New Book from Belt Press Asks What Does It Mean to be a Fan in the 21st Century

by Jody DiPerna

In his new book, Craig Calcaterra wants you to know, you don’t have to stay loyal to a team or a league in order to enjoy sports.

Long-time baseball writer Craig Calcaterra spends much of his day thinking about sports. He became a Braves fan in childhood when his family lived in West Virginia and rooted for his college football team, Ohio State. Today, he still loves watching sports and talking about them and writing about them, but he also finds himself frustrated with professional sports leagues and the NCAA, too. Over time, his interest has become complicated.

“Having increasing issues with what I call the sports industrial complex, it came to me that you might get to a point where you say, I should give up sports,” Calcaterra said. “I thought there had to be a different way to consume sports — where you aren’t just a shill for the sports industrial complex, but you can still get enjoyment out of it.” 

In his new book, “Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game” released by Belt Press on April 7th, Calcaterra considers what is wrong with sports, why we love them, and if fans can find a way forward and enjoy the games without feeling bad about themselves. 

What Calcaterra wants to tell fans is that there aren’t hard and fast rules to how to be a fan. You don’t have to be intimately familiar with a team’s salary cap to root for them, he said.  You don’t have to study endless draft projections to enjoy the games. You can root for a player, but not the team they play for. You can root for a team, but not the owner. You can be critical of a league and still enjoy the games. Rather than just walking away, take the good and leave the bad.

Although Calcaterra writes about baseball, his book addresses the big four professional sports and big time college sports. He thinks about all the ways in which the professional and college sports landscapes have become a window into the income inequality that plagues the rest of society. He is disheartened by owners who squeeze cities and states to pay for new stadiums. He was saddened watching some of the ways that professional leagues have tried to silence players who protest inequality. And he is disappointed by the woeful disparity of resources provided to female college athletes, which was brought to focus by a video posted from March Madness by Oregon’s Sedona Prince which was viewed more than 10 million times on Twitter. 

Every owner, every sport and every league has found ways to maximize profit and take fans for granted, according to Calcaterra. Because of complex TV deals, teams have found ways to generate tremendous revenue separate from gate receipts. He says that owners, good, bad and indifferent, can sit on teams like “appreciating real estate.” 

In addition to the TV deals, there are product partnerships, licensed merchandise and, of course, gambling. Calcaterra says there is no way to put the gambling toothpaste back in that tube, but that doesn’t make the business plan any less discreditable. 

“All the sports leagues and media companies partnered with these gambling sites will toss out numbers and say things like, you know only a small percentage of people who gamble become problem gamblers,” he said. “Their business plan is to specifically exploit these people and to drill down to the absolute bottom of the bank accounts of the people who do have a problem. It’s really ugly stuff.” 

Less ugly, but no less frustrating, is the issue of being a fan of a team that seems not to care at all. Pirates fans have complained about the joylessness of hitching your wagon to that particular owner for years. Fans and the MLB players union have complained about the lack of spending on talent and the overall parsimony of the operation. On Sunday, the Post-Gazette published an investigation into the Pirates financials, showing that tickets and concession revenues have covered the players’ pay, even before the team adds millions of dollars in revenue from MLB and TV deals to their coffers.  

“Sometimes you just inherit fandom from your parents and you never interrogate it, or you never have a moment of choice in the matter. You just never think about it,” Calcaterra said. 

What he wants to say is — think about that. Fans should reconceptualize and challenge the tacit rules of being a sports fan. Watching sports does not have to mean undying loyalty to a league or a team. You get to do this on your own terms and control the relationship, according to Calcaterra.

But despite the problems, when we watch sports, we watch incredible athletes do things that we cannot. Sports are one of the ways we are connected to one another and a way to take part in larger, communal conversations. On the best days, sports can bring people, entire cities, together. Plus, they’re fun. 

“I think sports are a good thing. I’m often accused of being down on sports because I’m critical, but I think it’s healthy for society. It’s good to have diversions and I want people who like sports to stay fans. I want to give them the ability to watch and enjoy sports, but not feel like they have to sell their soul to do it. It’s a hard needle to thread, but I do think it’s possible. It’s okay to watch a ballgame and not feel dirty afterwards,” Calcaterra said.

PNC Park, photo by Jody DiPerna