After thirty years, I’m going to see my team. For the first time…
It happened the day Tim Krumrie’s foot turned into a helicopter. That, you see, was the day – the twenty-second of January 1989 – a noble and beautiful day, when I realised that I loved my team.
Yes, a man’s leg had to get seriously mutilated for it to happen, but, nearly thirty years on, I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t know if Tim Krumrie would say the same.
The spiritual home I’ve never visited
That special moment
How did it happen for you? When did you know you were in love with your team? Was it the first time you were taken to a game? Maybe it was no more than the glimpse of a goal on TV?
At my primary school, in the 1980s, everyone’s first affiliation was Liverpool or Manchester United, with maybe a lone Tottenham or Everton follower. Back then, if you could name a player – John Barnes or Bryan Robson, say – that was enough to prove your support. But then, one day, a kid came in with his own Liverpool shirt. His dad, a scouser down south, had given it him for his birthday. When he’d unwrapped it, his dad had carefully pulled it on over his head and said, “You’re a Red now, son. Now and forever more.”
Maybe that was how it was for you? A proper commitment ceremony; an unchosen, unrefusable rite of passage?
At the time of my induction, I didn’t know quite what it would mean for me – how formative and lasting it would be. But I knew enough of sport to know that, from here on in, the performance of this one team mattered more than any other.
And so I declared myself a fan. Three decades later, I still am. And yet, through a calamity of geography – Cincinnati not being in England – I’ve still yet to see my team live. I’ve seen them hundreds of times on TV, of course. But it’s not the same, is it?
It’s worried me over the years, that distance of 4,000 miles. Perhaps, I’m not a real fan? If I were, wouldn’t I have seen the inside of Paul Brown Stadium at least once? Wouldn’t I have celebrated victories by hugging other, real fans rather than just enjoyed edited highlights the following day? Wouldn’t I have booed a failing head coach in person? That, after all, is what real fans do. I know because I also went to see my local football team play regularly for over 20 years.
Against this you have Barcalona’s former chief marketing officer, Laurent Colette, who once claimed that, “97% of Barcelona’s fans live outside of Spain.” Now, either he was making a cute point about Catalonian independence, or it shows how much football – indeed, most sports – have redefined their customer base in recent decades.
Modern fandom has become a rather tricky idea to nail down. In the Far East alone there are hundreds of millions of self-described English football fans. In fact, these days, it’s probably accurate to say that the majority of Premier League supporters have never seen their team play a competitive fixture live. In NFL terms, I am one of them; a distant source of additional revenue with few direct claims over the club.
The author contemplating himself in the mirror
And yet I don’t feel like a fraud. These massed ranks of globalised support can’t all be fairly described as just casual fans – people who rediscover their passion only at the approach of a cup final. These people watch diligently; they implore the sporting gods fervently.
Gradations of support
I won’t deny – how could I? – that, for many people, an affiliation to a sports team on the other side of the globe is going to be less strong than to one whose games you attend regularly. Yes, some of these oversees fans may be as fickle as Massimo Cellino spending his last pound at the Woolworths Pick’n’Mix. But, at least some of them must have lasting affection for, and knowledge of, their clubs, mustn’t they? And, over time, even if that never comes to include seeing the team in the flesh, mightn’t that affection add up to something honourable and worthwhile?
In the days before rapid transport and satellite communications, location was the central fact of many sports. It determined who you played and who your fans were. And even now, regular attendance must accord some fans a different status. People who go to games aren’t just supporters of a club – if nothing else, they generate far more revenue per person. They literally give more to their club.
And it’s not just financial. By being there, they are actual contributors to the quality of the occasion. They help the team perform better. They provide value to the broadcasters and non-attending fans. In fact, in a world where some sports leagues are rolling in TV money, and every sacred object and rite is being scrutinised to see if it can be monetised, fans should be charging clubs for filling seats and supplying noise.
In the not too distant future, no doubt, all fans at Premier League and NFL games will have to wear masks and headcams so that TV audiences can stream the view from any seat and that TV can project regionally appropriate faces on the crowd. Meanwhile, mics on TVs and mobiles around the world will pick up cheering and dynamically adjust in-stadium crowd noise to reflect the brand with the loudest supporters. On the big games, only 90,000 meat-sacks will be in Wembley, but the voices of billions will be heard. And who then will be able to say there are two classes of fan?
Throw your set in the air
For all that, and despite my deserved second-class status, I refuse to accept that the magic of sports only works over small distances. My heart can be instantly broken from half a world away.
