Goldberg: Cheering For the Fans


Avi Goldberg, Ph.D. teaches sociology full-time at Vanier College, an English language CEGEP in Montreal and part-time in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University.  Goldberg’s teaching and research interests are in culture (including popular culture, sports, & digital communities and media) and political sociology.  He intensely follows North American sports and talk radio and often injects a healthy dose of current topics in his stimulating lectures.


By Avi Goldberg, Special to All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — In the early days of the NHL lockout, much attention has been directed towards hockey fans.  Talking points have ranged from accusations that Gary Bettman takes the fans for fools to suggestions that the lockout is an opportunity for them to wean themselves off their obsessive involvement with a sports business whose economics are too unseemly to deserve their time and money.  A shared theme is that hockey fans are irrational, both for loving their sport so much and for returning so quickly when it is temporarily taken away from them.  Accompanying these views is the insinuation that fans should stay away when the lockout ends.  There are compelling reasons why this outcome will not, and arguably should not, happen.

Sport in general, and hockey in Canada in particular, must be viewed as part of a society’s way of life, or culture.  While culture exists to guide members of a group, we give the elements of culture multiple meanings in addition to their intended functions.  Just as religious practice can mean more than worshipping a higher power and mobile phones provide experiences that surpass the convenience afforded by carrying a tool to makes calls, fan involvement with hockey creates significant routines that transcend tracking wins and losses of favourite teams.

Above all, hockey is a social experience in which fans join with friends, family, and sometimes with strangers in bars or via the internet, to participate in the action.  There is no doubt that the plays, points, and outcomes matter, but there is much more to it than that.

Given the comfort that comes from being with others, joking and laughing with them during the games, and from sharing food or drink at the same time, it can be credibly argued that fans willingly pay the price of admission just to be able to experience group connection that all humans need.  Hockey, as experienced through its multiple platforms of activity, is a significant source and locus of everyday social belonging for its fans.

Second, many fans are routinely involved in hockey because it enables them to exercise their minds in creative ways.  When fans debate the greatness of the players, argue over issues like fighting or blindside hits, or when they dissect the strategies of coaches or GMs, they engage in cognitive stimulation that has positive social effects.

Fans may not always get to express their passions at the workplace or even at home, but when they do it over hockey, they contribute their unique perspectives to the discussions that are ongoing within their communities.  Telling and sharing of stories help communities to imagine their togetherness.  Fans connect with hockey because it allows them to weave their own ideas into the narratives that circulate and shape the identities of their social groups.

Finally, while some dismiss the leisure experienced by hockey fans as something that distracts them from activities that are of true importance in life, the legitimacy of fan emotion should not be denied.  Creating everyday fun through hockey fandom is but one of many ways that networks of individuals carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves within the confines of modern society.  Far from being a crass distraction from the pursuit of an authentic quality of life, the pleasure of everyday fan experience is both intrinsically valuable as well as a meaningful by-product of choices that society members make to author the terms of their own social realities.

Because it is an outdated notion to only see the pleasures of the so-called higher forms of culture as being uplifting to members of society, it is unfair to reject the emotional roller coaster ride of fan life as a mere waste of time.

With hockey providing so much richness to the everyday lives of its fans, is there any logical reason to think that the current lockout could, or should, encourage fans to stay away once it is finally resolved?

One recent interpretation suggests that the lockout represents a clash over ideologies in which the owners are fighting to apply the economic philosophies they promote in the wider society to the NHL.  From this reading, it could be argued that should fans be drawn into an ideological battle, the potential exists for a mass exodus from the game in response to the imposition of an economic system in hockey that violates their own values.

Of course, for this to actually occur, hockey fans would have to be as engaged in the affairs of economic philosophy as the owners are.  Given, however, the sense that fans and pundits are united in their disdain and indifference towards the intricacies of the positions advanced by both sides in the dispute, the implications of the fight over competing ideologies appear not to be grabbing fan attention this time around.

Fan mobilization away from the NHL, to either advocate for or against the implementation of particular economic principles in hockey and/or society, is a highly remote possibility.

With ideological matters far from their hearts and minds, hockey fans are anxious for the players, the teams, the games, and the meaningful cultures of their fandom to return once the lockout does come to an end.  Given the legitimate ways that engaging with hockey gives meaning to their lives, there is nothing irrational or foolish about it.

Comments are closed.