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Reviewing Rethinking Fandom by Craig Calcaterra

A thought-provoking book for the modern fan

The cover of the book Rethinking Fandom by Craig Calcaterra

If you’ve been a baseball fan for more than a couple of years you have probably heard of NBC’s Hardball Talk. One of the mainstay writers there for a very long time was Craig Calcaterra. Unfortunately for us all, Craig was laid off by NBC. In better news, however, he hasn’t given up writing about baseball.

Craig has a Substack newsletter that he published every day Monday-Friday, including Free Thursdays, called Cup of Coffee. But he’s also recently written a new book called Rethinking Fandom, which is more or less what it says on the cover. In the book he addresses a lot of concerns shared by all of us as sports fans - not just of baseball, but of any type - and provides some ideas for how to handle them. He lays out a very strong case for all of the ways sports and fandom have changed over the years and then concludes with some ideas about what we, as fans, can do. The best part is that his suggestions are ways to improve our own lives, not to fix the sports. I say that because, when it comes down to it, nothing you or I do is likely to change the paths of the billionaires that own these teams and leagues. The best we can hope for is to improve our own experience.

The book is a very fun and enjoyable read, but also provokes a fair amount not just about sports but also our relationships with them and the world in general. Considering that, I was very excited when he agreed to an interview about the new book. After I finished reading it I emailed him some questions and he provided some very insightful answers.

Jeremy Greco: I’m always curious, what led you to want to write THIS book NOW?

Craig Calcaterra: The timing is nothing especially significant. I’ve been thinking about these issues for some time. I think it was mostly a matter of me, personally, finally getting my head completely around all of the weird things about fandom I have been thinking and observing for a number of years. It’s been a long build.

JG: In the book, you make a point multiple times of discussing how you’ve lost your fandom for some sports because of ethical issues, but that you don’t judge others who still enjoy them. I know some people who will judge the heck out of others who continue to eat at a certain chicken restaurant chain because of the founders’ homophobic beliefs but who take no issue with those who eat at a certain burger restaurant chain despite the fact that the chain pretty publicly purchases its tomatoes from unregulated sources that use extremely low or unpaid labor. So the question I have then is, in your mind, what (if any) kind of criteria does it make sense to use in deciding which moral stands we make and judge others for and which do we make and allow others to make their own choices without judgment?

CC: I think you just have to go with your gut. That may seem like a copout, but the fact is that the old saying about there being no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism has a ton of truth to it. We are all a part of the modern world and never, ever going to be able to completely divorce ourselves from bad actors. At least not completely. I have an iPhone despite what Apple does in Asia. I ordered something from Amazon this morning because I really needed the thing and do not have time to go searching around for it in town this week. The search for The Perfectly Ethical Life is one that will always end in failure. I think, in the end, one just has to decide where to draw lines as best they can, knowing that they cannot draw perfectly satisfying lines.

In sports, though, it’s probably a bit easier because sports aren’t as important as a ton of things. I really hate the way that the NFL chews up and spits out people’s bodies and harms their brains and doesn’t care about it. Ceasing to watch NFL games, though, is not something that caused a great hardship in my life. I didn’t need an elaborate workaround or anything. It was just a form of entertainment I didn’t have to consume anymore and, dammit, I don’t. Mostly because of my gut.

JG: You have a whole chapter in the book documenting the anti-average-fan ticket policies that have cropped up in recent years. I know I saw other sources a few years ago discuss the fact that seating at ballparks was getting scarcer while simultaneously getting more expensive, though no one seems to have mentioned it recently. Do you think we’re heading to a situation where only the very wealthy will be able to purchase sports tickets? If we did reach that point, but the average fan could still watch the game on TV at home (which I think might actually be a superior experience with HD cameras and close-ups) do you think it will ultimately come back to bite these sports or just be something that’s different from 50 years ago?

