Sports Fans


Photograph of fans on Broad Street
Fans pour into Broad Street following the Eagles’ victory in the Super Bowl on February 4, 2018. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

In the sports world, Philadelphia fans gained a reputation for enthusiasm as they passionately supported winners and losers, publicly booed, and privately cheered. Many sports fans across the country gained their only understanding of residents of Greater Philadelphia from the region’s sports fans, and out-of-town sportswriters often pointed to select incidents as evidence that Philadelphia fans were out of control. Although a negative image persisted as a powerful force in the media, Philadelphians’ behavior was not measurably worse than that of fans in other cities.

Enthusiastic Phillies fans take part in a "bongo cam" exercise being shown on the giant Phanavision screen during a game in August 2009. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)
Enthusiastic Phillies fans take part in a “bongo cam” exercise being shown on the giant Phanavision screen during a game in August 2009. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Philadelphia’s passionate sports fans first made their mark in the early twentieth century at Shibe Park, the North Philadelphia home of Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia A’s. Sometimes, A’s manager and team co-owner Connie Mack (1862-1956) took issue with fans. In September 1927, Mack got police to arrest a heckling fan, Harry Donnelly, for disturbing the peace. Mack charged that Donnelly’s heckling had ruined the confidence of many A’s players. Noted hecklers (and brothers) Bull and Eddie Kessler sat on opposite sides of Shibe Park and yelled back and forth at each other and the A’s. In the 1930s, Mack unsuccessfully tried to bribe them with free passes if they would just cheer for the A’s.

One of the best known and most notorious incidents involving Philadelphia fans occurred in 1968 at snowy Franklin Field (the University of Pennsylvania’s football stadium, then also the home of the National Football League’s Eagles). At the end of a season in which the Eagles lost most of their games–but were not bad enough to receive the first pick in the 1969 draft–Eagles management decided to use Santa Claus to entertain the crowd. After the Santa Claus the Eagles hired did not show up, desperate team executives scanned the crowd before finding 20-year-old Frank Olivo (1948-2015), who had come to the game in a Santa suit. Olivo, however, did not look much like Santa Claus; he was thin and wiry. Olivo-as-Santa again disappointed Eagles fans, just as they had been with the team’s play all season, and they reacted as Philadelphia fans might be expected to react when they are disappointed. They booed—a lot. Because there was snow on the ground, they also threw snowballs at Santa Claus. Virtually any time in later years when an issue arose with Philadelphia fans’ behavior, commentators referred back to this incident.

The 700 Level

Eagles fans’ reputation followed them to Veterans Stadium (opened in 1971, closed in 2003), particularly in the stadium’s upper reaches, the 700 level. Fans in that section were often accused of cheering opponents’ injuries but also credited with creating a tremendous home-field advantage for the Eagles. The memory of the 700 level lived on in a popular Philadelphia sports blog, The 700 Level, and Eagles fans at Lincoln Financial Field (opened in 2003) continued to cheer on their team with the same passion as their predecessors.

Villanova basketball fans throwing streamers onto the court during a basketball game
Villanova University’s basketball fans celebrate a point scored by throwing streamers from the stands onto the court at a 1967 game during the “Holy War,” a rivalry game against Saint Joseph’s University. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Philadelphia fans invented their own traditions and came to embrace others started by team management. At basketball games in the Big 5 (a long-standing round-robin among five area colleges), fans tossed streamers on the court after the home team’s first successful basket. Big 5 games also became known for sometimes insensitive and explicit “roll outs,” or large signs made by student fans, that often denigrated opposing schools. These traditions, while rare in the twenty-first century, were still occasionally practiced. On a more positive note, in 1969 an executive of the National Hockey League’s Flyers tried to excite the crowd by playing a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” instead of the Star Spangled Banner. The Flyers won the game and “God Bless America,” sometimes sung live in the Spectrum by Smith herself, became a tradition and a good luck charm that Flyers fans looked forward to. Baseball fans also embraced and enthusiastically joined in the antics of the Phillie Phanatic, a team-created mascot introduced in 1978, including his habit of putting a “hex” on the opposing pitcher late in the game in an attempt to aid the Phillies.

