Living in a four-trophy town | Lawrence Harmon

Your address predicts your team

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / June 26, 2011

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RICHARD JOHNSON, the head curator of the New England Sports Museum, is accustomed to acquiring, classifying, and labeling sports exhibits. He’s also pretty adept at labeling Boston-area sports fans. Here’s his take: The prototypical Celtics fan is an orthodontist from high-toned Newton who drives an Audi; your everyday Bruins fan is a union carpenter from the South Shore who spends as much on hockey tickets over the course of his lifetime as he will on his kids’ education; suburban Patriots fans drive pick-up trucks or SUVs, all the better to store barbecue grills and beer for tailgating with buddies.

Though Boston teams’ recent championships in all four pro sports may somehow reflect on the whole region, each team plays better to some towns and neighborhoods than others. It’s a study in geography and demography. Social class, family tradition, and even transportation choices define sports character.

So fans in Saugus — with roots in working-class Revere and East Boston — will be happy if the Celtics win a championship. But they jump for joy when the Bruins bring home the Stanley Cup. Like many other communities north of Boston, this is roughneck hockey territory. Upscale Brookline is basketball and baseball. Blue-collar Weymouth is hockey and football. West Roxbury — a city neighborhood with a suburban feel — can’t make up its mind. It embraces all of them.

Paul Millman, an assistant manager at Modell’s Sporting Goods, reinforces Johnson’s observations. The Medford and Saugus branches sell a lot of Bruins memorabilia to its blue-collar customers. The Newton and Cambridge stores, which cater to the wealthier western suburbs and college crowd, move a lot of Celtics merchandise. In gritty Brockton, there’s a big demand for Patriots gear, though also a healthy helping of Red Sox apparel. And for some reason that Millman hasn’t figured out, a group of customers from Peabody scour Modell’s for Yankee gear — most of which he ships out to the store in Warwick, R.I.

For Johnson, Red Sox fans are harder to peg. You think you’ve figured out who they are and where they’re coming from when out pops some family from Montpelier. Hardcore baseball fanatics sit alongside members of the pink hat brigade who wouldn’t spend a second chewing on baseball statistics.

“Red Sox fans are the most universal,’’ said Johnson. “If we’re talking about bird species, they would be sparrows.’’

You can see these allegiances perpetuating themselves over time. Of all the professional teams in Boston, the Red Sox probably offer the best multigenerational experience, with the $28 bleacher ticket serving as the threshold to the younger fan. But Patriots owner Robert Kraft has done a lot to make game day enjoyable for the entire family by brooming plug uglies from Gillette Stadium.

And it’s the Bruins whom fans view as members of their own families. In part, it’s the hockey players’ habit of rubbing shoulders with their fans in restaurants and on the streets. But it’s also a case of what Johnson calls “six degrees of separation of Mike Milbury’’ — after the former Bruins player and coach from Walpole. With New England colleges feeding the pros, a lot of people in the Boston area know someone who knows someone in the Bruins’ system, whether through school, social, or charitable contacts.

Passionate fans of any sport have plenty in common, according to psychologists. They long to affiliate with a special group, derive vicarious feelings of success from winning teams, and crave distractions from the daily grind. But less is known about why certain fans gravitate toward one sport over another.

In the end, we can only speculate: Perhaps the small roster size of a professional basketball team appeals to executive types who want to believe that great things can still be accomplished after downsizing. Maybe the hand skills of a basketball player hold a special appeal to the surgeon in Weston. And maybe the absence of a clock in baseball appeals equally to the harried tradesman from Rockland and overworked accountant from Sudbury.

In sports — in one way or another — geography is destiny.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at