The Case for Casual Fandom: Finding the Fun in Sports, Again

There’s a healthier way to cheer for the Buckeyes. You might even find yourself happier.

Craig Calcaterra
Craig Calcaterra

In early November 2017, my wife and I wanted to go to one of our favorite Columbus restaurants. The problem: The restaurant is a really popular one, it was 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and we hadn’t planned ahead and made a reservation. Normally, we’d just do something else, but we were really craving the place, so we decided to go anyway and try to maybe muscle our way into a couple of seats at the bar. If we had to wait, well, we’d wait. When we got to the restaurant at a little after 7, however, it was half empty and there were plenty of tables to choose from. Confused, we asked the host up front why the place wasn’t jam-packed like it normally would be.

“The Buckeyes are losing,” she said. “We get a lot of cancellations when that happens. Especially when it’s bad like this.”

This essay is excerpted from “Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at its Own Game,” by Craig Calcaterra, published in April by Belt Publishing.

I looked up to the TV above the bar and, yep, OSU, which had been ranked No. 3 in the nation, was down 48–17 midway through the fourth quarter to a not particularly good Iowa team. That loss would, eventually, keep Ohio State out of that year’s four-team national championship playoff. I didn’t even realize the Buckeyes were playing. Which, if you had known me even a few years before that, would’ve shocked you.

I entered Ohio State as a freshman in the fall of 1991. Despite what a lot of people think, it’s actually pretty easy to avoid football altogether at a big school like Ohio State if one wishes to, but I wasn’t one of those people and didn’t want to be one of those people. I, almost immediately, became a huge Buckeyes fan. I got student tickets, went to tailgates and games and went to drunken watch parties when they played on the road. I kept that fandom up all four years I was at OSU, stuck with them when I moved away for law school for three years, and threw myself into it even more intensely when I moved back to Columbus in 1998. In all, I’d remain deeply immersed in Ohio State football and Ohio State football culture for around 20 years. It’s easy to do when you live in Columbus. Indeed, it’s harder to not be an Ohio State fan in Columbus, in some ways, than it is to be one.

Craig Calcaterra's "Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game"

Even if you haven’t lived in a place like Columbus, you have known a hardcore fan of one team or another. Maybe you’ve even been one. Someone who lives or dies with each game and each season. Someone who owns the gear. Someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of team history. Someone who not only knows the rivalries, but knows how and why they started and can rattle off the flash points from those rivalries, like that beanball from the opposing pitcher in 2013 or that disrespectful quote from the other team’s head coach in 2004. Maybe you’re someone who owns novelty T-shirts that celebrate some transitory moment that briefly went viral a decade ago, and maybe you’re someone who gets special joy when another fan nods at it in recognition. Maybe you’re someone who not only knows every player on the active roster but knows the backups on the taxi squad and who the team’s general manager is eyeing for the first few rounds of next year’s draft or, at the very least, should be.

It’s easy to criticize such fans. And it’s easy to parody them. They are, in many respects, the personification of excess and obsession that, in almost any other pursuit, we would consider to be unhealthy. I don’t actually know if that’s unhealthy or, if it is unhealthy, how unhealthy. I’ll leave that to the psychologists. But due to my nearly 30 years of living in Columbus, I do at least understand it. I’ve experienced what it feels like to be among like-minded people and what it feels like for a whole city to seemingly come together after a big win. It can be intoxicating. But I’ve also experienced how miserable the whole damn city is when the Buckeyes lose. How it can cast a pall over the rest of the weekend. Make people grumpy. Beyond grumpy, even. The city and most of the state of Ohio lives for Buckeyes football, but it also dies with it sometimes, and it can be a real drag.

On Jan. 6, 2009, it was a drag. The Buckeyes had lost to Texas in the Fiesta Bowl the night before. Texas was favored, so it was not like it was an upset loss or anything, but people were still miserable. I was pretty miserable too. It was Ohio State’s third straight bowl loss. As early as the next morning, it was being reported that a number of star underclassmen were going to leave and declare early for the NFL draft. Between all of that and the fact that it was going to be months and months before another game, my mood was pretty dour.

