Real Fans Should Stay Home When the Team Is Bad

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.


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  • What an exciting new blog - I can't wait for more, John!

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    I can really only address this article in terms of baseball. Sox fans show up in about the same numbers (less than Cubs fans) whether they are winning or losing. Cubs fans have been showing up in large numbers for the last ten years or so, but certainly attendance was down this past dismal year. I was at the Cell for a game late last season, a season in which the Sox were mostly in first place, and had every right to feel confident about the playoffs. The Sox were playing the Yankees, and the park was not full; there were plenty of good seats left empty. There were also a lot of Yankees fans there. Even in 2005, building up to their World Series title, the Sox fans did not fill the park. They had much better numbers in 2006, which makes sense in one way, with the excitement generated by the title, although it's sad that many fans didn't allow themselves to be part of the experience during the year it actually happened. I've heard this comment about lack of attendance 'motivating' championships, but I think it's patently false. Sox fans just want to feel better about the fact their fans don't fill the park. Cubs fans wear their hearts on their sleeves, and if there is any reason to have some optimism, they'll show up. The Florida Marlins have won two titles in their short existence, and they have consistently low attendance. From a practical perspective, it makes sense to me that large attendance numbers should translate into revenues that would help a team win. That formula has worked to make the Cubs 'competitive' at times, but for a number of reasons, it has not worked to attain a WS title. They won 97 games in 2008, and completely choked in the playoffs. In 2012, the Sox were in first place most of the summer, then choked at the end of the season. Championships are elusive, and neither Chicago baseball team has been a powerhouse like the Yankees or the Cardinals. I naturally drift away from the Cubs during a depressing season like last year, but if we can ever, somehow, some way, win a World Series, I damn well want to be a part of the excitement leading up to it.

  • Great post!

    An interesting corollary of this comes to mind in the case of the oft-terrible University of New Mexico Lobos football team. (Who in the world are they? - Chicago folks ask) Well, they are and have typically been the very underwhelming football team of New Mexico's flagship university. Attendance at Lobo games has always been terrible and the team has typically been terrible.

    Here's the corollary: When their winningest coach, Rocky Long, left the team after having accumulated a record of 65-69, he expressed frustration about a number of fan factors: the lack of appreciation for the team's accomplishments, poor game attendance, and the hyper-critical Albuquerque sports media. He implied that all these things factored into his decision to resign, saying something to the effect of - "If the fans want good football, they need to come out and support the team." Having since been promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at SDSU, Long has a current record of 17-9 there. I suspect they have better attendance than the Lobos. Back in Albuquerque, the Lobos subsequently went 2-28 in two seasons with Mike Locksley, after losing the best coach in our history.

    I've always felt that Rocky Long was essentially right about Lobo fans. Even though the team was mediocre nationally, they had maximized their potential under his leadership and going the additional distance was going to take more effort on the part of the fans (coming to games and financially supporting the program). The fans didn't realize how good they had it, and by failing to do their part in supporting their team, they were instrumental in ending the team's best era and becoming a national joke.

  • In reply to Matt Euler:

    Thanks Matt. This evidence suggests that staying away won't help.

    Bears fans thank the Lobos for Brian Urlacher :)

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