CC: I think we’ve already reached it or are very close to it. Even a bad MLB game involving bad teams is a considerable outlay these days. One of the central observations I’ve made in sports over the past few years which informed this book is that there is an increasing divorce between ticket sales and team revenues. Ticket sales are simply not as important to teams as they once were because the TV money and gambling money and real estate money and all of that is. Teams can turn off a lot of fans and inspire them to stop buying tickets and not take too big a hit. In light of that they’ve decided to turn the game-going experience into an ultra-luxury good. And they’ve mostly gotten away with it. They’d rather have 15,000 high-dollar fans in the seats than 40,000 normies like me. I think that lasts basically forever.

JG: You briefly touch on gatekeeping among sports fans and discuss how you’ve tried to change your attitude to view “casual fan questions” as an opportunity to tell a cool story instead of mocking them for not knowing something that is obvious to you. Do you have any insight into why this isn’t a more prevalent attitude among sports fans who allegedly want everyone to root for their sport and team?

CC: Fandom is a big part of a lot of people’s identity. Like, it’s more than just a diversion for many. They ARE a Yankees fan or they ARE a Cowboys fan. In their minds, if the knowledge and experience they’ve acquired over the years in that role is seen as unimportant or not respected, they themselves are devalued. There is a certain sort of fan who requires affirmation of their status as a GOOD FAN or a BIG FAN and if someone comes along and says that the stuff they know is not a big deal, it’s a personal blow. I think these sorts of people say they want everyone to root for their team, but I think deep down, on an almost unconscious level, they don’t want that. Not really. They want to feel singular and special because they know everything about the team they love.

JG: As I was reading the chapter about casual fandom I was reminded of a discussion about college basketball I once had with my grandmother. She’s a die-hard UNC fan that never misses a game if she can help it whereas I vaguely followed KU for a couple of years since I grew up in Kansas and they’ve been very good. A few years ago I tried to lightly jab her about the academic scandal that, in retrospect, barely grazed UNC. Her response was to start screaming at me, “Roy Williams left KU!” as if the only reason I would mention such a thing was that I was mad about that coach leaving a team I barely cared about. Do you have any advice for those of us who are or want to become casual fans of a sport for how we can explain it to hardcore fans?

CC: I think we should just resist the impulse to explain it. That’s fighting on the hardcore fan’s turf. It’s inviting criticism. I’m not some zen buddhist or anything, but I think people who are casual fans should aspire to a state of fandom where they can just check in, watch a game, and check out, and if some hardcore fan tries to devalue them or insult them for it, the causal fan can just smile and shake their head as if they are talking to someone speaking silly gibberish. Part of that, of course, requires the casual fan not to get into the little back-and-forths about things like Roy Williams and UNC, of course. As someone who lives in Columbus, Ohio, went to Ohio State, and still, occasionally, autopilots back to “Michigan sucks!” stuff, I’ve learned that the hard way a few times, heh.

JG: In the epilogue, you mention that when you became a soccer fan you realized how different it was being the fan of a sport you didn’t write about. Do you think that’s a better kind of fandom or just different?

CC: Just different, I think. I’ve found it personally more enjoyable in the past seven or eight months than I have found watching baseball over the past year or so, but I really think it’s just about it being fresh. It’s akin to how, when you go someplace on vacation, you TOTALLY want to move there. If you were there longer, it wouldn’t be the same. In any event, as I’ve become more knowledgeable about soccer I find a lot of the old baggage of all my other sports fandom creeping in and have to work just as hard, at times, not to be cynical about soccer as I might be about baseball. In the end I think I’ll need to be just as vigilant about keeping soccer in the proper perspective in my mind and emotions as I do baseball. It’s possible to overdo it on anything if you enjoy it.

JG: Is there anything else you wanted to share but had to cut from the book for some reason?

CC: Nah. It’s a short book. More of a radical pamphlet or manifesto than anything else. That was on purpose. I thought of the things that truly animate me about fandom and put them in there and decided that trying to fill it with more to make it be 90,000 words or something would be too much. All the best manifestos are breezy. :-)

If you’ve ever enjoyed Craig Calcaterra’s writing, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’ve been wondering what the end game for team owners is with some of the choices that they’ve made, you will learn a lot from this book. If you wonder how to make peace with the way the business of sports chews up athletes, this book will give you a lot to think about. If you click this link, you can buy this book.