Rooting rules

Along with millions of other Americans, I spent Sunday night watching Super Bowl XLV between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I am a Bears fan; after the Packers managed to beat my Bears in the NFC championship game by virtue of their quarterback actually showing up to play, this left me with no particular rooting interest.

How do we choose who to root for? I did a quick search for academic literature on the subject and didn’t turn up any about how we make that choice. (There’s a lot on the psychology of how sports fans interact with their team once they’ve chosen it, including a new favorite word: eustress, the combination of euphoria and stress that you might experience watching your team take a narrow lead and then struggle to hold it – an emotion several Packer-fan coworkers of mine were feeling last night.)

Obviously social connections play a huge role, going back to the fundamental social relationship, the family. Many sports allegiances form in the home, with children inheriting their parent’s (or parents’) rooting interests. That’s how I became a fan of the Chicago Cubs, a perfect demonstration of Richard Dawkins’ theory that successful memes don’t necessarily have to benefit their hosts.

Other times fandom can come from friends and colleagues. If you move to a new city and everyone you hang out with is rooting for a particular team, a lot of times you’ll join in. Or you might adopt the fandom of a spouse or significant other, if only to preserve domestic tranquility.

These loyalties, once started, can last a lifetime – or a fleeting instant, fading away when you move again or break up.

But with my Bears eliminated two weeks ago, I’m interested in that most fleeting fandom of all: how you choose who to support for a single game.

Those kinds of games have plenty of appeal – you can walk away content whichever team wins, which is exactly what I did last night. (In contrast, when my Cubbies lose, I’m devastated. After the 2003 NLCS I checked out of baseball, watching not a single game of the World Series. I handled the Cubs’ sweeps in the 2007 and 2008 NLDSs better, but in both cases there was a huge emotional collapse.) It’s not as good as watching your own team win it all, but it’s certainly better than watching your own team blow the big game.

I’ve got a few rules that guide me in cases where I don’t have an a priori commitment to one team over the other. #1 is to root for the underdog. If someone plays the New York Yankees or New England Patriots, I’ll be cheering for the non-dynastic team. If a team is in the postseason after years of futility, I’ll probably be cheering for them.

Take the 2009 MLB postseason. In round one, I rooted for the Twins over the Yankees (alas), the Angels over the Red Sox, the Dodgers over the Cardinals (rivals to the Cubs) and the Rockies over Phillies (who had won the World Series the year before).

Round II was unfortunate, as I rooted against the Yankees and the defending champion Phillies. (Both won.) But after rooting against the Phillies for weeks, when they were playing the Yankees for the World Series title, I effortlessly pivoted and cheered for the Phils.

Last night’s Super Bowl was tricky. Both teams have histories of success, and the Steelers have won the Super Bowl several times in recent memory (though without becoming quite as obnoxious as, say, the Patriots). That would push me to cheer for the Packers, but Green Bay had the disadvantage of being the rival of my Bears, which counted against them.

Pittsburgh also lost points for the questionable moral behavior of its quarterback – most of us don’t like cheering for scumbags, unless of course they’re OUR scumbags, and I make no claim of loyalty to Ben Roethlisberger. Both sides also have appealing ownership structures – unlike the event’s host, the Dallas Cowboys, ruled by a man easily caricatured as a Bond villain, the Steelers are owned by the fan-friendly Rooney family and the Packers are owned by the fans themselves.

All this would lead me to maybe be cheering more for the Packers – except that my coworkers and friends here are largely Packers fans. If I had no football loyalties I would probably join them. But as a Bears fan being surrounded by Packers fans fires up my contrarian bones, and so as the Super Bowl progressed I found myself cheering as the Steelers gained yards and groaning when Aaron Rodgers did the same.

This was made easier by the fact that the Packers marched out to a quick, commanding lead. That meant rooting for the Steelers was rooting for a comeback and a close game – and that’s my other big rooting rule. When you don’t care who wins the game, you cheer for the game to be a close, hard-fought contest and not a blowout.

As it happened, that’s what Super Bowl XLV gave me last night. So despite my cheers for the Steelers, I went home happy – though not as happy as my Cheesehead coworkers.

So David’s Rooting Rules seem to be as follows: When you don’t have a rooting interest in a sporting contest, cheer for (in rough order of priority):

  1. The underdog, whether it be the weaker team that year or the team with a weaker history of success

  2. The team playing any serious rival of your own team

  3. A close, hard-fought contest

  4. Whichever team has the most appealing intangibles

  5. Cool, dramatic plays

Does that sound about right to you?