In sports, the ownership structure is quite unlike any other organisation – or at least any business, which is generally the only model we seem to try and fit over sport to make sense of it. A team’s fans are, in my mind, the true owners of a club; the free-holders to the chairperson’s leaseholder. The objective for all sports, I think, should be to make that freeholder analogy a reality.
Metaphorically, though, I believe you qualify to own a share of your club by your dedication. The wonderful thing about these shares is your holding one doesn’t exclude anyone else from doing so. With every newly qualified fan, an additional share is issued. So, while stadia have a maximum seating capacity, the number of possible owners is unlimited.
Passing the threshold is certainly harder for the long-distance fan, but it must be possible. I’m convinced the kingdom of sport will admit the pure of heart, even if they aren’t always sure who played left-back against Plymouth in the Cup in 1983.
You don’t choose you club… except when you do
One thing that doesn’t get much play in pieces on the rise of, say, the NFL in Germany or the Premier League explosion in China, is that being one of the despised overseas fans has some benefits. Not the least of which is that having no local or familial affiliation with a sport means you get to pick whichever team you want, for whatever reason you want.
Which sounds like heresy, until you admit that almost any reason is likely to be a better, sounder one than how most sports teams used to be allocated. Is your favourite band the favourite band of your dad? Was your favourite novelist determined by who won the Booker prize when you were eight? Is your favourite TV show Casualty because you were brought up in Bristol?
I picked my team, Cincinnati, for two reasons. Really, really good reasons. One, when I first got into American football at primary school, they had a left-handed quarterback, Boomer Esiason. As one of the few left-handed kids in my class – and one who was constantly mocked when playing rounders – here was a six-foot-four superstar with the arm strength of a gorilla showing that the scrammy-handed could play sport too.
When inserted into the Matrix, this is how I will look
The second and, if I’m being honest, much bigger reason was that Cincinnati had tiger strips on their shirts. Not some silly pirate like Tampa or, and I still struggle with this even now, Miami’s helmet-wearing dolphin.
A tiger with cool stripes – an apex predator with sharp claws and a rebel snarl – or a smiling, gormless, safety conscious dolphin literally jumping through a hoop? Tough call for a nine-year-old.
Like I said, good, solid reasons
I started to take a closer interest in them over the next few years and, what do you know, they got into the Super Bowl. Now, I had no idea that they’d never won a Super Bowl – nor that, nearly 30 years later, this would be the last time they’d go to one. And I certainly wasn’t to know that they would become one of the worst-run teams in professional sport.
30 years of hurt
The Cincinnati Bungles we were called. A team founded by Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns. One of the greatest and most successful American football coaches of all time, Brown had been fired acrimoniously by the team that bore his name. And so, when the chance came, he bought into a new team just down the road and set about building a challenger to the Browns. In a moment of fine needling, he even used the same team colours.
But, by the time Brown had the Bengals up-and-running, his coaching skills had aged. Worse, he proved a poor owner.
The Bengals I went all-in with turned out to be a team that had failed season after season. Their history was a litany of bad decisions and missed opportunities.
This was a team that had Greg Cook, one of the most gifted young quarterbacks of all time. Suffering an undiagnosed injury in only his third game, Cook played through pain to record a stellar first season but at the cost of ruining his shoulder. He might have been a hall of famer, but his career lasted just 12 games.
This was the team that, for a period, had Bill Walsh on staff – perhaps the greatest coach of all time. Walsh, the man who invented the modern offence and whose ideas still animate the game today, was ready and waiting to take over the team when Brown finished coaching. Inexplicably, though, Brown passed him over, only to see Walsh end up at San Francisco and build the team of the 1980s. Walsh’s three Super Bowl wins included two against the Bengals – the only times the Bengals have ever been to the Super Bowl.
This would be the team with such discipline problems that, in 2006, it had more players arrested, nine, than it won games.
While playing for the Bengals, this man was arrested for boating under the influence. No, really.
This would be the team that is currently on a run of having qualified for the play offs five years in a row… but having been knocked out in the first game each time.
This was the team that, when its founder retired, was passed to his son, who ran it into the ground with a mixture of miserliness and innumerate gambling.
What a list.
Yes, it’s been thirty years of largely inglorious failure. But that doesn’t kill love, does it? Even as I write these memories, I’m flooded with nostalgia and smile affectionately, as if watching my children taking a momentary break from shouting at each other on the beach to cooperate on building a sand castle.
A moment of clarity
And that brings me back to when I knew the Bengals were my team.
That moment was the immediately after Tim Krumrie’s left foot turned into a helicopter. It was Super Bowl XXIII, I was 11, and my Bengals were battling Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers for the NFL title.
