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A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist pulls back the curtain on the extraordinary inner lives of America’s most obsessive sports fans.
There are fans, and then there are fanatics. In this wondrously immersive look at American sports fandom, George Dohrmann travels the country to find out what distinguishes an ordinary, everyday enthusiast from that special breed of supporter known as the superfan. In Minnesota, Dohrmann meets newly minted generals of the Viking World Order, a Minnesota Vikings affinity group organized along military lines. In Oregon, he shares a few beers with a determined soccer fan who amassed—almost singlehandedly—a four-thousand-strong cheering section for the fledgling Portland Timbers. In Illinois, he talks with the parents of a five-year-old boy whose intense hatred of Tom Brady went viral on YouTube. Through these and other intimate profiles, Dohrmann shows us the human faces behind the colored face paint, the real people inside the elaborate costumes who prowl the stands and parking lots at stadiums from coast to coast.
In addition to the fans themselves, Dohrmann also talks with the experts who study them. He uses the latest thinking in sports psychology—some of it learned during a spirited round of miniature golf with a group of professors at the annual Sports Psychology Forum—to unravel the answers to such burning questions as: How does fandom begin? What are its effects on everyday life? When does it go too far?
For everyone who’s ever body-painted their torso with the team colors of their alma mater before heading off to a sports bar—or even just screamed at their television during the NBA Finals—Superfans offers an entertaining and insightful exploration of the many ways human beings find meaning in something bigger than themselves.
Featuring photos of the Rally Banana, Timber Jim, the officers of the Viking World Order, a pair of Kentucky Wildcats tattoos, a Kevin Durant jersey torched by a jilted fan, and more.
Plus analysis of the . . . Arizona State Sun Devils • Chicago Bears • Dallas Cowboys • Green Bay Packers • Indianapolis Colts • Milwaukee Brewers • Nebraska Cornhuskers • New England Patriots • Oklahoma City Thunder • Philadelphia Eagles • San Diego State Aztecs • Seattle Seahawks
“Well reported and meticulously researched . . . Dohrmann is a respected, diligent sportswriter and has been so for years—you don’t get Pulitzers for message-board posts.”—The Wall Street Journal
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Superfans
“go Buy Nevets a beer.”
“The goal was one TV.”
It was the mid-1990s, and Steven Lenhart was hoping to watch a weekend soccer game with some friends at a bar in Portland, Oregon. It may have been a Champions League game or a World Cup qualifier; he doesn’t recall. What he does remember is the frustration he felt as the managers of bar after bar informed him that they would not turn even a single television from college football or an NFL game to a soccer match: “They were all like, ‘Sorry, there just aren’t enough of you.’ ”
Soccer junkies throughout the United States at that time could empathize. Venues to watch games were few and far between, and often it felt as if the latest edition of Soccer America, that broadsheet bible, was the only way for American followers of the sport to stay informed. Yet even among soccer aficionados, Lenhart graded out as a fanatic. How many Portland footie fans drove more than nine hours, to San Jose, California, in 1996 just to be there for the inaugural Major League Soccer game between the San Jose Clash and DC United? How many then repeated the journey a few months later for a playoff game because, well, “that was also, like, history”? How many traveled over halfway across the country, to Columbus, Ohio, a few years later just to be present for one of the first games in the new Crew Stadium, because that, too, felt like a seminal moment? Soccer was not the central preoccupation in Lenhart’s life. It was his life. His jobs—filling kegs at a local brewery, roasting beans at Kobos Coffee Company—were the preoccupations.
Imagine, then, how he felt being told again and again that the sport he loved more than anything else was so insignificant that in a bar with twenty televisions it wasn’t worth time on a single screen.
Lenhart kept pestering bar owners until, finally, he found a sympathetic Greek immigrant named Angelo Markantonatos, who operated the A&L Sports Pub, an underlit place on the city’s east side best known as a gathering spot for Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Markantonatos told Lenhart that if he brought enough people so that his group outnumbered the people sitting near a TV who wanted to watch football, he would switch that TV to soccer.
