Arizona Cardinals

Big Red bangwagon: An in-depth analysis of the Arizona Cardinals’ fan base



The Arizona Cardinals’ fan base over the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in numbers which coincides with the relative competiveness they have been able to sustain since the arrival of Kurt Warner, the beginning of the Ken Wisenhunt era and the move from Sun Devil Stadium to what is now University of Phoenix Stadium.

Cardinals fans call themselves, “The Red Sea,” “Bird Gang,” “Big Red Rage,” among others names, yet, a large population of football fans in Arizona along with other NFL markets have put a label to the Cardinals’ growing fan base that really amounts to a scarlet letter in the realm of fanhood. A July 16, 2015, story published by cited an Emory University study that ranked the Arizona Cardinals fan base number one in this category:


Oxford Dictionaries uses a definition of bandwagon which is, “a particular activity or cause that has suddenly become fashionable or popular.” Being labeled as a bandwagon fan is a way for an established or “loyal” fan to invalidate an individual’s seemingly newfound support for a team or a player or disarm them in debate or proverbial trash talk.

There is varying degrees to bandwagon fanhood I’ve found. Some fans become a loyal to a particular player and when that player becomes a member of another team, through trade or free agency, a fan’s loyalty to that player will involve a shift of their support to that new team. There have also been spectators who have been caught at sporting events literally changing jerseys and gear in the stands, in the middle of the action, to whichever team is winning.

What about those fans that were football fans before 1988, the year the Cardinals made their way to Tempe? What if you had devoted yourself to a team before the Bidwills moved their franchise out of St. Louis? Are you barred from switching loyalties to the new home team? Can you not enjoy their successes and sulk with their failures?

During my informal, unscientific research for this story, I referenced the Arizona Cardinals’ official website and U.S. Census statistics from 1970 through 2010. Also, 100 people were sent questionnaires and I personally spoke with 32 more individuals.

People I knew for certain were Tucson residents and were not Cardinals fans. In Arizona, there has always been an undeniable “us versus them” vibe Tucson and Phoenix sports fans have for each other. When the Bidwill family came to Tempe in the late 1980’s, they initially became the Phoenix Cardinals. Bill Bidwill resisted changing the name to Arizona Cardinals until 1994. Bidwill felt an obligation, as the owner of the oldest professional football franchise in America, to stick to a prominent NFL tradition of identifying themselves with a home city.

This, I began finding out, was a factor as to why football fans in Tucson chose to stick with the NFL organizations they were already supporting at the time. Of the 100 questionnaires I sent out, I received 71 in reply.

An obvious majority of the fans I talked to and polled had some things in common. Most became fans of football long before the Cardinals relocated to Arizona and had already dedicated themselves to another franchise. Almost all were originally from outside of Arizona or were first generation Arizonans. And a sizeable portion of fans who spoke to me admitted that previous generations of football fans in their family had an enormous influence over which jersey and hat they’d wear on Sundays.

Another observation worth noting: Of those I spoke with, football fans that had children born after 1988, had young Cardinals fans in their household. One thing I found mostly everyone I questioned had in common (except for two) was they had all started following football between the ages of 5 and 12 years old.

Among the anomalies, I found that women football fans would commonly adopt the favorite teams of their significant others. In a questionnaire sent to Meghan Martinez, I asked which NFL team she followed most. To which she answered, “It’s complicated…Philadelphia Eagles with the Arizona Cardinals a close second, followed by the Dallas Cowboys.” Martinez also wrote that her relationship with her father was pivotal to learning about the game: “He’s been my biggest influence and the reason why I’m such a sports fanatic. My love the game started when I was just a little girl watching games right next to him. He’s always been a Dallas Cowboys fan. As I grew up, he let me find my own way and pick the teams and players I liked. Together we followed the teams and players and it helped us form a strong bond that we share to this day.”

When asked if she recalled the moment she became an Eagles fan, she described it as serendipity. “At the time, I was talking to someone that I thought liked the Eagles so I bought the jersey, because that just made sense to me to support his team. I would later find out that my friend was actually a 49ers fan. Instead of switching teams, I began to follow the Eagles and Donovan McNabb. When Nick Foles (the all-time leading Arizona Wildcats quarterback) was signed to the Eagles, it sealed the deal for me and I was a committed Eagles fan and found a new love for the team.”

Long time Buffalo Bills fan Jose L. Roman Sr., my father, was born in Mexico. As a child and teen, he mostly followed baseball and soccer. It wasn’t until he was in his twenties that a Trojan great influenced his NFL team of choice. “When I saw OJ Simpson play for USC and win the Heisman Trophy, I started following football. When he was drafted by Buffalo, I became a Bills fan and have been one ever since.” It was Simpson’s college performance that hooked my father to the game.

Football heroes were the single largest influence for a child, 5 to 12 years old, to choose and stick with an NFL franchise.

Suffice it to say, the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals were mediocre at best and lacked true star power from 1988 until Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner came to the organization. An argument could be made that the late Pat Tillman would fit that role. To which I would say, with all due respect, Tillman is mostly known for transcending football through the incredible sacrifice he made when he decided to forgo his NFL career and join the American armed forces.

According to the U.S. Census, 70.8 percent of Arizona’s current population of 6.3 million, moved to or were born in Arizona between 1980 and 2000. Of the 6.3 million that were living in Arizona as of the 2010 Census, 4.1 million of Arizona’s population was 25 or older. All were born before there was professional football in Phoenix.

It would be reasonable to believe that any football fans that moved to our state between 1980 and 2010, and are now 25 and older (the age fans are more likely able to afford to buy tickets and memorabilia), brought their loyalties to their original NFL teams with them or had their loyalties influenced by a previous generation of out of state fans.

Bidwill’s move to Arizona in 1988 was done almost exactly in the middle of one of the largest regional population growths in American history. Waves of people from all over the country were flocking to Arizona. Only Nevada’s growth during that time was comparable.

The NFL has not put a franchise in Las Vegas. The Cardinals’ experience with regard to building a fan base, one could argue, is unique. If Las Vegas would have added a team during a time of exponential growth, the result may have been mirrored. Having a stadium sections filled with larger contingents of visiting team supporters would stand to reason. Half-hearted home team attendance and even half-hearted Cardinals fans selling their ticket to rabid visiting team fans should not be surprising when looked through that prism.

Many NFL fans in Arizona, especially Southern Arizona, find themselves with the dilemma that Martinez finds herself in. Torn between following their childhood team and the real genuine interest in seeing the Arizona Cardinals do well. The growth of a true, die hard Cardinals fans base has been a generational affair.

There are perhaps true Cardinals fans that have followed the team since the day they arrived in Tempe and stuck with them through the hardships of the 1990’s. That fan must be a lonely soul. Fans who will start nudging out the massive visiting crowds common at University of Phoenix today are planning for prom and applying for colleges this time of year.

All fan bases are mostly built during a team’s golden age. It’s hard to imagine a 49ers fan base that wasn’t built on Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice’s back. A Bears fan base that won’t shut up about 1985, Mike Ditka and Walter Payton. New England fans will be talking about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for generations to come.

Every fan was a bandwagon fan at one point.

Born a Wildcat fan, lifetime fanhood was solidified when he was able to meet Tedy Bruschi, Sean Harris, Brandon Sanders, Chuck Levy and Ontiwaun Carter as a sixth grader. Having served 10 years in the armed forces and having been deployed all over the world, he’s still managed to make it to every Arizona home football game, bowl game and at least one away game for the last 12 years. Now combining his love of writing with his love of all things sports, Jose is proud and honored to join as a writer.

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