Monday, March 19, 2012

In Praise of the Bandwagon

So I was reading Craig's post about fans, and it got me thinking of not necessarily a counterpoint, but more of a corollary: that fair weather fans are not just an undeniable fact of sports, they may actually provide a valuable service.

It's almost a given in sports that die hard fans are better than bandwagon fans, and whenever a previously bad team starts turning around, and the seats start packing again, you're going to hear people crowing about how they were there all along, and these Johnny-come-latelys aren't true fans.  Some fan bases (see Red Sox, Cleveland) actually make commiserating in failure and sticking by the team through all the bad times less a point of pride and more a cornerstone of their culture.  Texas A&M goes out of its way to promote this kind of loyalty.  They have an entire term, "2 percenter", that is applied to anyone that doesn't support the team through thick or thin or has the unmitigated gall to skip out on a football game to study for a test or pick up an extra shift at work.  Or perhaps the following joke that I've heard told by the yell leaders at one of our pre-game pep rallies:

A former student arrived at the stadium for his first game since graduation.  Having bought season tickets, he was anxious to see what watching the game would be like from the alumni section.  He found his seat, which was next to a grey haired Ol' Ag.  The young man introduced himself, and asked the old timer how long he'd had season tickets.  The old man told him that he'd had this same seat ever since he graduated.  For the past 40 years he and his wife had never missed a game.  The young man noticed the seat next to the old man was empty, and asked him where his wife was.  The old man said she couldn't make it.  The young man then asked why no one else in the family had wanted to take her ticket.  The old man responded because they were all at her funeral.  Whoop!  Gig 'em Ags and beat the hell!

While I may not have the best comic delivery, I'm not actually exaggerating that joke.  And I include it here more as illustration of the value that some fan bases put on loyalty above all.  Look, the team may be 4-8, but come on, Old Man Winter over here skipped his wife's FUNERAL for this, so don't start bitching about $70 nose bleed seats and $5 hot dogs.

See here's the thing, and it's something you're going to see us repeat over and over here on this blog:  Sports, particularly professional sports, are a business.  Yes, they inspire us.  The wonderful book Soccernomics will even tell you that the benefits to a community of having a professional sports team tend to be more non-economic.  Ultimately though, you are consuming a product.

Now, you can be a fan of the product generally.  To some degree, anyone sufficiently invested in any sport will appreciate the sport beyond any one team.  If the Yankees/Red Sox and Cubs were ever playing in the World Series one Craig Colbrook would never cease stringing together expletives to describe how bad that series would be for the sport and humanity as a whole.  I'd also eat a light bulb if he managed to keep himself from watching at least one game of that series.  The fact that the Super Bowl is the media spectacle it is shows that our nation is obsessed with football beyond the tribalistic concerns of their city's team.

We still though want it to be OUR team in the championship game.

That being said, what can we as fans do to help ensure that happens?  I mean, obviously we can go to the game and we can cheer for our players.  And I'm sure some players really do draw some benefit from a raucous crowd cheering what they do.  In football especially we see how a loud crowd can disrupt an offense, drawing an extra false start penalty or causing the players to specifically train for the noise.  Usually though this seems to quantify more in pressure on the refs to call in favor of the home team, which isn't always a bad thing.

This is at best a short term benefit.  You might help them this game.  Teams still have strategic concerns.  How will they draft?  Will they maintain a high draft position for a big splashy recruit or will they trade down to spread the talent out?  Will they trade up?  Will they farm players or trade young talent for big name veterans?  Will they bloat their rosters with overpriced contracts?  Do they blow up the team and rebuild now or hold it together for one more shot at the title?  Do they give the coach another year or fire him mid-season?  Well, a lot of this can be influenced by what owners and/or management think will put fans in the seats.

Think about other products you purchase.  If you bought a new car from Ford, and it fell apart inside a year or two, the next time you went to buy a car you'd probably get a Honda.  That is, you might unless some great marketing campaign tugged on your heart strings regarding the value of buying American, or if you actually worked for Ford and so felt some kind of loyalty unrelated to the value of the product.  Sports teams realize this, and so they try to develop that kind of loyalty.  Because if you can sell the same number of tickets whether or not you put a great team on the field (see Cubs), then it relieves some of the pressure to ensure your product is the best it can be.

This can, however, create a problem where there is no pressure to put out a great product.  The Cubs haven't won a World Series in over 100 years, and yet they are one of the largest markets in baseball.  Sorry, that's not a curse, that's a result of selling out summer afternoon games to frat boys in the world's largest beer garden no matter how far out of first you are.  Yes, the Cubs have made moves in recent years to shake up the roster and management.  This was also a function of (a) needing to make the team more appealing to potential buyers when the owners put it up for sale and (b) the new owners having different priorities.  Before Mark Cuban the Dallas Mavericks were irrelevant.  He made them champions.  He is also a billionaire that sunk millions of dollars he didn't need into a team because he had a personal drive to see them win.

It may be galling to live any where but New York City and have to listen to someone that has never even seen New York state go on and on about the Yankees, and to ridicule your team when they don't make the playoffs.  It salves your wounds to point out that if the Yankees didn't win as much as they do, that guy wouldn't have gone to Wal-Mart and bought the hat.  But the thing is, the Yankees management knows that.  It's another maxim of sports fandom that New York is the most critical place to play, coach, and manage sports.  Yes, a lot of people are only fans of the Yankees or the Lakers because they are good.  But that could be a two-way street, and those teams may only be so consistently good because they never rest on their fans' laurels, they never take their fan support for granted.  They realize how mercurial their support is, and that #2 tries harder.  Their fans don't love them through thick and thin, their fans love them for results, and therefore their fans get those results.

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