Philadelphia sports fandom is exhausting, and there is finally some scientific evidence (sort of) to prove it.
Recently, BetUS conducted a study of stress levels among fan bases across the four major North American sports leagues mainly based on social media interactions. The 76ers were found to have the most stressed-out fanbase in the entire NBA. By comparison, the Eagles ranked tenth in the NFL, the Phillies were 18th in the MLB, and the Flyers were 24th in the NHL.
I, for one, am pleasantly surprised there wasn’t a clean sweep in favor of Philadelphia. Speaking from experience, being a Philly sports fan is a health hazard in many ways. It should come with a laundry list of potential side effects longer than the ones in drug commercials. Sure, there may not be as many extended stretches of futility as there are in other cities, but any and all frustration over a lack of success is amplified to the max.
For those of us that actively choose to ride that emotional roller-coaster, there is a process all Philly sports fans endure at some point in their lives. Most are familiar with the traditional stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Philly sports fans also go through a similar, though slightly different, process.
Let’s run through it.
1. High Hopes
The season is just around the corner. There’s palpable exuberance in the air throughout the fanbase. Sure, the prior year might’ve ended with the kind of resentment and animosity that has become a staple in the city over the years, but this year could be different!
That feeling is only reinforced by any and all offseason acquisitions. Some may turn out to be instant hits (Jason Peters, Roy Halladay, Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto, etc.) while others, well, not so much (Nnamdi Asomugha, Andrew Bynum, Jake Arrietta, and Al Horford among many others).
This phase will often last into the early part of the season. Perhaps either the Phillies open up their season with a series win, the Eagles pull off a resounding opening week win, or the Sixers get off to a quick 4-0 start. When it seems as though there might actually be something to look forward to, fans will get excited about it at least for the time being.
2. Complete Dismissal
This typically occurs during a rough patch, oftentimes when the season isn’t even at the halfway point. Maybe the full-strength Sixers drop a winnable November game to a bad team like the Cavs. Or the Phillies lose a series against a lowly team like the Marlins at the end of May.
The snap reactions are swift. Blame is thrown every which way. Coaching jobs are put into question and there is an endless stream of trade demands. Just about everyone is quick to use these moments as indictments of the team’s future outlook.
I like to equate this phase to the scene in Good Will Hunting when Will breaks up with Skylar. He’s terrified of the emotional pain that could come with a failed relationship, and so to avoid that agony, he ends it prematurely. Philly fans are the same way. They’ll gladly hop at the first opportunity to discredit the team’s prospects in order to steer clear of future heartbreak.
In most cases, these feelings tend to be short-lived.
3. Renewed Belief
Order is restored. The season is more than three-fourths of the way through and the team is back to its winning ways. The Sixers are one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Eagles are somehow treading water in the NFC East, the Phillies are in the playoff hunt, etc. Just about everything is looking up with the playoffs on the horizon.
Even though the fans are all but fully back on board with the team, a small semblance of doubt still lingers around. It’s common to read tweets during this phase that end with some form of “I know I’m probably going to regret saying this in the future.” Some may refuse to buy back in outright and therefore permanently adopt a pessimistic attitude towards the team in question.
Yet for the most part, the fans are willing to regain any and all optimism about the team. It’s an overwhelming sense of readiness to be hurt once again.
4. Irrational Confidence
Easily the most dangerous phase. Trust in the team is disturbingly high. There is an overwhelming belief that this is finally the year the team gets over the hump. Just about everyone is willing to bet their sanity on it.
Think about every exhilarating in-game moment in recent history. The Roy Halladay postseason no-hitter. Joel throwing down a windmill dunk to put the Sixers up 2-1 against the Raptors. The double doink in Chicago. They’re the moments that make fans absolutely certain a championship is on the horizon. Should things go south, what’s said during these moments can become fodder for endless memes.
But honestly, who can blame a fanbase for revelling in a team’s success? When the going’s good, why not let people know about it? I generally pride myself on being a pragmatist, yet even I’m guilty of having too much dip on my chip at certain points in the past.
Every so often, the over-the-top optimism is rewarded. The Phillies ended the city’s 25-year title drought back in 2008. And who could forget the Eagles finally winning a Super Bowl in 2018 after 52 years of anguish.
But this is Philly. Things almost never work in the city’s favor. There are times when it seems like the sports gods find pleasure in the misery of Philly sports fans.
5. Reality Check
Just when it seemed like the vibes were on point, things immediately begin going downhill. The fun is over, and now the situation is looking particularly dicey.
When exactly this phase takes effect varies based on the current state of the team. It could commence at the tail end of the regular season, such as after the Phillies, again, drop a series to the Marlins to put their postseason hopes on life support. But it most often sets in during the heat of a playoff run with a moment that dramatically shifts the tide of a series or game. Remember Kawhi Leonard going full Terminator mode in Game 4 in 2019? Or the rally squirrel game back in the 2011 division series? Of course the Sixers blowing a 26-point lead, a game I happened to attend, is still fresh in the city’s mind. Just the mere thought of those events make you cringe.
This is when fans become emotional wrecks. Doubt and angst begin flooding in from every which way. There’s a feeling of hopelessness, for while there’s a desire to keep the faith, just about everyone knows exactly how this story is likely going to end.
6. Total Heartbreak
The inevitable happens. All hopes and dreams go up in flames. Fans descend into a dark, dark place. It feels as if the world came crashing down.
The heartache can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s a complete collapse (see Ben Simmons and the September Phillies). Other times it’s a team that has become invincible seemingly overnight (see the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals and 2021 Atlanta Hawks).
But most times, it’s manifested through a single individual. Plenty of people have made themselves into Philly villains over the years because of the misery they induced thanks to either a career-defining performance, a singular moment, or both. Just to name a few:
- Joe Carter
- Ronde Barber
- Ricky Manning
- Rodney Harrison
- Larry Fitzgerald
- Hideki Matsui
- Patrick Kane
- Cody Ross
- Chris Carpenter
- Shayne Graham
- Kawhi Leonard
What ensues among the fanbase is an unholy concoction of toxicity and pure self-loathing. Sports radio develops into a radioactive cesspool of despondence. Social media becomes the bane of everyone’s existence. Everywhere you turn, someone is describing the PTSD that will be born out of what just occurred. I imagine it’s what being in purgatory is like.
The worst part: everyone knows it’s about to happen all over again next year. It’s like Groundhog Day at this point. It’s a sad life, but it’s the Philly sports fan’s life.