It’s been four years since the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, and that sound you hear is a legion of bandwagon fans collectively brushing the dust from its pink hats. By now, those fans have already scoured the store racks for Tom Brady jerseys (because they can’t name anyone else on the team) and the supermarket aisles for their hot wings and cocktail wieners. To these people, finding out what the eTrade baby has been up to since the last Super Bowl matters more than any injury report. You know the type – you may even be the type: The bandwagon fans are the ones who actually watch the halftime show.
Those of us who are real fans believe we’ve earned our place in the stands. With a Puritan resoluteness, we grimly endured year after winless year. I was there for those 39 years the Bruins didn’t win a Stanley Cup. I’ve spent vacation days under the broiling sun watching the Patriots at training camp – and have a signed Pierre Woods shirt on my wall to prove it. I watched the ball go through Bill Buckner’s legs in real time. So when the teams finally started winning, it felt like I was, too.
And then the pink hats came and crashed the party. It all started with the Red Sox in 2004 (look up “bandwagon fan” in the online Urban Dictionary and one definition will say it’s anyone who started following the team after the World Series that year). “The John Henry ownership group came along and succeeded in turning Fenway from a place to see a ballgame into this tourist destination,” Boston comedian and sports commentator Jerry Thornton once observed. “It became baseball’s Magic Kingdom, and the girls’ pink Red Sox hat was its Mickey Mouse ears.”
The problem with fair-weather fans is that they get to partake in all of the fun without any of the heartbreak. And there’s just something about that that seems contrary to our New England nature – like our buttoned-up Puritan forefathers, we tend to think you shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy anything unless you first suffer for it. And now that we’ve become the first region in history to win championships in all four major sports within a decade, New England is attracting bandwagon fans – and their critics – from all over. The Web is full of sites spewing vitriol about the late-to-the-gamers, from “I Hate Bandwagon Fans” Facebook groups to wikis on how to spot them, as if they were cancerous lesions.
For me, that’s the last straw: I may criticize our bandwagon, but I take offense when outsiders sling arrows at it. For one thing, this new passion for the game will pay off for our local retailers, and perhaps even for the Patriots themselves. “I suspect one argument that could be made [for the bandwagon] is that fan passion helps bring free agents to New England,” says Warren Zola, assistant dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and an expert on the business of sports, “but certainly less than winning or [salary] cap space.”
Yet, every football team stands to benefit from the passion of newly minted Pats fans, no matter how short-lived. Those Tom Brady jerseys? As Zola points out, every team in the National Football League gets its cut of those, as well as shares of one another’s gate receipts and television fees. “The revenue from any NFL jersey that is sold gets distributed equally to all 32 NFL teams,” Zola says. So, to all of you outside New England whining about our fans while accepting our charity, I say: Hate the band, not the bandwagon.
I know I’ll have to keep this we’re-all-rooting-for-the-Patriots mentality in mind the next time I’m rubbing elbows with the faithful and fair-weather alike. From here on out, I’ve decided, I’m going to take solace in our solidarity. The veteran fan and the newly converted can be brought together by our love for the home team and hatred of the Jets, Terrible Towel wavers, the Sedin twins, and A-Rod. Always A-Rod. After all, when I look at my daughter’s pink Yankees hat, it’s not the color that makes me seethe. (Blame her father, a fan of the pinstripes.)
This Super Bowl is going to be a war, there’s no doubt about it. It may take all we have to fell the Giants and exact our revenge for Super Bowl XLII. So it doesn’t matter when these fans joined the battle, as long as they’re on our side.