Welcome to the bandwagon

[Note: This was originally published in the Ottawa Sun in May 2016…but it didn’t seem to make it online. It was partially inspired by the Toronto Raptors playoff run. As they launch into another playoff race, I thought I’d bring this back.]

There can be a real joy, a purity, to jumping on the bandwagon. You may not have paid your dues, but you’re putting your emotions on the line for this team…and you’ll likely be disappointed.

Most playoff runs end in a loss.

It’s sort of like love at first sight. You’re just all of a sudden swept up in the magic of it. And if it’s your first time really following the sport or the team, it’s this awesome but completely foreign thing. Everybody remembers their first time and all that.

This is what it means to a bandwagon fan, the most cursed type of fan in sports.

Fandom is serious business in some circles. Those most loyal and most devoted to their team will tend to follow them, almost obsessively, all through the year. Pre-season, regular season, post-season and off-season, there’s never a downtime, never time to catch your breath.

The devoted fans know it all. They know the players, the coaches, the records. They know the highlights and the triumphs. They’ll tell you the all-time greats, as well as their all-time (often obscure) favourites.

They’ll remember the losses, too. The upset in the playoffs when they just knew it was going to be their team’s year, the seasons when the team could barely scrape together a few wins, and the times the refs stole the game from them, they can tell you about it.

Oh the refs. Those ones really burn.

The devoted fans, they never leave, no matter how bad things might get. They’re still in the stadium. They’re still watching on TV. They’re still buying and (not-so-proudly) wearing the team’s gear. And they’re always hoping that next year will be different.

Eventually, next year will be different. The jinx will be lifted. The most inept franchise will get hot. The Leafs shall inherit the Cup. Just about every team hopes for that proverbial next year.

And when that next year arrives, the bandwagon will be suddenly crowded. The devoted fan will turn around and see a lot of people he doesn’t recognize wearing pristine jerseys that have never lived through the blood, sweat and beer stains of true fandom. These bandwagon fans will know the players’ names (at least the stars) and, hopefully, most of the rules, but not necessarily much more.

Reflexively, the devoted fan might get annoyed. It’s understandable. The bandwagon fans are enjoying all the excitement of a playoff run without having had part of their soul die with every crushing loss. There’s a certain hipster cred to being a devoted fan. They were into the team before it was good.

But there’s always room on the bandwagon for someone new. True fandom isn’t rooted in exclusion. The devoted fan knows better than anyone the joy of a team on winning streak, and there’s no reward to be derived from hording that joy. Sharing it—with your city, with your country, with people you’ve never seen before and may never see again—amplifies it. It multiplies with every cheer, every high-five, every new convert.

And when the ride ends, you may be left with something even better: a new person with whom to share the blind determination to do it all again next year, and the undeniable appeal of the streaking-through-the-night-sky winner.

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