Philadelphia Phillies fans hold a banner that reads
Fans at a Philadelphia Phillies game brandish a banner reading “City of Winners,” adorned with the logos of the Phillies baseball team, the Eagles football team, and the Flyers hockey team. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

When Philadelphia’s major professional teams won league championships (including the Flyers in 1974 and 1975, the Phillies in 1980 and 2008, and the National Basketball Association’s 76ers in 1983), the city celebrated with parades down Broad Street from City Hall to the Sports Complex, home of Philadelphia’s four major professional sports teams. Although a common way to celebrate championships, the fans lining the parade route give such revelry a uniquely Philadelphia flavor. From the corporate offices of Center City through the multiethnic and multiracial neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, a wide swath of residents of Greater Philadelphia came out to support their teams. In 1980, one of those residents was Jamie Moyer (b. 1962), a student at Souderton High School. Twenty-eight years later, Moyer again attended a victory parade, but this time as a member of the World Champion Phillies. Moyer was the rare person to experience both sides of such a monumental event in Philadelphia sports history.

A Charitable Side, Too

Despite their harsh reputations, Philadelphia fans have embraced the less fortunate among them. For example, Harry “Yo-Yo” Shifren (1908-79) was often homeless and unable to hold a steady job, but he frequented Big 5 basketball and Phillies games. Unable to afford admission, he successfully solicited tickets from fans and members of the media. At Big 5 games, Shifren made his presence known by dancing on the court and by comically missing underhanded free throws at half time. He was such an important element of the experience at Phillies games that the team gave him a lifetime pass in 1974. When Shifren died in poverty, the Phillies paid for his funeral.

Two incidents in April 2016 highlighted the continued passionate support of Philadelphia fans for their teams. Despite the antipathy between alumni and supporters of Big 5 schools, many Philadelphians temporarily discarded their partisanship and joined together to cheer on Villanova University in the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament. Later, thousands of Philadelphians gathered at City Hall to celebrate the victorious Wildcats. In contrast, however, one of the Flyers’ playoff games that month was marred by displeased fans throwing memorial bracelets onto the ice in response to poor play by the home team. The bracelets had been given out in honor of recently deceased Ed Snider (1933-2016), team founder and president. This incident, casting a negative light, nonetheless demonstrated how much Philadelphia fans cared about their teams.

While not always directed positively, Philadelphia sports fans’ passion has been undeniable. Many American sports fans, and fans all over the world, get their only impression of the people of Philadelphia from passionate Philadelphia sports fans. Understanding the history of those sports fans sheds light on how non-Philadelphians think about residents of the Greater Philadelphia area.

Seth S. Tannenbaum is a lifelong Philadelphian and a doctoral candidate in American history at Temple University. His research has appeared in the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 2013-2014. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Connie Mack

Library of Congress

Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team for fifty years, during which the team won five World Series championships. Mack was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

Mack and the teams he managed were largely successful during his tenure, but that did not stop the odd heckler at Shibe Park from lambasting Athletics players who made errors or had poor games. On September 15, 1927, at a game against the Chicago White Sox, a heckler named Harry Donnelly, twenty-six-years old, was arrested by police at Mack’s insistence for disturbing the peace of the ballpark and for damaging team morale. Although some fans did heckle the Athletics team, the A’s also brought joy to the city by winning two World Series championships, in 1929 and 1930, just as the Great Depression was beginning.

Phillies Fans

Enthusiastic Phillies fans take part in a "bongo cam" exercise being displayed between innings on the giant Phanavision screen during a game in August 2009.

Besides being known for their hearty cheering and jeering during sports events, Philadelphia fans also are credited with being very knowledgeable about their favorite teams.
(Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

City of Winners

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

By 2016, Philadelphia sports fans had seen their professional sports teams win a total of six major championships. The Philadelphia 76ers basketball team won three championships, winning the NBA finals in 1967 and 1983. The Philadelphia Phillies Major League Baseball team had won two World Series Championships, in 1980 and 2008. In Hockey, the Philadelphia Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in the 1974 and 1975.

The Philadelphia Eagles football team had yet to capture a Super Bowl, the most coveted prize in the National Football League, although the Eagles did win the 1960 NFL title before the Super Bowl existed. In any case, the passionate Eagles fan base remained loyal and hopeful that the elusive Super Bowl trophy would someday be claimed.

The standard celebration for championship victories in Philadelphia is a parade through Center City to the Sports Complex in South Philly, where Philadelphia's major league stadiums are located. Crowds of fans greet the winning athletes, who show off the championship trophy to their supporters. Philadelphia-based colleges have also participated in championship parades, as when Villanova University’s men’s basketball team won the NCAA champion in 2016.

Villanova Streamers

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Throwing streamers onto the court was a once-common tradition practiced by “Big Five” basketball fans when their teams—La Salle University, Saint Joseph’s University, Temple University, Villanova University, University of Pennsylvania—faced each other.