Ohio State Buckeyes fans cheer on a third down during the first quarter of a NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium in November 2021

Late that afternoon, I was playing with my 3-year-old son and found myself still distracted by college football stuff. For whatever reason, I realized that day, in a way that I had not realized it before, that my obsession with Buckeyes football was unhealthy for me. That it was consuming too much of my time and my emotional energy and interfering with other far more important parts of my life. I didn’t make any grand declarations to myself or to anyone else, but I decided that afternoon that it’d be better for me if I backed away a bit and got a little more balance when it came to college football. I had no plans to cease being a fan, but I did decide to limit Ohio State football intake to the games themselves. I attempted to view them as defined, three-hour TV shows that I watched for the purpose of entertainment, cut out most of the hype and things that surrounded them, and do what I could to put the games out of my mind once they were over. In short, I decided to become a casual fan.

It was a lot easier to do that in January when there isn’t much in the way of college football news and hype than it might’ve been in September, so I was able to start small. I deleted the bookmarks to most of the OSU-related websites I visited. I stopped reading The Columbus Dispatch’s breathless, daily, wall-to-wall coverage that is a year-round thing. When OSU spring practice began, which gets more hype than the regular season of some college programs, I immersed myself in baseball, which I had begun writing about professionally on a part-time basis that April. When training camp started in late summer and the countdown to the regular season began, I made a point to not watch the midweek and pregame Buckeyes-related TV shows like I always had in the past. At best, I read a couple of preseason preview articles about the team, sticking to the more superficial ones in national media as opposed to the intense, insider-friendly coverage of OSU-specific media outlets, and went into the first game of the season as the closest thing I had been to a casual college football fan in nearly 20 years.

And it was kind of great. I was still conversant enough with the team, thanks to holdover knowledge and watching on Saturdays, to allow me to retain the Ohio State football literacy expected of a Columbus resident. I was still able to appreciate the cultural benefits that sports fandom brings, such as having natural and easy icebreakers in conversations with co-workers and the like. And of course, I still watched the games and enjoyed them for what they were. At the same time, my lack of an obligation to keep tabs on anything and everything was a massive time-saver, and not putting myself in positions where I was reliving the last game and being anxious about the next game provided considerable emotional relief. The Buckeyes lost the second game of the season that year to USC, at home no less, and looked pretty bad in the process. Old posts that pop up in my Facebook memories each fall remind me that I was pretty cranky about the game as it was happening, but before I went to sleep that night, I just shook it off and let it go in ways I never would’ve before. That continued all through the fall. I had cheered through better Ohio State seasons—national championship Ohio State seasons, even—but never had I felt more content with an Ohio season than I did that year. I even attended a game in person at Ohio Stadium that fall and enjoyed it immensely, precisely because I approached it as a casual fan.

There was another benefit of casual fandom. It gave me a new perspective on a thing that happens within passionate fandoms of all stripes: gatekeeping.

An Ohio State fan holds an anti-Michigan sign during the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Value City Arena in Columbus on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

I was about a year into my casual OSU fandom when I backslid a bit and, just before the 2010 season began, I logged onto an old Ohio State message board I used to frequent. There was a good deal of turnover on the team and, having completely avoided news about recruiting, spring practice and the position battles in summer camp, I wasn’t super familiar with all the players who’d be important to the team in the upcoming season. To try to catch up a little bit, I clicked on a couple of discussion threads where people were talking about all of that. Once there, I came across some other fans who were asking some pretty basic questions, the kind I’d have known off the top of my head two years earlier but which I did not know the answer to now. When scrolling through the answers, I was shocked at the hostility of some of the respondents, many of whom shamed the person who asked the question in the first place and mocked them for their ignorance. I was familiar with the sort of fan snobbery that existed in music, comics and various other fan cultures (“oh, you like Pavement, name three of their albums”), but I hadn’t considered how prevalent it was in the world of hardcore sports fandom before then. Probably because, not too long before, I had never been a target of it in sports.

I felt attacked by that gatekeeping in certain ways, but I also felt ashamed, because I realized that a year or two previously I may very well have taken on the same attitude as the gatekeepers in those threads. It took being on the outside, even just a little bit, for me to appreciate how toxic that sort of thing can be. In the years since, especially after I began working in sports media professionally, I have become sensitive to it elsewhere. Especially in baseball, which I still follow fairly obsessively, I have noted just how prominent a weapon such gatekeeping is for men who seek to exclude women from a given fandom. Since then, I’ve tried hard not to be that person when talking about sports with someone who may not be as knowledgeable as I am. When I encounter a casual fan who doesn’t know a cool thing about baseball that I know, I view it as an opportunity to tell a great story to a new audience, and that’s a pretty wonderful feeling.

