Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Being a True Sports Fan

I haven't had to think much about blog topics lately, because it's been recapping my wedding and honeymoon. With the final installment in the books, though, it's time to get back to doing what we do around here. Sometimes my blog ideas come from headlines or things I hear or read about, others are more organic and the idea strikes me while I'm eating, at the gym, or at work doing whatever it is I get paid to do for a living. Some ideas die a painful death, as I attempt to flesh them out and it proves to be as much fun to write about as having your teeth cleaned. Others change shape and form, and become something much different, while a select few get posted up as is to see if they can truly take a life of their own. Today's idea actually started on the Soccer City USA board but it took on some life while I was at the gym working out -- what qualifies a true fan of a team?

You could do scientific analysis, research on the web, watch TV for months, and come up with a huge list of things, and probably have a huge thread of discourse about what constitutes a great fan of a team. You might be able to get a group to agree to some key points, but I think coming to a consensus would be near impossible. And the list would probably become too cumbersome to review, and then it dies due to boredom. I've thought about all of the criteria, and really, I think you can boil the question down to one --- do you love your team enough to stay with them no matter what?

I'm willing to discount a lot of things to boil it to one question. Some folks say you can't be a true fan unless you've seen the games live, and I tend to agree that live sports are a much different experience than watching on TV. TV can be extremely informative with analysis, informational sharing, picture angles, and instant replay, but it can also be an extremely passive experience. There's something about hearing the sounds of the fans live, smelling the snacks in the stands, braving the elements and standing for your team with 50,000 of your closest friends. But most major sports don't lend themselves to average fans.

If you reviewed the cost to go to a game for most major sports and take a family of four, most game experiences cost around $200 for tickets, snacks, programs, and souvenirs. Granted, if you are without family, the costs are less but they can still add up as most major sport tickets start at $10 to $15 per game for the farthest/highest seats in the place. If you have the money, the experience can be enhanced with a suite or box, or seats closer to the game, but many people I know couldn't afford to do that all the time. Teams cater to the corporate and rich set, with amenities in the stadium boxes that put my old apartment to shame. The reality is that in a competitive market, teams need to maximize revenues, and while die hard fans buy tickets and other gear, a team can't support itself simply on those incomes. Teams need to gain corporate monies and group funds, plus find revenue sources from concessions, naming rights, marketing operations, etc.

Sports is a business, and teams that don't make money soon find themselves out of business, and I get that. It does bother me, though, that you see more fans that are there more for the luxury box and less for the experience. The more passionate fans are seated farther and farther from the action, thus ensuring a rather passive fan experience where the only noise is canned in sound effects and cheers led by stunt teams or dancers. While that may work for some fans, others can't deal with the reality and so just stay away because they can't afford it. But why must teams charge so much for everything? Well, to remain competitive, teams must spend money on players, halftime shows, dancers, pyrotechnics, jumbotrons, and other bells and whistles. Fans demand a true complete experience for their hard earned money, and so teams need to do more and more to grab people's attention.

Hey, we have 200 channel cable systems and the world wide web at a touch. Communcation and answers are available in an instant, so people aren't as willing to wait for things to transpire. You also have a sports marketplace that is cluttered with leagues and teams, playing in all sorts of competitions for titles, it's hard to keep track of it all sometimes. And with most leagues now adopting an almost year around approach with events, some fans have either specialized in one league only, or only pay attention to leagues casually to try and keep up. Sports doesn't have off time anymore, as you can find information anywhere, anytime, about anyone.

So with all of that, you might think it's easy to stay focused on your team, but honestly, it can have the opposite affect. Some fans suffer from informational overload, trying to keep up on rumours, web sites, magazines, and papers throughout the world. Bloggers spend hours posting opinions, based on small tidbits of information they've gleaned from the web or a paper, and soon even outlandish rumours take on a life of their own. Seriously, being a professional athlete now can be hard to deal with, from the intense scrutiny all the time, invasions into personal lives, and the general ups and downs of a season.

So with all of that, why truly stick with a team or a player? I mean, hey, some folks can just randomly pick a team to follow and go from there. There's no need for personal investment, you can just buy a hat and bingo, you are a fan. And in the world of the Internet, allegiances can be changes as often as socks, as fans drop teams and add them like candy. Some sports writers have blamed fantasy sports for this phenomenon, as people can be their own general manager, and just trade and add players on their own whim, so it takes the fun out of being a fan. For me, fantasy sports allows me the chance to view teams I might not ordinarily watch so I get a better picture of all of the teams. It doesn't change how I feel about my teams, but I can say that I've at least heard of this person.

But in my opinion, what makes sticking with a team so hard is that this requires you to be there during the ups and downs which are inevitable in a sports season. Let's face it, it's easy to love a team that wins dozens of titles and their players are well known worldwide. Try loving a team that lost more games than anybody a few years ago, the same team whose player conduct was so bad, the league gave the team a nickname of the Jail Blazers. Try loving a footy team that has had great records and players over the years, but hasn't come close to winning a title while their chief rival has 4 titles and is moving to MLS next year, even if I don't think they deserve it. Try loving your team when they are getting pounded in the Super Bowl again, and you know you can't call your grandmother because she's be too upset at the result.

It takes a true investment of character to say you'll love your team no matter what, including wearing your colors anytime. I wore my Denver Broncos jersey to school after each Super Bowl dismantling, even though I knew I'd be ridiculed by the other kids. I wore Timbers colors after each playoff loss, knowing in my heart we were better than our opponents but we just didn't pull it off. It's easy to jump on the bandwagon, like many people did when the Red Sox finally broke their long standing curse to win 2 World Series in the past few years. I heard many of them say, it's about time and oh, this is great, while knowing that there were fans like my friends Obi and S3K who sat through 1986 and wanted to cry after the ball got away from Bill Buckner. But they were back the next season, because they understood that being a true fan doesn't mean turning away when things are bad.

It's not easy having this approach, and I can't even say I've been able to do it always. The Trail Blazers of 2001 - 2004 were a hard team to love with their attitude and antics, but I simply did it because that's the choice I made. And with some teams and players, it's harder than others. It's hard to believe when players get caught breaking the law, doing drugs, cheating on their spouses, or just doing things they shouldn't. It's hard to remember that these people are human, just like us, but we expect them to somehow be different because they wear a uniform and perform in front of thousands. Being cynical is easy, because you hear as much bad stuff about players than you do good things in the press. But being cynical deprives people of the ability to see both sides of a situation, which is vital to truly being a good fan. You have to be able to weigh the good with the bad, otherwise, the experience is tainted. That's why in many cases sports call in shows turn into a bitch fest about their team, as people tend to only focus on the bad or what's wrong because it's safer to do it in a collective environment. What's hard is to stand up and say, this is my team and I support them no matter what.

My hope is that everyone gets a chance to truly find a team to love like that, because it can be a truly rewarding experience as long as you remember that for every good, there will be bad so hang on for the ride. And when one of my teams is able to break through and win a title, I can say that the ride will have been worth it.

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