Krumrie’s is the worst sporting injury I’ve ever seen. Watch it on YouTube if you dare. You won’t catch it the first time, but look for the big guy in white wearing 69 on the replay. Krumrie comes off his block, stretching to his left as he tries to bring down the ball carrier. His left foot is planted and, off balance, his leg twists alarmingly. Instantly both his fibula and tibia disintegrate. He falls and, released from the turf and without the bones to hold it in place, Krumrie’s tendons spin his foot around like a rotor blade.
Initially, of course, there was the wincing sympathy for Krumrie and the worry it might be the end of his career. It was just the 16th play of the game – not even half-way through the first quarter – which meant he’d as good as been robbed of his life’s work, the culmination of what he’d been grinding for since high school. But it also meant the team would have to do without its most dominating defensive player.
“He does? Well, that makes it all worth it.”
When you first get into a sport, all you care about is the points scorers. You love strikers before you love wingers, before you love tough centre halves, before you come to appreciate the sublimity of a quietly effective defensive midfielder. You love freewheeling sloggers before you love fast bowlers, before you begin to appreciate leg spin or the superhuman discipline of the night-watchman or the well-placed field setting of a masterful captain.
It’s the same with the NFL. You love showy quarterbacks who cut the ball lose to deep threat wide receivers sprinting away for touchdowns. You get the shirt of jinking running backs or hard-hitting linebackers. It’s only later that you watch cornerbacks, the guys trying to stop the deep pass, or think about centers, the guys hoiking the ball between their legs and then trying to protect the quarterback. And, eventually, you come to appreciate nose tackles – the big, unglamourous players, like Tim Krumrie – who anchor a defensive line, pressuring quarterbacks and stopping runners.
When Krumrie went down, I saw immediately that my team was doomed. San Francisco had Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, the best quarterback-wide receiver combination in history, and a great pass catching running back. I didn’t matter that Boomer Esiason, my Boomer Esiason, was having the season of his career. Without Krumrie to pressure Montana, our path to victory – keeping San Francisco to a low score – was gone and, with it, our shot at the Super Bowl.
And so, when Tim Krumrie got hurt, less than ten minutes into the game, it wasn’t bitter disappointment that bound me to the Bengals, it was the sudden realisation of how much I’d invested in the team and how much I’d learned about the sport.
I knew then that the game was gone and that it hurt. But I knew, too, that I’d be back.
“When the sh*t goes down, you better be ready.”
Together at last
And I was. But while my love for the team deepened, Cincinnati the city never moved. It’s a fine place, I understand, but for a Brit with a limited number of both pounds and holiday days, it wasn’t able to complete with New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Yosemite or any other of the tourist destinations my wife and I would visit.
I tried explaining to her about its history. Its nickname. Its impressive performance on quality of life indicators. Its regional specialty: Cincinnati chili. But, no, it’s still in Ohio.
And so, finally, after three decades of mutual intransigence, the Bengals broke first. They’re here in October, at Wembley, for a regular season game against Washington.
The team is still owned by the same son – now a respected elder statesman of the NFL in his 80s – but things have turned. A few years back, showing self-knowledge few of us possess, he decided to tackle 30 years of failure and put himself into semi-retirement. He turned over his life’s work, his father’s bequest, to outside hires and the team has thrived. It still can’t get the Super Bowl monkey of its back, but it turns out a pretty good team, year after year.
I’m so genuinely dizzied with excitement about seeing them play live that, even with a month to go before the Bengals arrive in London, I go to sleep with the same dream every night. And it’s not some strange, disturbing, frighteningly revealing dream. No, it’s the very same innocent dream I had when I was nine. It’s the Super Bowl and, playing wide receiver, I catch the winning touchdown pass from Boomer Esiason. That’s how simple and honest and unevolved my fandom is after all these years. I win the game for my team.
Am I any less of a fan than season ticket holders in Cincinnati? Objectively, yes. But do I love my team and will I roar them on with the passion of a true fan? Oh, yes.
And that’s why I don’t sneer at Chinese fans of Manchester United or South Korean kids in Messi shirts. It’s the relentless unprincipled commercialisation of football, not its growing fan base, that is misdirecting clubs and generating inequality. Leagues, if they wanted to, could preserve competitive balance and still grow their game globally. The NFL does it.
So let’s not confuse the motives of the foreign billionaires who own Premier League clubs with the honest intensions of billions of foreign fans. Because, while geography makes a difference, it’s what’s in the heart of those who love sport – what can’t be measured by club accountants or TV subscription numbers – that really matters.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.