The Bengals’ defeat, and curious expressions of fan (consumer) loyalty

As some of you may know, the Cincinnati Bengals lost the AFC championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs last night. 

This morning, my personal Facebook feed, heavy with Cincinnati residents, was filled with professions of fan loyalty, like the one above: “Still my Bengals.” 

Others were professing their “fan loyalty” in more abstract terms. Some declared that they would stick with the Bengals no matter what.

And here is one of the places where I can’t connect with the rabid spectator sports fan: this concept of team loyalty.

If you find spectator sports enthralling, that’s one thing. The fact that I don’t find them particularly entertaining is a mere matter of preference. 

Similarly, we all enjoy different television shows and movies, different kinds of music. I don’t happen to be a fan of country music. This doesn’t leave me shaking my head at the preferences of country music fans. 

But then, most country music fans aren’t making public declarations of fan loyalty when their favorite artist fails to win a CMA award. Only spectator sports fans do things like that.

A professional sports team—the Cincinnati Bengals, the Kansas City Chiefs, whatever—is a corporation that sells an entertainment product. No different from Sony Pictures or Netflix. Fans of entertainment companies are more accurately called consumers.

If you enjoy an entertainment company’s product, so be it. But it’s important to remember where you stand, in the big scheme of things, before getting too invested in this fan loyalty concept.

Take Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals’ 26-year-old quarterback. Joe Burrow has a 4-year contract worth over $36 million. And—of course—a beautiful girlfriend with a widely subscribed Instagram account. Rich young celebrity athletes with beautiful girlfriends are nothing new, of course.

More power to Joe Burrow. I’m sure he’s talented and that he’s worked hard. But it’s somewhat self-deluding—if not foolish—to think that this man needs your expressions of loyalty after he loses a game. 

And he certainly isn’t reading your Facebook feed.

But of course, these public expressions of fan loyalty aren’t really about the team. Otherwise, they would be sent to the team, instead of directed toward one’s friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. (Consider the sports team flags on your neighbor’s pickup truck. Who are those intended for?) 

These expressions of fan loyalty seem to be more about the need for group affiliation, than any genuine devotion to unknowing, millionaire celebrity athletes. And this need (among some people, at least) goes all the way back to the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantine times, different factions of chariot racing fans actually evolved into the equivalent of paramilitary organizations. All based around spectator sports.

Source: Wikicommons

While I can somewhat understand this impulse—especially in light of its historical roots—I just don’t get it, at a visceral level. Why? What’s the point?

But hey, that’s just me.

If you’re an ardent Bengals fan, my condolences on last night’s defeat. But Joe Burrow, I’m quite sure, will be just fine without my sympathy, let alone my expressions of fan loyalty.