i should prolly say quantum, but anwyay. BingoBoingo: Well, judgment calls and blind refs/umpires can be enumerated after the fact. mircea_popescu: but they're not all equal. mircea_popescu: say modicum for this use of quanta, that's correct. mircea_popescu: quantum != modicum, mostly because latin works as a language. Source

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