Can this South Philly lifer turn ‘emo’ sports fandom into a business?

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Shamus Clancy, Philadelphia writer and sports super fan, shows off his Carson Wentz bobble head toy at his apartment in South Philly. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Shamus Clancy, Philadelphia writer and sports super fan, shows off his Carson Wentz bobble head toy at his apartment in South Philly. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In the fall of 2016, Shamus Clancy wrote a blog post about the Philadelphia Eagles, their new quarterback, and his own battle with clinical depression.

His life has never been the same.

It was an unlikely moment for a personal breakthrough. Months earlier, he’d taken a medical leave from the University of Pennsylvania and learned he had bipolar disorder.

The only child of a parole officer and an oil refinery worker, Clancy had clambered his way from the red brick of South Philly to the lush lawns of the Ivy League. During his junior year, he landed a coveted sports journalism internship at The Philadelphia Daily News.

Twelve months later, he was wallowing on his parents’ couch, working a construction job at the old Divine Lorraine Hotel in North Philadelphia, and binging Eagles podcasts to get himself through the day.

His bipolar diagnosis explained the manic behavior that derailed his senior year — nights when he’d rage, drunk, until 3 a.m., and days when he couldn’t lift himself from bed. But it didn’t change where he was.

“I was just slaving away thinking, ‘Is this what I’m gonna do the rest of my life ‘cause I failed out of college?’”

Shamus Clancy is a Philadelphia writer and sports super fan. He writes about his personal life and mental health. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Clancy did have one thing going for him: his “sickening obsession” with Philadelphia sports. In 2016, the Eagles started 3-0 behind the revelatory play of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. It was Clancy’s buoy in an ocean of setbacks.

On a whim, he wrote it all down: 1,500 words on the team, his life, and the precarious way the latter depended on the former. He sent the piece to a popular Birds blog called “Bleeding Green Nation.”

The title: “How Carson Wentz helped my clinical depression.”

“Things got better, but it didn’t make those dark days go away,” Clancy wrote of the months after his diagnosis. “The restless and sleepless nights. The feelings of emptiness. The existential dread. The simple inability to get out of bed. They were all still there. As summer gave way to fall, there was one thing that changed in my life: the Eagles had a new starting quarterback.”

In the chest-thumping world of sports fandom, you might not expect a post like this to take off. You might even expect it to generate some scorn. The opposite happened.

“The response was overwhelming,” said Clancy. “I wrote that a little over three years ago and I would still say someone, once every three or four weeks, will message me about that article.”

Clancy, by his own account, had about 3,000 Twitter followers when he wrote that post. Today, the 25-year-old has more than 17,000.

He’s cultivated that audience by honing the voice he tested in his Wentz article — the voice of a fan who lives and dies with the team and who talks freely about those swings.

He’s Philadelphia’s emo sports fan.

People relate to it. Some are even willing to pay for it.

Earlier this month, Clancy started a daily newsletter about Philly sports and put it behind a paywall.

He has no special access to players or agents. He claims no acute knowledge about X’s and O’s.

Yet, when the first newsletter dropped last week, about 200 people had already pledged $2 a month to read his blood-on-the-page meditations about Philadelphia sports.

“I’m a very emotional person,” he said. “And I think my brand is an emotional sports fan.”

Shamus Clancy, Philadelphia writer and sports super fan, was gifted a classic Eagles jacket from his girlfriend, whom he met the night of the Eagles Super Bowl parade. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Building a superfan brand

Philly — because it’s Philly — has no shortage of notable superfans. Their ranks include:

— The guy who lifts his shirt up at Sixers games;
— The guy who once lavished praise on Eagles quarterback Jeff Garcia;
— The guy who sits next to the Sixers bench and waves a towel;
— The guy who beatboxes and wears a hat with a flapping Eagle atop it;
— The guy who wears a full set of football pads while sitting in the stands.

Clancy has all of them beat, at least in terms of Twitter followers.

He made early viral ripples by rushing to the airport to greet Dario Saric when the Sixers rookie arrived from Croatia. The circle widened when, after the Eagles Super Bowl victory, he and a stranger recreated the famous photo of a sailor and nurse kissing at the end of World War II.

Clancy and that stranger are now dating and live together in South Philadelphia.

“It’s weird that a social network website has a gigantic impact on my life,” Clancy said. “I kinda feel like a dork for saying that.”

The root of his popularity is obvious:  He’s funny. And so are his tweets.

Clancy’s appeal runs deeper than his humor.

He has the bio of a stereotypical Philly sports nut: working-class, South Philadelphia roots mixed with a lifetime of tailgates and anguish.

But his articles and tweets pulse with pathos. He leans into the kind of vulnerability sports fans, particularly the male ones, so often repress.

