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The Fair-Weather Fan (FWF) is considered one of the most morally depraved individuals in (and out of) the sporting realm. They shift from team to team, demonstrating no sense of loyalty or allegiance, supporting whoever’s winning at the time, and ditching the loser they’d so recently supported.

A number of memes and gifs capture the disdain of Fair-Weather Fans, and their close cousin, the Bandwagoner. One lists the pros and cons, including the pro, “Will die someday,” and the corresponding con, “Exists.” The FWF is often viewed as having some sort of character flaw, a deficiency, as if they’re morally lacking in some real way, not to mention, just flat-out annoying.

But, as with all deeply-rooted assumptions, it’s worth stepping back to see just what’s so deplorable here. This may just be a matter of differing tastes—an apples vs. oranges situation—as opposed to some moral shortcoming on the part of the FWF. And we don’t want to go jumping on the moral condemnation bandwagon without first stepping back to evaluate.

“Relationships” with our sports teams

Some of this Fair-Weather Fan-bashing seems rooted in our intuitions informing most of our other types of relationships. Imagine a different sort of FWF—the Fair-Weather Friend. Here, we’d rightly be concerned. Mike engages in friendships only when things are going well: when his so-called friends experience success in their relationships, careers, and family life, Mike is there for them. He goes to parties, stops by to watch sports (of winning teams only, of course) and share a meal, goes to concerts (popular bands only). But when his friends fall on hard times, he’s off to the next buddy, and the party-going to be had there.

We could hardly call Mike a “friend” in the real sense of the term. True friendship is a two-way relationship. You could even argue a true friend has an obligation—a moral duty—to support their friend when the weather’s not fair. Or, as seen through a more Aristotelian lens, that friends are there in tough times not out of obligation but, simply, because that’s what someone of good character does. That’s just what friendship is.

But sports fanaticism is not analogous to friendship. The FWF is heckled for not knowing the names of the players on their team du jour, not owning a jersey or any other sign of commitment. Yet athletes know nothing about their fans, really. They’re paid to play their sport and entertain the viewers regardless of who’s watching. This is hardly a relationship of any sort. 

Illusionary relationships with television personalities are not uncommon, so much so that they have a name and have been studied extensively. In these parasocial relationships, viewers become emotionally attached to personalities, such as newscasters, where no relationship exists.

As such, it’s understandable that fans come to see favorite athletes as their friends. But just as viewers of the local news are not in any sort of relationship with the news anchor, fans’ views of their one-way relationships with teams and athletes are de facto not a relationship at all. There’s no real argument suggesting the fan owes a particular team anything, despite what they may get from that team. 

The fanatic vs. the aficionado

Part of the Fair-Weather Fan judgment lies in the terminology. FWFs aren’t actually fans in the true sense. “Fan” is derived from “fanatic”—one who supports their respective team with uncritical devotion and zeal. As such, we may consider referring to the FWF with a more accurate and positive term: the aficionado—“a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about an activity, subject, or pastime.” 

The true aficionado values seeing the sport played well or in a certain style. The aficionado may see no value in spending countless hours uncritically devoting themselves to a group of strangers playing the game poorly. We can rebrand FWFs as “Afis”—shortening “Aficionados” as we do with “Fans” for “Fanatic.” 

The true aficionado values seeing the sport played well or in a certain style. The aficionado may see no value in spending countless hours uncritically devoting themselves to a group of strangers playing the game poorly.

With this positive spin, we recognize these enthusiasts aren’t just Afis only when the sport is played well, but because it is. As 8-time Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson reflects:

I was always a fair-weather fan. I loved watching the best players, the best teams play. So when I was growing up…it was the Green Bay Packers at one point, then it was the 49ers, then it was the Cowboys…I love watching winners win.”

A football Afi in the truest sense.  

Now we can more clearly discern this as a clash in preferences and values: allegiance to a particular organization versus appreciating the aesthetics of sports well played. Afis can likely ascribe to what comedian Jerry Seinfeld so wryly points out in his stand-up routine:

“Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it….Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt; they hate him now. Boo! Different shirt! Boo!”

Funny because it’s true.

A pretty strong case, then, can be made for the FWF—ahem—Afi. Hard to argue one person’s preference for apples—fanatics—is any “better” than another’s for oranges—aficionados—in any objective, moral sense. “Hey, you always liked apples, but now that oranges are plump and juicy and the apples are dry you’ve switched to oranges! No loyalty!”

Bandwagon jumping

The additional concern about the FWF often involves the FWF’s outward behavior and the public celebrating that often ensues. Framed by yet another popular (and sarcastic) meme, “You should definitely jump on that bandwagon and pretend you’re something you’re not.”  Or as one of my philosophy students, Hanna, put it in a class discussion on the topic, they can seem more like “social climbers.”

This sort of FWF certainly seems suspicious (and potentially annoying). But bandwagoning doesn’t necessitate that one feigns long-term support of a particular team. The FWF isn’t necessarily pretending to be something they’re not: quite the contrary. They, instead, claim, “I enjoy watching well-played sports. This team plays the sport well—I love this team!”

But the true bandwagoner’s motivations likely differ from the FWF. Instead of the interest in sporting excellence, the drive may just be the natural human desire to fit in and be part of the in-group. The bandwagon jumper may not even care about football but, then, shows up at work wearing the in-team’s jersey, spouting off about the previous game’s last-minute touchdown.

This certainly seems more dubious than the motives of the Afi but, again, why the concern about someone feeling left out wanting to be included? Why the need for the outsider to sit alone in their cubicle as all the Niners fans slap high-fives Monday morning regaling their team? It’s like that person in the group who laughs at the inside joke everyone else is laughing at even though they don’t get it: seems like we could cut them some slack and jump on the grace bandwagon in this case.

It’s like that person in the group who laughs at the inside joke everyone else is laughing at even though they don’t get it: seems like we could cut them some slack and jump on the grace bandwagon in this case.

Highs, lows, and happiness

Having defended the preferences of the Fair Weather Fan/Aficionado, we can’t overlook something important they may be forgoing. The true fanatic certainly experiences the emotional lows from years spent feeling like they were the ones losing. But along with that—actually, because of that—their highs during the winning seasons and eventual championships are considerably more intense. This is something the FWF misses out on. The FWF derives some semblance of contentment viewing years of well-played sports, but they forgo the deep joy of “their team’s” championship. Again, an apples-to-oranges sort of preference: experience the peaks and valleys of deep emotion, or a steady stream of tempered happiness?

This tension is captured well by Buffalo Bills fan Max Bowden following the Bills’ recent heartbreaking playoff loss to Kansas City. Standing outside the fence at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport late Sunday night in brutal weather conditions, he and others of the affectionately named “Bills Mafia” gathered to support the team following the game.

“I almost broke my vocal cords, had a heart attack, all of the above. That game was absolutely amazing and terrible to watch. If I wasn’t a Bills fan, it would have been the best game I’ve ever watched.”

And therein lies the difference. The Afi enjoyed “the best game” and then moved on with their life, at home by the fire instead of out in the cold welcoming home the less “fair” team in foul weather.

So here’s to sports Fanatics, Fair-Weather Fans, Aficionados, and Bandwagon Jumpers alike. Go Niners, and whoever else is playing well this Sunday.

The author of 5 books, including Amazon Top-500, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times. Spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe. Graduated from Stanford...