The practice traditionally unfolded when a Big Five team’s first basket was scored, and the cleaning of the streamers causes a slight delay of the game. During the 1980s, NCAA officials began to penalize with technical fouls any schools whose fans threw objects onto the court. The foul was meant to deter, and instances of streamer throwing became more sporadic in the Big Five.

As of the early twenty-first century, despite the awarding of technical fouls, Villanova and the other Big Five schools had not fully given up on the tradition. La Salle and Temple fans also participated in a revitalization of the tradition during a game between their basketball teams held in 2014. La Salle students unleashed a hail of blue and yellow streamers when their team opened the scoring, and Temple fans responded in turn with a volley of red and white streamers as they netted their first points.

Phillie Phanatic Hexes a Pitcher

As fans look on near the Phillies dugout during a game in 2014, the Phillie Phanatic engages in one of his classic routines—putting a hex on the opposing pitcher during the seventh inning.

The Phanatic was created in 1977 when the Phillies marketing director, Dennis Lehman, decided the organization could benefit from having a mascot. Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, was initially contacted about designing the mascot, but he referred Lehman toward puppet designers Wayde Harrison and Bonnie Erickson. It was Harrison and Erickson who developed the Phanatic’s look.

The Phanatic’s crowd-pleasing behavior has included spraying Silly String at sportscasters, hassling umpires, attempting to distract the opposing team’s pitcher from atop the Phillies dugout, riding around the ballpark on his ATV, and dancing with Phillies fans. In 2015, the sports reporting website Bleacher Report ranked the Phanatic as the Top Mascot in sports, and in that same year he was awarded the top spot in Major League Baseball mascot rankings list posted by (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Tailgaiting Eagles fans

Visit Philadelphia

Eagles fans developed a reputation for their passion and devotion to the team, and for letting the organization know when they were not satisfied. Philadelphia fans in general had a poor reputation in the eyes of many observers outside Greater Philadelphia. In 2013, the sports website Bleacher Report ranked Eagles fans as having the “most insufferable fan base” in sports. The fans’ reputation derives from their fervor and from a number of incidents over the team’s history, including one in which a substitute Santa Claus was pelted with snowballs in 1968.

That year the Philadelphia Eagles were playing the Minnesota Viking in the final home game of the season. The Eagles’ record was two wins and eleven loses, and the agitated Eagles fan base gathered to watch what they expected would be another dismal effort, with snow covering the stands. By halftime the Eagles and Vikings were tied at 7, and a scheduled Christmas pageant got underway during the intermission. However, the man scheduled to portray Santa was nowhere to be found. Frank Olivio, a twenty-year-old Eagles fan who came to the game in Santa garb, was drafted as a substitute for the pageant. Frustrated at their team’s performance in the 1968 season but knowing the Eagles hadn’t lost enough games to capture the first NFL draft pick for next year’s season, the fans took to berating the substitute Santa and raining snowballs down upon him. Olivio, who died 2015, later made light of the incident.

Eagles fans were also distinguished for behavior in the infamous “700 level” of Veterans Stadium, where games were played from 1971 until 2003. The 700 level was associated with brawling among fans and the taunting of opposing teams players. Despite its reputation, the 700 level was also remembered as being the loudest and most passionate section during Philadelphia home games.

World Series Champions

A float carries members of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team past adoring fans during the victory parade on October 31, 2008, celebrating the team's World Series championship. It was the team's first championship since 1980 and hundreds of thousands of people turned out for the parade down Broad Street from City Hall to the Sports Complex in South Philadelphia. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Phillies Fans on Broad Street

Exuberant fans pack Broad Street south of City Hall after the parade honoring the victorious 2008 Philadelphia Phillies baseball team had passed on its way to Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia, where the the celebration of the team’s World Series victory continued. The salute on October 31, 2008, was a moment of great optimism for the city and offered a welcome counterpoint to the Great Recession that was underway. In the weeks following the parade, some families whose deceased relatives had been big fans visited their graves and erected Phillies World Series pennants. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

The Rush of Victory

Fans pour into Broad Street following the Eagles' victory in the Super Bowl on February 4, 2018. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Kuklick, Bruce. To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Rooney, John J. Bleachers in the Bedroom: The Swampoodle Irish and Connie Mack. Columbus, Ohio: The Educational Publisher, 2012.

Macnow, Glen and Anthony L. Gargano. The Great Philadelphia Fan Book. Moorestown, N.J.: Middle Atlantic Press, 2003.

Westcott, Rich. A Century of Philadelphia Sports. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

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