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Thursday, October 28, 2021

It’s OK to be a fair-weather fan now


Just root for whoever makes you happy.
Photo: Shutterstock

“You don’t understand!”

Even if you haven’t actually uttered that phrase as an aging sports fan/hipster/some combo thereof, you’ve thought it thousands of times. As the throngs join in on a playoff run, you think about all the half-empty buildings you sat in, all the terrible losses you watched, all the heartbreak you endured. And instead of just savoring it for yourself and being comfortable in the knowledge that whatever achievement the team you’re a fan of is about to accomplish will mean more to you, you can’t help but lash out. In your mind, at least.

Dovetailing with that is the idea that you stick with it, no matter what. There’s nothing that can happen that would drive you away. It sucks sometimes, even most of the time, but you tell yourself that going through those slumps makes the rare moments of triumph even sweeter. And they make you worthy of celebrating the high points. That’s been the ethos for about as long as sports have been around.

I’m not convinced it’s that way anymore. Maybe it hasn’t been in a while.

Whenever a GM or owner makes an unpopular decision, whether it’s on the field or off, we hear “it’s a business.” It’s a catch-all, and a cop out. Because sports, at least professional sports, aren’t a normal business. Sure, they exist at the base level to make money for their owner, who pays employees below him and her (almost never enough, but let’s leave that for a second). In that sense, they are a business.

But it’s not a straight business on the consumer end. It’s not just a product, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s different from me choosing between a Playstation or Xbox. I don’t just make my purchase and then never think about it again. There isn’t an alternative. There isn’t “shopping around”.

In a lot of ways, being a fan of a team is a lot more like being a fan of episodic television. You get involved in the story, you make time to watch the next episode, you follow it through to the end. It makes you feel. It’s cathartic. It’s theatric. And sure, you can miss a season and then pick it up again, and maybe you can figure out where the story has gone in the time you’ve missed. But the twists and turns won’t mean as much if you skipped a part. Daenerys Targaryen’s descent into madness makes less sense if you didn’t follow every step of the journey leading up to it (ha, just kidding, it’ll never make sense, like anything else in that season).

Sports are much the same. It’s not just consumer and product. You’re involved, and rarely do you even choose the product you consume and take part in. Your team chooses you. It’s supposed to be a public good. Communal. Sports left that behind long ago, but the idea isn’t so far in the dust that we can’t try and cling to it.

But perhaps it is now, especially in baseball. Now players are described as “assets.” We just saw Steve Cohen refer to Kumar Rocker as an “investment.” Teams are just products to boost real estate deals, or used as chips to get those real estate deals. They are not the ends anymore.

And as we’ve talked about a bunch, baseball teams hardly need to win to make money. Those two are not linked anymore, thanks to BamTech and national TV deals and those properties around the stadiums. Teams are allowed to bottom out, and stay there.

We can clearly identify a handful of teams that aren’t even trying. The Cubs, Rockies, Cleveland, Pirates roll right off the tongue. The Twins threw away a chance to compete in 2022 by trading Jose Berrios because they might have to pay him after 2022. Have the Marlins ever tried? They just exist to soak up their criminal stadium deal.

Because for these teams, and the ones to follow, it’s just better business to keep payrolls low and half-heartedly pay lip service to rebuilds or competing. All those other revenue streams roll right in, so what’s the pressure? The teams are just part of a portfolio now.

So if that’s how it’s going to be, if there isn’t going to be a story, then fans should feel free to act as customers more than fans. We know that younger generations are just as likely to follow players more than teams. They don’t get attached.

So if your team is going to field a dogshit product, why would you consume it? There is no ground floor here. There is no narrative arc. It’s just cutting costs to boost profits. If your team actually “goes for it,” it might only be because those things have gotten too far out of balance and they need to reset to where they can cut payroll and expenses again a couple years down the line. Efficiency isn’t what it’s supposed to be about.

So feel free to drop them. Take in another product. Watch something else. Come back when the product is something you want in your life, and will bring you enjoyment. Cut out the shitty part. The lean times aren’t just a rest stop on the journey to another place. They are the destination for teams now. So why drop yourself into that shit? You’ve got better things to do. Someone will tell you when it’s time to watch again.

If they want to make it a business, then you should treat it as a business too. They almost certainly profit wildly either way. Why should you be unhappy?

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