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Another Nation Of Fans

What is the essence of a sports fan? Richard Gilman, a literary and theater critic who died in 2006, came as close to anyone in defining it: “Being a sports fan is a complex matter, in part irrational but not unworthy, a relief from the seriousness of the real world, with its unending pressures and often grave obligations.” Put another way: Sports mean nothing, so they mean everything.

Some people take fandom to the extreme. They attend games, they buy apparel, they live and die with each pitch, pass or shot. English soccer fans may be the most notorious in the world, traveling with their teams, singing at the top of their lungs and sometimes causing mayhem on the streets. But American sports fans are catching up, traveling huge distances to see games and even brawling at the ballpark.

Just look at the fans all over the country who follow every pitch of their beloved Boston Red Sox. They pack Fenway when the team is in town, and fill other stadiums when they’re on the road. They stayed true throughout an epic dry spell, when the Sox went 86 years without winning a World Series--and when the team finally broke that drought in 2004, they grew even more fanatic. Today, the team is No. 2 in MLB merchandise sales (behind their hated rivals, the New York Yankees).

Coming close behind the Red Sox is another nation of fans--although members of “Steeler Nation” would be quick to point out their nickname was coined 11 years before “Red Sox Nation.” These passionate football fans are everywhere; The Steelers built a big fan base in the 1970s, when they dominated the National Football League, racking up four Super Bowl championships. And as Pittsburgh's steel industry died, those fans moved all over the country, taking with them a love for the Black and Gold. (Just ask Washington, D.C., and Denver, two proud NFL cities that were aghast at being overrun by Steelers fans at games in their own stadiums in the last two years.)


One of the "Original Six" members of the NHL, the Blackhawks have always had rabid fans. After winning the Stanley Cup--their first in 49 years--expect fan love to become even more intense.

Philly fans are notoriously tough on their hometown teams. But the MLB's Phillies, who won the World Series in 2008 and made it back there, seem to have bucked that trend and become beloved. Over the years, Philadelphia fans have booed Santa Claus as well as their own star players. They've even booed a guy who just helped the city win a friggin' World Series title-while he was getting his ring. Boooo! Admittedly, there are some things fans have cheered. Like Michael Irvin's career-ending neck injury and a fan being tased on the outfield grass. Things reached their nadir last season, when Citizens Bank Park played host to arguably the most heinous incident in the history of sports: A drunken fan intentionally vomited on an 11-year-old girl. The truth is this: All told, Philadelphia stadiums house the most monstrous collection of humanity outside of the federal penal system. "Some of these people would boo the crack in the Liberty Bell," baseball legend Pete Rose once said. More likely, these savages would have thrown the battery that cracked it.

Boston was once a sports city of lovable losers. Now? Maybe calling them non-lovable winners is best. The city's pro sports teams have shed their underdog label, which has led to another phenomenon: Boston sports fans. Sportswriter Jeff Pearlman has called them "the loudest, most obnoxious, most ornery fans in America." Look up "Boston sports fans", and this is what you'll find: "The most annoying fanbase in the country." Winning the 2004 World Series was the worst thing to ever happen to Red Sox fans. Having been beaten into a state of lovable-loserdom by generations of championship futility, they now seem intent on living out some sort of horsehided cycle of domestic violence, inflicting upon us everything that for eighty-six years was inflicted upon them. It is a display of epic hypocrisy. All their whining about the Yankees' salary-driven Evil Empire? They now gloat while drubbing opponents with what is routinely the second-highest-paid roster in baseball. All that self-satisfaction about being a bunch of scruffy underdogs? They blindly maintained it while winning the 2007 World Series with a payroll almost $90 million higher than Colorado's. All these continuing claims to be an elite group of die-hard supporters? They have the biggest legion of bandwagon fans in the country, pushing past the Pinstripes as baseball's top-drawing road team in 2005, 2007, and 2008. These days, Red Sox fans are indistinguishable from Yankees fans-just with more grating accents.

Remember everything you hate about New York? If not, Yankees fans, Satan's Chosen Team, will be happy to remind you. MLB's winningest franchise, with 27 World Series championships. Intense rivalry with the Red Sox has seemed to crystallize fan devotion.

The Lakers have won 16 championships, the second-most in NBA history. They're known for celebrity fans, like Jack Nicholson and Leo DiCaprio. But the team is beloved by Average Joes, too. Angelenos are the fairest of America's fair-weather fans! The Lakers unfaithful abandoned their team en masse when Magic retired in 1991, then reconfirmed their fickleness by sending local TV ratings plummeting 30 percent after Shaq departed in 2004. Meanwhile, in these championship days, the Staples Center is more bar scene than sports complex, where fans can't be bothered to clapâ-¬"their hands are too busy texting. "The focus is sometimes not on the court," coach Phil Jackson has said. "It's on the people in the crowd." Which explains why eight box suites were recently combined into an offshoot of an abominable nightclub, the Hyde Lounge. After VIPs pass a clipboard gauntletâ-¬"at a sports stadiumâ-¬"they can eat $21 nachos at a crocodile-skin bar while waiting for the space to transform into a postbuzzer dance club. When it's time to leave, a valet will even bring around their bandwagon.