We all know, intellectually, that those folks shivering in the nosebleeds aren’t really there to watch a well-executed nickel defense. They’re there to build community, lose inhibitions, and release all the emotional burdens that build up like plaque through the work week.

Clancy just acknowledges it.

“I love this team,” Clancy said in the first episode of his confessional-style podcast, Jetro Boomin’, named after the parking lot where Clancy and lots of other hardcore Birds fans tailgate. “I love this team so much. It means everything to me.”

Shamus Clancy, a Philadelphia writer and sports super fan, holds a drawing recreation of a photo taken on the day of the Eagles Super Bowl parade, where a tweet set in motion the kiss that introduced Clancy to his girlfriend. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

More than Twitter followers: ‘Fandom can really help people’

Though popular culture paints superfans as the type of people who brawl in parking lots and scale greased poles, those who study fandom and fan psychology say Clancy’s insights make sense.

“There are ways in which fandom can really help people who need a little something in their life to help stabilize things,” said Noah Cohan, a lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis who recently published a book on fandom. “That’s not to say sports is a cure-all. But if deployed correctly, it can be really beneficial.”

Cohan’s book features a chapter on “Silver Linings Playbook,” the book-turned-movie about an Eagles fan who suffers from mental illness. He uses the film to explain that fandom — although rooted etymologically in notion of unhinged devotion — is often a bridge back to society for people who need community.

“As humans, we all have this need to belong, and this need to belong to something larger than ourselves,” said Rick Grieve, a researcher from Western Kentucky University who studies the psychology of sports fandom.

Grieve and his research partners found that people who have a deep attachment to local sports teams tend to be more mentally “resilient” than those who don’t. There are similar patterns emerging in hardcore comic book fans, Grieve said.

“They have what we would call better social psychological health,” Grieve said of committed sports fans. “They feel less lonely. They feel more connected to the community.”

For folks like Clancy — those who feel comfortable discussing the deeply personal aspects of fandom — the internet is a useful medium. Twitter allows subcultures within the sports universe to flourish in ways unimaginable before.

“There are other fans with quirky ideas or different barometers for measuring what it is they want out of sports,” said Cohan. “Suddenly you can find them. And they can find you.”

Clancy isn’t explicitly courting fans who struggle with mental illness. But he is communing with folks who feel as deeply about the Eagles and Sixers as he does — and who like to see that fandom validated.

“There is a natural insanity to being a fan,” said Ryne Jones, 25, one of Clancy’s friends and a newsletter subscriber. “It’s hard to articulate that.”

Anthony Capelli — who went to St. Joe’s Prep with Clancy and partnered with him on a pair of now-defunct blogs — believes there’s a lane for people to write about the fan experience the way Clancy does.

“He’s not afraid to be emotional and to be transparent. And I think that’s the thing that draws people to Shamus the most,” he said. “You kinda feel like you know him a little bit, even if you’ve never met him.”

The collection of Eagles Super Bowl memorabilia on display at the home of Shamus Clancy, Philadelphia writer and sports super fan. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A professional fan?

Clancy’s life has changed a lot since his blog post about Wentz and clinical depression. Medication and therapy have helped improve his mental health. He graduated from Penn and works as a copywriter.

He freelances for Bleeding Green Nation, the Eagles blog, and NBC Sports Philadelphia — often writing with the voice he started exploring back in 2016.

So is radically transparent fandom the recipe for a professional writing career?

That’s hard to say.

The transition from spectator to professional has plenty of precedent. Fan-driven blogs have become fertile ground for the next generation of sports writers and analysts.

Sixers analyst Derek Bodner launched a successful side-hustle through a site called Patreon, which allows writers and others to charge users on a per-month basis for access to their work. Bodner closed the account after moving to a full-time gig at The Athletic, another subscription-based sports site.

Patreon noted that former Eagles beat writer Geoff Mosher runs an account, as do a trio of popular Phillies bloggers.

Clancy, who also uses Patreon, isn’t trying to make it as a beat writer or stat-cruncher, though. He’s trying to make it as a fan — a professional fan. He believes there are enough people out there who identify with his brand of cathartic fandom to create a community.

“I think a lot of people connect with the over-the-top-nature and the fatalism that comes with being a Philadelphia sports fan,” he said.

It comes across in the highs, like when Clancy described his reaction to DeSean Jackson’s first touchdown of the year in his inaugural newsletter.

“I just sort of put my hands over my ears and ducked my head between the legs as if I was going to puke.”

It comes across in the lows, like when he grumbled on his podcast after Sunday’s loss to the Falcons.

“Work tomorrow is gonna f—–’ suck.”

And it comes across in the margins that separate those two poles — that thin line between winning and losing, wellness and despair.

As Clancy put it:

“It just feels like the whole totality of my life is in the balance when I’m watching the Eagles on fourth-and-1.”

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