Lenhart managed to find ten—eight friends plus him and his brother—and that was enough for Angelo to switch one screen in the darkest spot in the bar to their preferred match. “Here we are, over in our little corner with our one little TV, and it felt like the biggest victory ever,” Lenhart says. From that success, Lenhart took the lesson that while Portland’s bar owners might not love soccer, they do like money. “We just had to increase our numbers,” he says.
If you were in the same bar or coffeehouse as Lenhart around that time and showed even the slightest signal that you liked soccer, he’d approach you. If you passed him in the street and were wearing an Adidas warm-up jacket, he would invite you to watch a game at A&L or another such place. Eventually, he gave his small band of soccer-watchers a name, the Cascade Rangers, and he had business cards printed that included an email address. Anyone who emailed him was added to a list and received notices whenever the group was gathering to watch a match. In addition to his recruiting efforts at bars and cafes and on the streets, Lenhart became the unofficial moderator of a soccer message board on the website of The Oregonian, where he would post topics to debate. On that board, his username was Nevets—Steven spelled backward. That was the name Lenhart had given himself in the early 1990s when he began performing at a poetry open-mic night at Café Lena in southeast Portland. He was around twenty-three at the time and working in the darkroom at a photography studio. In the coffeehouses and breweries around Portland where he would come to work (infrequently) and drink (frequently) over the years, he was known only as Nevets. “There used to be this thing that I’ve worked at every cool place in Portland,” he says.
Lenhart had thick brown hair and sideburns and a nose like Santa Claus, prominent and rounded at the tip. His gray-blue eyes were obscured by wire-rim glasses that seemed a little small for his face. He favored worn brown cords and loose, long-sleeve shirts layered over one another. His only flourish was a wool flat cap. A friend called his look “quintessential 1990s Portland.”
Between the email list and the message board, Lenhart was more connected to soccer fans than almost any other person in the Rose City. The group of ten people in the corner of the A&L Sports Pub eventually grew to twenty and then forty and then sixty. After a few years, Lenhart could fill a bar by sending out a single email. He had the contact information for hundreds of people in Portland who supported soccer.
It was an impressive feat considering he compiled that information during a decade-long stretch when Portland was without a soccer team. From 1975 to 1982, the city had a franchise in the North American Soccer League, the Portland Timbers. Some of Lenhart’s most vivid boyhood memories are going to NASL games with his brother and father, who worked as a regional director for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. His mom was a homemaker and occasional substitute teacher at local elementary schools, and Lenhart describes them as a close, loving family. “We were Baptists, sort of,” he says. “One of those things where you go to church until high school is over and then stop. I don’t know what that says about me. Nothing, I think.”
Lenhart was playing club soccer during the Timbers’ NASL era, and his boyhood idols were the stars of those teams; Clyde Best and Mick Poole were two favorites. He also admired the small but rowdy group of fans who supported the Timbers back then, though most seemed to care more about the party than the soccer. Beer was served, literally, in buckets.
In 1985, with the NASL shuttered, a new local team, FC Portland, emerged in a league that would become known as the Western Soccer Alliance. FC Portland had a distinct local flavor. It featured current and former University of Portland players, including goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a future US men’s national team star, whom Lenhart had played against growing up. Fan support for those teams was a fraction of what it was in the star-studded NASL, but Lenhart’s enthusiasm was consistent. He was crestfallen when, in 1990, FC Portland folded after losing a reported $500,000 in its final two seasons.
Portland had been without a professional soccer team for years when Lenhart began sending out his emails and filling the bars. There was no grand plan behind his efforts, no vision for what his coalition would become. He just wanted to watch a game and drink a few beers with others who loved soccer. Then, in 2001, a new iteration of the Timbers emerged, and executives for the franchise quickly learned that the key to building a fan base for their team was some guy everyone called Nevets.
