It’s something that most people never think about but it’s happened to all of us sports lovers at some point. Each and every one of us has had to make a ‘start’ in our fandoms. Perhaps you were forced to watch soccer as a child, perhaps you watched some Steph Curry highlights on YouTube or perhaps you attended a Rugby World Cup game on a whim. Whatever it is that lights that initial fire, ‘getting into’ a new sport can be tricky business.
Well as a fairly recent convert to both NFL and tennis, I’ve relived the problems of a newbie sports fan and have some tips to help you look like less of a fairweather fan and more of a die hard supporter.
Understand the basic rules, but do ask questions
This is absolutely key. No one will berate you for not knowing the rulebook inside out but if you can’t follow along at even a basic level, you’re really not trying. There’s no excuse for not knowing that a ball’s not allowed to bounce twice in tennis and no reason to ask “why does that player get to use their hands?” when watching soccer.
Counter to this, I will say that asking sensible questions and at the right time is important to appreciating any game. Don’t be asking questions whilst a game’s in full flow, you should be able to have a chat during a break in play, such as a throw-in, line out or at the end of a set. You should find that most fans will happily show off their knowledge about the finer points of whatever you’re watching but will grow tired of explaining the basics.
Look at some stats and listen to the pundits
Once you know how a game’s played, it’s time to know if a game’s being played well and being able to recognise what makes someone or something ‘good’. Did you hear that the Dallas Cowboy’s Quarterback threw for 120 yards last night? What does that mean? Is that good or is that bad? It’s also a good idea to see what stats are kept for different positions (if applicable). You want to know that a soccer defender who scores 10 goals in a season is considered an attacking threat, whilst a soccer striker who scores 10 in a season is a bit of a dud. A cornerback who make 3 interceptions in one game? You need to know that they’ve had a good game.
Also, we like to complain about pundits, but if you’re just starting out watching a sport, they’ll often have something useful to say, highlighting errors and pieces of skill that are obvious to fans but might be useful to someone who’s new to the sport.
Look at the bigger picture – leagues, divisions, cups, etc…
It always helpful to know the context of what you’re watching. Is this a cup final, a playoff game or simply a standard league game? For you to really understand how important a match, game or fight is, you need to know its context. Is a belt on the line, will this put someone into a number one ranking or will a team be relegated as a result of this fixture? It also saves you asking embarrassing question, like the person who asked me ‘who got relegated last season?’ when we watched an NFL game.
It’ll also give you an idea of who’s expected to win. Watching Iceland beat England would be given greater meaning if you knew where each team was placed in FIFA’s soccer rankings and it’d mean even more if you realised that Iceland’s victory sent England home. Knowing the context of any matchup helps you appreciate the glory / agony / importance all the more.
Find some players you like and a team (or teams)
It’s all well and good being a ‘fan of the sport’ but you’ll be missing out if you don’t have favourite teams or players that you keep an eye on. A good start would be to simply identify players that drew you into the sport in the first place. Did you see an Adrian Peterson highlight video and fall in love with American Football? Cool, keep an eye on the Vikings and go look up some other players who play like him. Perhaps you really like Andy Murray’s laid back interview style – well that’s as good a reason as any to cheer him on when he’s playing.
A lot of sports fans will have been ‘born’ into supporting their club, and there’s something to be said for that, but the fact is, however you start supporting something or someone doesn’t matter once the game starts.
What’s happening off the pitch?
Do you know why a lot of people pick up a newspaper and read it from back to front? It’s because all of the sports news is in the back and a lot of the drama on the field starts off the field. It really helps if you know what’s happening in your sport of choice. Transfers, trades, suspensions and injuries – they’re all as much a part of the sports rollercoaster as the playing of the sports themselves. Have a look at some of the big stories in the sport and this will certainly help you appreciate what’s happening on the field a lot more.
Look at some history of the sport – some true greats, some amazing upsets, big rivalries
Most sports teams simply don’t have any success in a given year. It should be obvious but there’s only one winner and a whole heap of losers when it comes to sports, so it’s no wonder that sports fans know their history and you should too. By knowing about a team’s history, you can greater appreciate where they are now. Manchester City fans can’t believe the heights they’ve reached whilst Manchester United fans think finishing 7th is the end of the world. Bolton Wanderers fans will tell you Jay Jay Okocha is the greatest player the Premier League ever had and so on.
Also, by going back in time you’ll unearth some amazing games and players that will only make you appreciate your chosen sport all the more. Watching Boris Becker play, marvelling at Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ and seeing how dominant the ‘Steel Curtain’ where in their heyday only brings you more perspective to what you’re watching now.
Talk to fans, listen to podcasts, read some sites – best bit about a sport is being ‘part’ of something
Half of the fun of being a sports fan is ‘belonging’ to something. It gives you something in common with a huge group of people and despite some idiots ruining it in certain sports, it’s something that unites people. So get involved. Start listening to podcasts, visiting websites and commenting on forums where you can. It’ll give you a new insight into what it is that fans of the sport are concerned about. What’s shaking the world of snooker to its core? Who is the young cricketer that people are talking about? Find out for yourself and enjoy not just your new sport but your new fandom.
Look at different ‘levels’ of play, different leagues, Mens and womens, etc –
This is easier for some sports and harder for others, but odds are that for every ‘major league’ you can watch on TV, there’s several others that are worth looking at too. Soccer is especially spoilt for choice as there’s so many high quality leagues out there. Watching Serie A’s defensive battles, La Liga’s attacking flair and Ligue 1’s… games will give you a greater appreciation on soccer as a whole. Also, I’d recommend giving both men’s and women’s versions of whatever sport a fair shot too. Women’s soccer and tennis, for me, offer a different version of each sport and are
Whilst you’re at it, see if there’s a local league near you, a small team you can support. Before I got into the NFL, I had no idea that the Essex Spartans were an American Football outfit that played just down the road from me. The level of play is, naturally nowhere near as high. Which leads me onto my next point.
See a live game
This might be expensive or it might be near impossible depending on where you live, but if you can see a live event – do it. Nothing will cement your love for a sport than seeing it live. The atmosphere, the spectacle and the appreciation for seeing what these people are capable of really hits home when you’re at an event. The only thing that could make you appreciate what you’re witnessing more, is trying to do it yourself.
Try it yourself
With some sports, it’s really easy to see how difficult something is to do and therefor how impressive it is to see it done. A triple backflip to secure a gold medal? Yeah – I can see that’s impressive.
Some other sports contain elements that look easy. I mean, how hard can it be to header a ball in soccer? How hard can it be to tackle someone in rugby? Throwing an American Football doesn’t look that tough, so how can they get it so wrong? By trying the sports out yourself you’ll soon understand the tactical and physical elements of the game that might not have been that apparent when you’re sat there watching. Even sports that aren’t physically strenuous, like darts, become instantly more relatable when you try and hit a treble twenty for yourself.