With 24 Stanley Cups, the Canadiens rule the NHL, historically speaking. They are the only team in the "Big Four" professional leagues in the province of Quebec. Forget the riots that erupted last May after the Canadiens made it to the Eastern Conference final; they were nothing compared with the hordes of looters who set fire to five police cars during the 2008 playoffs simply because Montreal advanced past the first round. Meanwhile, inside the Bell Centre, the only things people boo more frequently than the U.S. national anthem are their own players. In 2003, team veteran Patrice "Breeze-by" Brisebois was heckled almost every time he touched the puck; the jeering was so intense it likely induced a stress-related irregular heartbeat. How did then GM Bob Gainey feel about his bloodthirsty fan base? "I think they're a bunch of gutless bastards, to be honest," he said.

St. Louis is known as a great baseball town, with its fans bedecked in Cardinal red packing the stands for every home game. They had a hard time swallowing one-time legend Mark McGwire's admission of performance-enhancing drug use

The moniker "America's Team" may have been a stretch, but the NFL's Cowboy's created legions of fans with two great decades in the 1980s and '90s. The swaggering diaspora of Dallas fans insufferably mouth off about the invincibility of "America's Team," as if they're rooting for our entire country and not a franchise that has won two playoff games in the past fifteen years. To set the record straight: The nickname came from a 1978 Cowboys highlight reel, not some edict from Uncle Sam. And they've sworn their allegiance to a front-running team that isn't even good enough to run up front anymore.

Led by one of the quietest superstars of our era in Tim Duncan, the NBA's Spurs are San Antonio's only "Big Four" sports team. They've made the playoffs 13 seasons in a row.

The Penguins lead the NHL in merchandise sales, thanks mostly to young stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Having NHL legend Mario Lemieux as an owner helps, too.

Patriots fans have always been hardcore, even when the team was terrible and the stadium (old Foxboro) was somehow worse in the 1970s. But since Robert Kraft bought the NFL team in 1994, and they started winning (three titles between 2001-2005), the fans have become even more devout.

OK, so maybe Robert Irsay did steal the NFL team from Baltimore, but Indianapolis fans have repaid his family for the gesture. The Colts have had seven seasons of 12 wins or more since 1998 and made the Super Bowl last year.

Ever since John Madden collected the NFL's most vicious trouble cases into a Super Bowl-.winning wrecking crew, the Silver and Black have attracted an unholy fan base of hell-raisers, gangbangers, and inveterate knife-lickers, all of whom firmly believe that skipping town for an away game is well worth the parole violation. (The Raiders' 1999 visit to San Diego resulted in so many midgame stadium fights that even the players on the field turned to watch.) Still, while Raider Nation has a sterling record of glorifying criminality, it must be noted that their long-standing tradition of attending home games dressed in ridiculously elaborate handcrafted costumes is fierce only insofar as that term is used on Project Runway.

In a city that has seen its share of trouble in recent years, the Red Wings provide relief for fans. The team has made the playoffs the last 19 seasons in a row, the longest such streak in the “Big Four” professional sports leagues. That’s a lot of dead octopi. The Boston Celtics have won 17 NBA championships, the most in league history, led by legends like Bill Russell and Larry Bird. Like their team leader, Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs are quiet champions. They’ve made the playoffs the last 13 seasons. Fan devotion may be increased by the fact that they are the only big pro team in town.

Fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers have been through a lot in recent weeks, but there's good news; they still rank among the best fans in the country. Of course, all of the data we used is year-to-date, when LeBron James was still a member of the team. You might assume that since "King James" left to play for the Miami Heat, the Cavaliers' popularity might tank--if nothing else, they may not win as many games. But so far fans have seemed to make the defection a rallying point. Last week it was reported that a group of little girls was selling lemonade to help team owner Dan Gilbert pay off a $100,000 fine, incurred by the NBA for his rant about LeBron leaving town.

Alas, the slings and arrows sent Boston's way are the price of success. Fans of the "big four" professional sports in the Boston (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL) have had recent reason to crow. In the past three years, no North American city has seen as much winning on the gridiron, the diamond, the parquet floor and the ice.

Boston celebrated two championships in 2007 (the Red Sox and Celtics), and the city's four pro sports teams have made a combined nine playoff appearances in the past three years. Plus, there's been a bounty of regular-season wins (the Patriots went a perfect 18-0 in 2007 and led the NFL in regular-season wins in the last three seasons). All of this puts Boston on top of our list of the winningest sports cities of the last three years.