• • •
Jim Taylor caught the soccer bug in 1997 at a World Cup qualifier in Portland between the US men’s national team and Costa Rica. He sat in a section of US supporters known as Sam’s Army, “and the people were cheering and chanting and it was fantastic.” He was working in community and corporate relations for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers at that time, a very good job in a hard-to-crack industry. In 1998, Taylor left that position to take an eighteen-month post as venue director in Portland for the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
While in the job, he created Soccer City 2000, a campaign to bring a Major League Soccer team to Portland. He teamed up with Marshall Glickman, one of the founders of the Trail Blazers and the team’s president from 1987 to 1994. Glickman wanted to own a minor-league baseball team in the city, to have it play in what was then called Civic Stadium. Taylor convinced him to tack on a soccer franchise to that plan, and they created the company Portland Family Entertainment.
An MLS franchise proved to be too pricey a target, so the group settled for a team in the lower-rung A-League. Taylor’s vision was to create a strong minor-league franchise and prove to MLS that Portland was a viable city for expansion. But the others within Portland Family Entertainment were focused on baseball. The Portland Beavers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League were considered the bellwether; the soccer team was filler, a team to occupy the stadium when the Beavers were idle. The entire soccer staff consisted of Taylor, a head coach, and one other employee.
Before the first season, Taylor contacted Russ Campbell, head of the Rose City Brigade, the Sam’s Army chapter in the area, to create a Timbers supporters group. They arranged a barbecue at Campbell’s house in Beaverton, and about ten people considered to be influential members of the soccer community were invited. Nevets was one of them.
Campbell tried to take the lead, and he proposed that the established rules and procedures of the Rose City Brigade be applied. Lenhart immediately objected. “I was like, ‘Wait. Wait. Wait. You don’t even know what this is yet, and you are trying to tell people what to do?’ ” he recalls. Campbell eventually backed away to stay focused on Sam’s Army, and Lenhart became the unofficial ringleader of a small band of fans.
“There were maybe eight of us at first,” says Jeremy Wright, a fan better known as Finnegan (the name of his dog). Wright had been one of the people Lenhart recruited to watch games with him. (“This creepy guy in a newspaper-boy cap came up to me at the bar and handed me a business card.”) He was joined by Lendog (Jim Lenhart, Nevets’s brother), Aussie Mike (who was not from Australia), Drum Man (Kurt Schubothe, an older fan from the NASL days), English Rick (he was English), Ricky the Postman (an actual postman), and Roberto (Bob Kellett, a local journalist).
At a subsequent meeting at the Bitter End, a bar near Civic Stadium that became the group’s primary hangout, Taylor met with Lenhart, Wright, and others, and it was decided that the supporters would occupy Section 107 at the north end of the stadium. At that point, they were still called the Cascade Rangers, but the name would later change after some Portlanders who were also fans of the Scottish League team Celtic objected to being part of a supporters group that had the same name as the Glasgow Rangers, Celtic’s chief rival. Its new name: Timbers Army.
At the new Timbers home debut as an A-League franchise on May 11, 2001, the “army” was eight or so people behind the goal. It would get up to about fifteen by the end of the season and hover at roughly that number for a couple of years. But what Timbers Army lacked in size they made up for in enthusiasm, much of which clashed in both spirit and substance with the wishes of an ownership group calling itself Portland Family Entertainment. The flares and smoke bombs were a problem, as were the chants of “Hel-en! Kel-ler!” at female referees. And then there was the cursing, which often was more blunt than clever—for example, “You suck, asshole!” whenever the opposing goalkeeper executed a kick. Making matters worse, Section 107 was reserved seating, “So you’d get these families who wouldn’t know any better and buy tickets right behind us,” Wright says. “It was bad.”
Taylor acted as mediator between ownership and Timbers Army, a task made more difficult when Glickman’s financing dried up after the first season and the baseball and soccer teams were taken over by the Pacific Coast League. “All they cared about was baseball but kept hearing about all these problems with fans of the soccer team,” Taylor says.
George Dohrmann is a senior editor at The Athletic and was formerly an investigative reporter at Sports Illustrated. He is the author of Play Their Hearts Out, winner of the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing and the Award for Excellence in Coverage of Youth Sports. In 2000, while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that uncovered a college basketball team’s academic fraud. Dohrmann lives in Ashland, Oregon, with his family.