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 theyre 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.)
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. Thats 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. Theyve 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.
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