City of Fans

That old phrase about getting back what you put in? That’s what it means to be a fan.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins were very bad in the late 90s, nobody went to their games (except my friend Jeff, I’ll give him credit at least). The team, not to mention the entire league at that time, sucked. The Penguins were a bad team who played in a bad arena. Their Zamboni probably only had three functioning tires. You could not even watch their games on TV. Not because they were blacked out, but because they did not have a television contract.

The franchise has turned things around dramatically. Their team is good, their new arena is shiny, and unsurprisingly attendance has risen as well. I’m told this is because the people who cheer them on are Fair Weather Fans, who go to the games just because the team is good.

I ask you then, Mr. Decider of Who FWFs Are: What should the people of Pittsburgh do?

Not go to the game? Like they do at baseball parks in Oakland or Tampa Bay? The Rays went through a similar trend to the Penguins. A decade ago they were terrible and nobody went to their games. Now they consistently put a competitive team on the field and nobody goes to their games.

Is this the model that is to be followed? Clearly, these cities are not full of FWFs. They have gone so far to prove that point that they have driven their teams to the brink of moving to a new city. And yet I never hear anyone complimenting them for it. Should these people, who sit at home while good baseball is being played down the street, be applauded?

Why limit it to people at the game? Plenty of folks will follow their team online and voice their opinions across any medium they can get their keyboards on. A great deal of what is put out there has to do with the negative side of things. Winning is nice, but it makes for boring reading. Kobe fighting Shaq. T.O. causing a ruckus in the locker room. A-Rod going down in flames. That’s what sells newspapers and that’s what people talk about the most.

The opportune moment to call a fan base “a bunch of bandwagoners” is after a big loss, preferably on national television. Just look at all the negative comments they made throughout the night about their own team!

Again, oh Judge of Fandom Quality: What do you do when your team is getting destroyed? Sit passively? Doesn’t sound like much a fan to me. Cheer? Of course not, your team is losing. So is it not appropriate for you to criticize the team you have sworn yourself to? Or should you go blindly along with every play call and roster move that they make?

The Pirates are criticized a great deal. These people take time out of their day to post a message—often on the team’s official Facebook page—about how much they suck. This is in a season when they were barely supposed to win more games than they lost, and they made the playoffs.

It’s not much different for the other teams in the city—who are expected to make the playoffs every year. I used to frequent a Steelers forum where people would discuss the team’s backup long snapper at 2am. Three hours after the Steelers won the Super Bowl and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy over their collective heads, there were people making comments about how poorly the offensive line played.

But isn’t this absurd, when the goal is to win the championship? This is something we have been fortunate enough to witness in the City of Champions (a name probably not coined by you, who calls us a City of Bandwagoners). Winning does not make you happy for the rest of your life. It does not solve your problems. It does not pack your arena.

The Edmonton Oliers of the late 1980s won five Stanley Cups in seven years. But every year their attendance number struggled to remain at the level it had the previous season, wrote Jon Spoelstra in his book Marketing Outrageously.

The goal is not really winning. Many of our most exciting moments as fans come from being in the moment.

These people who sit there night after night and criticize Clint Hurdle when he screws up a steal attempt or mismanages his bullpen are fans. Not because of what they are saying, but because they are there night after night, on the couch watching the Pirates. They may hide it under negativity, but regardless of what they are tweeting, they are having fun being there and experiencing the whole thing. They do ultimately want the team to succeed.

It can be taken too far. There is a line at which legitimate criticism of strategy turns to mindless and offensive personal insults. There are people who seem to honestly think they know more than the manager who works with his team 100 hours a week. I don’t understand these people either. But this is not your typical ‘negative’ fan.

The guys who watched the Pirates year-after-sucking year are getting it all back this year. A lot of them are critical of the team, but they would be just as critical if the Bucs won every game 10-0. Sometimes being a fan sucks you into the moment and forces you to forget about the big picture. In-game commentary, which the internet allows to do now with ease, is in a separate category than well thought out blog posts on the team when considering the bigger picture.

It wouldn’t be fun to root for that team who wins every game. I rarely hear the FWF tag brought up when it comes to the Yankees, but rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the sun to come up in the morning. People whose franchise made the playoffs 17 of the last 18 seasons are hardly in a position to appreciate nice weather.

And yet, there are people who sit in front of their televisions night after night and watch the Yankees and root for them just the same. Is that guy who is trying to really understand the thought behind Joe Girardi’s lineup construction a fan? Absolutely.

Categorizing the quality of fans is an absurd thing to do. There are not FWF and true fans, or good and bad fans. There’s a whole spectrum, from people who heard about football once and went on to do important things with their life to those who played in high school and haven’t missed a week of Monday Night Football since it started. These people and everyone in between exists in every city across the world. Trying to quantify the degree of dedication that any single fan or city or team has is a waste of time.

Now, there probably are people who only show up when the home team has been on a winning streak. We should not look down on these people, but help their knowledge of the game grow to the point that they can enjoy it regardless of the score. It is much more exciting, and rewarding, to dedicate your time to a single team than to an entire League. Watching the Pirates struggle over the last two decades helped me appreciate baseball more than had they just been murdering teams.

When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup a few years ago, the people who showed up for the first time during the playoffs perhaps were glad to see their hometown team win, but they only got so much out of it. And it was not nearly as much as those who had put in the hours of paying attention to them any way they could through the rough years. That’s the way the world works. That’s the way fandom works.

Only when people put more in to understanding a team will they get more enjoyment out.