Heartbreak and sport: Why do we keep coming back?

My friend Damyon and I, are in the very last row of the Wells Fargo Center before tip-off of the 76ers first game of the 2013-14 season against the Miami Heat. Photo courtesy of Kim Leo.

By Nicholas Leo 

Winning 24-14 at halftime of the Super Bowl, I start another Eagles chant and down the rest of my beer. I’m surrounded by a sea of green at South-A-Philly in downtown St. Augustine, chest-bumping the owner and halfway through a cheesesteak. Two hours later, with half of the wiz-wit still in front of me, camaraderie would turn to an emotional throng as midnight green balloons were popped in fury; fans vexed by another Philadelphia team’s playoff collapse.

Another season come, another season gone. Whether an imminent second-round exit from the Sixers or a wildcard run cut short for the Phillies. The process has seemingly failed, Chip Kelly ruined my favorite childhood team, and the Flyers ownership has turned fans against them. Hell, my favorite time as a fan was when the Sixers were on a 26-game losing streak, ticket prices were in the can and you could walk down to the first few rows the stadium was so empty.

Tortured by passion, diehard fans follow their teams to rock bottom in the hope that eventually things will turn around. When there is not anything positive, there are still those who scream just as loud.

Since the Roman Colosseum spectators have packed into stadiums to drink and watch the best athletes alive perform. Today fans can buy tickets to some games for less than the price of a beer in the stadium.

Empires have come and gone, wars have been won and lost, and sport has remained consistent throughout. It’s something that brings together communities, from the local scale of your alma mater winning state to the larger scale of your country winning the World Cup.

Why is this? Is it an escape from the harsh reality of the world, where one can take pride in something as simple as a game? Do people feel better represented by a team than by a politician? Or is it just an excuse to drink a few and kick your feet up?

The answer is all of the above, and then some.

The fire behind these fans’ limerence comes from their own personal history with their team. As simple as them being your parent’s favorite team or as complex as sharing a characteristic with a player and following them wherever they play.

I was doomed for the life of a diehard, as many of us Philly fans are. I grew up in an era where a GQ survey voted the Phillies and Eagles fans the two worst in sports, respectively. I loved all the players, the teams, and the standard we held them to; if they sucked we let them know and if they kicked ass we did the same.

It is a blue-collar mentality, most fans didn’t get to go often so you wanted to see something worthwhile when you were at the game. Most of our teams understood this and knew that every obscenity they heard from the bench wasn’t personal, fans just wanted them to be better.

I remember playing in the local home run derby that was sponsored by the Phillies, not placing, but winning one of the raffles at the end. They gave me the option between a few different signed balls and tickets to a random game in September, I looked to my mom yelling for the tickets. That ended up being a game where I saw my favorite player hit a grand slam and the Phillies clinch their most recent Division title.

(Left) Winning the tickets on the 4th of July at the Phillies Home Run Derby in Stone Harbor, NJ. (Right) Attending the game and waiting in anticipation as the seventh inning stretch took place. Photos courtesy of Kim Leo.

During the Sixers’ lows of the early 2010s, going to one of their basketball camps for a few years resulted in them sending free tickets to my family from time to time, often in the literal last row of the stadium. In 2013, I was lucky enough to get tickets to an opening night matchup where we took down the defending champion Miami Heat in a fourth-quarter comeback.

These two games alone were small investments in a fan for life. Now as a college student, the biggest expense I worry about is splurging on tickets to a game I can’t bear to miss.

I’ve driven a combined 35+ hours to and from away games this year, I’ve gone to 14 Phillies games; my bank account is hurting, but my face is smiling. I’m only going to be young and dumb once, might as well spend it on what makes me happy. A six pack of Budweiser and an Eagles, Sixers or Phillies game is more enjoyable than anything else in this world. I have forked over hundreds to see the Sixers lose at home in game seven, just after seeing them blow a 26-point lead in game five.

There are not many things in this world that can put you down time and time again, and bring you back in a heartbeat. Sports fandom is not for the weak minded, as the team is always a work in progress towards the goal of a championship, with so many different factors in play *cough* Harden, Simmons *cough*.

Maybe it’s the ‘almost winning’ we have done recently that keeps us in the media, forcing them to speak some truth on what Philadelphia’s fans actually bring to the table. Even this article by Time still refers back to the infamous 1968 Snowballs at Santa Clause incident before singing our praise.

Now, as the Eagles are 8-1 entering their bye week and the Sixers look different enough from last year to pull fans in for the ride once again, it feels like the cycle is ready to repeat. The Eagles are in the same spot as the year prior, having best record in the league with overly confident fans. Sixers fans fear that another second round exit looms, but refuse to count them out.

We know not what awaits.

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