And all that crowing? Michael Oriard, a professor of English at Oregon State who has studied fan behavior and recently authored Bowled Over, says, "In a simplistic way, as a fan, the team you attach yourself to becomes an extension of you. When they win, you feel like you win. Winning becomes a way to connect to your city."

The country's biggest metropolitan statistical area is New York, with some 19 million inhabitants. New York has nine teams (including the New Jersey Devils and Nets). Despite that large number and the greater likelihood for making the postseason and winning championships. The nine teams have made a combined 16 appearances in the playoffs in the last three years, but together they have only one championship to show for their efforts (the 2007 Giants). That could change, of course, with the Yankees knocking on the World Series door at the moment. The recent drag on New York pro sports scene? The lowly Mets, who haven't made the playoffs since 2006 (when they lost the NLCS to the St. Louis Cardinals).

The Kobe Bryant-led Lakers won the NBA championship last year; the Anaheim Ducks hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2007; and the Angels and the Dodgers are in the World Series hunt this year. And the Los Angeles NFL team is ... oh, never mind.

Pittsburgh had two championships last year: the NFL's Steelers and the NHL's Penguins. The Pirates, which finished with the second worst record in baseball this year, have not had a winning season in the last 17 years.

Indianapolis has only two major sports franchises, the NFL's Colts and NBA's Pacers, but the Colts have been excellent lately, averaging more than 12 regular season wins a year and winning the Super Bowl in 2006.

And in the we-need-this-for-civic-pride category is Detroit, despite the 0-16 record of the 2008 Lions. The Tigers and Pistons have been solid over the past three years, but the bedrock of the local pro sports scene has been the Red Wings, which won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and have been a perennial playoff team--much to the chagrin of the world's octopi population. But the city's humans have at least had one reason to smile: Last year a headline in The New York Times proclaimed: "Red Wings Carry Burden of Lifting Beaten-Down City."

So is it silly to attach one's happiness to a sports team? Maybe not, says Oriard. "The baseball writer Roger Angell wrote an essay in the 1970s about so many people coming together and caring about their teams, how it can seem like such a trivial thing," says Oriard. Angell concluded that the caring itself was the important thing, and that it, in and of itself, was not trivial. "And winning makes that caring easier," says Oriard. Boston sports fans would certainly agree.

Since big-time pro sports came to Seattle in 1967, the opportunities for championships have been fairly plentiful. The NBA Sonics made the playoffs 22 times before leaving town in 2008, a run that included six trips to the Western Conference finals and three to the NBA finals. Football’s Seahawks have made it to the postseason 11 times since their 1976 birth, reaching the conference championship game twice and the Super Bowl in 2006. And the Mariners, an American League expansion team in 1977, managed to reach the American League Championship Series three times between 1995 and 2001.

But through a cumulative 111 seasons and 37 playoff appearances, Seattle boasts only one champion: the 1979 Sonics of Gus Williams, Jack Sikma and Dennis Johnson. The list of playoff busts includes some real gut-wrenchers: The 1978 Sonics blew a championship by dropping a Game 7 at home to Washington in the finals, while the top-seeded 1994 club lost a first-round series to the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets. And the 2001 Mariners went down in the playoffs to the Yankees after posting a 116-46 record during the regular season.

We’re not defining sports misery as sheer futility. The Chicago Cubs going over a century without a championship; the Los Angeles Clippers turning in two winning seasons since 1985–everyone knows about that stuff. We’re going for something else. Sports lore is filled with tales of the near-miss: the Brooklyn Dodgers reaching the World Series six times between 1947 and 1956 only to lose to the Yankees in five of them; the Buffalo Bills losing four straight Super Bowls in the ’90s; the New York Rangers and Atlanta Braves coming close countless times before falling short of a championship. Fans have been exposed to teams good enough to get their hopes up, only to let them down in the end.

Atlanta is a city with one sports title in 153 cumulative seasons. Atlanta’s postseason misery is legendary, led by the Braves’ failure to take home a world championship in 13 of 14 playoff appearances from 1991 to 2004. Throw in a Falcons loss in their lone Super Bowl appearance (1999) and a pair of losses by the NBA Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals, and Atlanta rides on the disappointment meter.

Phoenix, where the 2001 Diamondbacks took the city’s only championship in 92 cumulative seasons; Buffalo, where the NFL Bills lost four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s and the NHL Sabres are still looking for their first Stanley Cup; and San Diego, home to teams that have lost six of seven championship round matchups over the years, the Chargers American Football League crown in 1963 standing as the city’s only championship.

Monte Burke. America's Hottest Sports Cities/America's Best Sports Fans. Forbes . October 2009/August 2010.
Tom Van Riper. The Most Miserable Sports Cities. Forbes . February 2011.

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