That sort of ugliness notwithstanding, being a casual fan of Ohio State football for a couple of years allowed me to learn new things about the team and the sport with something at least approaching a joy and satisfaction one experiences with the truly novel. Seeing a player in a game situation for the first time and not knowing what he might do was cool in a way it never would’ve been if I had watched a bunch of uploaded videos of him from his high school days or if I had possessed a set of expectations for him that must be met, lest I be disappointed. It was a fandom of observation of the new and the entertaining as opposed to a fandom of obligation one possesses when one is committed to following something intensely. I became a fan who was less driven by tribalism, community and negatively-reinforced emotion and one who began to appreciate the aesthetics of the sport and the beauty it often displayed. I was also able to find enjoyment in the game despite occasional losses and setbacks, and those losses and setbacks no longer consumed me or affected my moods or self-esteem. My new approach just seemed way healthier.

But it also did something else: It led to the end of my being a college football fan.

Casual fandom brings with it a certain perspective-changing distance. It brings with it an objectivity that intense fans who live and breathe a sport tend to lack. It causes you to drop the “we” when talking about the teams you root for and causes you to spend less time behaving as though you are part of the team. When you drop intense fandom, you lose that part of your identity that is necessarily intertwined with the teams or the sports you love, and you thus lose that impulse to reflexively defend them against criticism, which you may have previously perceived as an attack.

Which means that, over the course of 2009 and 2010, my reading a lot of stuff and watching a number of TV news features about the exploitation of amateur athletes and the ethical shortcomings and sometimes outright corruption of the NCAA and big-time college sports programs like Ohio State’s hit different, as the kids say. Those articles and features didn’t present information that was unknown to me just a few years prior, when I lived and breathed Ohio State football. I had just excised from my brain that part of me that previously would’ve had defenses and excuses at the ready because, on some primal level, I felt like hearing negative information about something that I loved was directed at me as well. Through my casual fandom, I allowed myself to be receptive to criticisms of college sports and the Ohio State football program in a way that I never would have allowed myself to be before. I allowed myself to appreciate, as I should have appreciated long before, just how badly college football players are exploited by the NCAA and universities that make millions—collectively billions—on the back of athletes’ unpaid labor. I allowed myself to appreciate the wringer through which college football players’ bodies are put and how it is no less destructive to them than the NFL wringer is to professional players, even if it’s not as noticeable due to their youth and seeming resilience.

Being objective and receptive to such things does not require you to turn your back on the sport or the team that you love; I spend more time hurling criticism at Major League Baseball than just about anyone, and my love of that game has not waned. But in the case of college sports, my casual fan objectivity eventually compelled me to give up watching college football altogether. It was not long after the 2011 Sugar Bowl between the Buckeyes and the Arkansas Razorbacks—which I enjoyed a great deal—that I realized I couldn’t stick with the sport much longer, given all that I know about it. I didn’t make a hard and fast decision about it, but on Sept. 3, 2011, the Buckeyes opened their season against Akron. For the first time that I could remember, I didn’t turn the game on. And I haven’t watched a college football game since.

It’s not necessary to give up your fandom entirely because of ethical or moral issues with certain aspects of sports. My experience with college football was a personal decision that not everyone must make. But it’s certainly the case that there is nothing in the fan rulebook that says you have to be fanatical about sports. There is nothing that requires you to be a hardcore sports fan who is aware of every player, every stat and every detail about the teams you root for. It takes a lot of time and energy to keep up with that stuff—and the very thing to which you are devoting all of that time and energy is, often, kind of depressing or stands for things that are antithetical to your values and interests. And it can make you a miserable stick-in-the-mud sometimes.

It’s totally acceptable to be a casual fan. Indeed, it may be easier to be a casual fan in sports than it is in anything else. If you’re kinda sorta into Bob Dylan, you would be really, really lost listening to one of his weird late-1970s Christian albums. I have no idea how anyone can make sense out of a Marvel movie at this point if they haven’t seen most of the ones that have come out over the past decade-plus.

In contrast, a lot of people who don’t watch much soccer can tune into the World Cup and have fun. Every two years, the Olympics comes along and makes us all, suddenly and temporarily, fans of curling or gymnastics. Even if you’re not super conversant or super invested, you should watch something if it brings you joy. You shouldn’t put yourself in a position where your commitment and sense of obligation to something is so great that you watch it even if it ceases to bring you joy. Sports are supposed to be fun, right?

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.