I will rarely, if ever, post something this long but this is the first and most important post of this site, because it tackles one of the most frequent comments that come up regarding Chicago Sports teams. Since the comment will undoubtedly be made on this site, I will refer back to it over the lifetime of this site, and hope this discussion continues just as long.
Although this comment was on Yahoo! following the Marc Trestman hire, you can read the same thing following almost any story about the Bears, Cubs or Bulls losing a game:
The bears will never amount to any kind of winner until the Team is sold, or fans stop buying the seasons tickets and the TV Revenue drys up. [sic]
Sometimes the comment even has correct grammar and spelling, but let’s discuss the popular theory behind it: Fans who want to see their team win, need to take action by avoiding the team when they lose.
The Bears, Cubs and Bulls all get great attendance, all 3 make tons of money, all 3 have been without a championship for a while and none of the 3 is a good bet to win anything of substance next year. The underlying problem is diagnosed as: As long as ownership keeps making money, they lack the incentive to put together a winner. Therefore, the solution is for fans to give ownership an incentive, by staying home when they lose to make ownership feel it in its pocketbooks. Some even go so far as to criticize the fans that keep going to games, essentially accusing them of enabling greed.
So 2 questions on this:
Question 1: Would staying home really work in getting the team to change its behavior?
The easiest way to examine this is to look at Chicago’s 2 baseball teams. Cubs fans are well known to flock to the park, watch on WGN, and buy concessions and merchandise, win or lose. Sox fans are well known to stay away from the park when the team is losing but show up when they’re winning, at least until this past season, though I understand TV ratings were way up.
In the book Scorecasting, authors Moscowitz and Wertheim examined the Cubs’ 100 years of futility and came to the conclusion that it’s in fact because the Cubs lack the incentive to try to win. It is well known that the Tribune Company did not make winning a World Series a priority until it was positioning to sell the team. I remember former manager Jim Lefebvre prior to the 1992 season saying “we should be very competitive this year,” because that was the Trib’s goal: Not to put out a championship team, but to put out a “competitive” team, a team that wouldn’t embarrass them and keep the turnstiles rolling.
Meanwhile, the Sox have operated like a team that felt like it had to contend to get fans to come to the park. Part of that is former GM Ken Williams, who seemed like he was trying to win a World Series every year, even trading away future assets to take ill-advised long shots at it. But Williams didn’t ever talk about being “competitive”. Williams only talked about championships. He rolled the dice on several moves in an effort to try to win a championship, instead of sticking safely with a “competitive” team. You also haven’t seen a complete rebuild, 100-loss type season from the Sox, quite possibly because the Sox don’t think they can afford it.
So at least with the Cubs and Sox, fan behavior has seemed to influence the behavior of the organizations. The one with the incentive to win pulled down a championship. The one without never even really tried until it had an incentive – it was trying to sell the team. The new Cubs ownership seems to be making moves to win, even if they have no more incentive than prior ownership, but only time will tell if they’re truly serious. But it’s important to note that it took about 20 years to establish this pattern of fan behavior. According to one marketing professor I once had, it takes about 6 years for perception to catch up with reality. Staying away from a team in one year won’t likely have an effect, but establishing a win-and-we’ll-come, lose-and-we-won’t pattern of behavior over many years might.
So does this mean nothing will change until fans stop supporting mediocre teams? Well, as far as I know, Bears fans never stopped flocking to the park, waiting years for season tickets, or buying concessions and merchandise, win or lose. And for all I’ve heard that “nothing will change until the McCaskeys sell the team,” – Don’t look now but things have changed. They appointed a real GM in Jerry Angelo. Laugh all you want but Angelo did some good things and more importantly, acted like a real NFL GM. Despite some success and continuing to rake in money, the Bears fired Angelo and replaced him with Phil Emery, another football lifer, because the team wanted to “close the talent gap”. This is a team that doesn’t care about winning? Then Lovie Smith was fired after a perfectly defensible 10-6 season. Maybe the Bears have not changed fast enough for some, and maybe Marc Trestman is a bad hire, but the Bears have changed, even though the fans kept coming.
Question 2: Does a true fan punish the team by staying away when they lose? Or does a true fan support the team through thick and thin?
This is really a matter of your opinion. Fans who only really support the team when they’re winning are derisively referred to as “fair weather fans,” and the fans who stuck with the team through thick and thin don’t want to hear from those fair weather types when the team is winning. Basically, the argument that “nothing will change until fans stop going to the games” is an argument to become a fair weather fan.
Now, if you have a team like the Blackhawks of Bill Wirtz who were clearly out to maximize profits even at the expense of winning, it’s hard to support a team like that, and I for one did not. It is well-known Dollar Bill did not care about winning, he even once told a new GM not to bother trying to win the Stanley Cup because it was “too damn expensive.” After years of malaise, letting the team’s most talented players go, missing playoffs and the firing of fan favorite broadcaster Pat Foley, there just wasn’t much reason to follow the team anymore. The ‘Hawks didn’t earn my continued support, and I don’t feel bad about avoiding them and turning my attention to the Wolves, like many other hockey-loving Chicagoans. The few thousand that kept going to games might call themselves “die-hards” but I’m ok not being a “die-hard” if it means enabling a team to basically treat its fans like flies. In this case the fans stayed away but things STILL didn't change until Bill passed away and left the team to his son Rocky, so it's not necessarily as simple as "stay away and they'll change".
“Are you not entertained?” – Maximus in Gladiator
The Blackhawks ownership situation was so rare that they earned the distinction “worst franchise in sports” by ESPN in 2004. That rare situation aside, fans of sports teams often act like ownership owes them a championship or at least their best efforts to win one. They don’t. They owe you entertainment and I personally find attending sporting events to be a lot of fun, win or lose. You can’t expect a business to not care about profits and make every big free agent signing, not that this even works in most cases. The fact that there are die-hard fans tells you that there’s more to sports than winning and losing. I know plenty of Cubs fans who have followed the team every year of their life, despite never seeing a winner. They are still entertained, and they pay for entertainment. (I also do know at least one who stopped following out of frustration).
I’ll leave off with my suggestion of what to do if you don’t think your team is trying as hard to win as it should, and then it’s your turn:
1. Don’t buy merchandise. People are going to go to games and people will watch on TV no matter what, but merchandise sales are directly under your control, and they mean a lot to the team. If you don’t like what the Cubs are doing, but still enjoy a day at Wrigley, at least don’t go buying your kids Cubs’ apparel.
2. If you are going to go to games, limit how many. If you typically go to 5 games a year, limit it to 1-2.
3. Eat before the game to limit what you spend on concessions. The food is overpriced anyways.
4. When the team shows a commitment to winning, change behaviors 1, 2 and 3.