Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sports Decay

Thousands of people rose to their feet as one of the greatest pitchers of a generation won his 200th game. Thousands of Mets fans joined their “long-time” hero (a season and a few games) in celebrating the great milestone. This celebration seemed something like celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of your widowed wife a few years after you tie the knot. Noticeably absent in the celebration were baseball fans in Boston and Montreal, the cities that played host to 172 of the pitchers' 200 victories. How sad it is to see a great achievement glorified in such a fashion, as thousands of Mets fans stood on their feet cheering a milestone of which less than 3% was achieved while playing for their team, while the fans of the teams who enjoyed the bulk of his success could only sit and watch from their couches hundreds of miles away. Sad, yes, but this is only one of countless disappointments inflicted on sports fans each year.

In just the last few months I have been beaten numb by my sports heroes. Johnny Damon, Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov are all gone. Four players who helped make up the identity of their respective teams, and one who became a superstar, in large part because of the ravenous attention and support given to him by fans at the ballpark. I am a young man who is watching his first set of heroes disappear in a system that seems to be working to make such losses more common.

"Most fans today don't really remember the time that when you were a Dodger you were a Dodger forever," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a company that measures brand loyalty for companies and sports teams. "You're dealing with the bionic consumer of the 21st century. These guys realize that it is a business. They may not like it, but they understand that this is how the game is now played."

Oh, we understand it. Eighth-graders understand it. It is not too hard to notice professional sports is a business when players you have given your heart and soul to are replaced every off-season. Surveys like the ones Passikoff conducts show the shortfalls of the sports business. Loyalty is a package. Like any relationship, people flock to the ballpark for many varied reasons, yet teams' management seem to think their support comes only from proximity. Their vision is clouded by the money that continues to pour in, unable to see the slow and deliberate decay of fanbases across the country.

The truth is that fans are suffering. It is a cop-out to use business as an excuse for the inadequacies of professional sports today. We are in an era of greed so blatant it is devouring the business from the inside out. Fans ask for very little in return for the hundreds and thousands of dollars they spend on tickets and team merchandise and apparel, yet even that small return asked for - loyalty from players mirroring that of the fans - is rejected in place of greed.

The bottom line is that professional sports teams once had a monopoly on peoples' hearts. Just by playing within towns and cities meant that they received unending support from the residents. But the sport leagues have taken advantage of it. They are taking fan support for granted. Between disproportionate stadium deals, free agency, and policies of profit over pride, teams are chewing away at the foundations of once great traditions.

The Florida Marlins organization is the poster child for all that is wrong with baseball and professional sports in general. In 12 seasons they have won two championships, yet continue to have some of the worst attendance in the league. They failed to fill more than 63% of their available seating in 2005, their highest attendance in 6 years. On pace at a 40% attendance rate, 2006 looks to be their worst attendance rate since 2002 when they filled only 24% of their seats. Their crime was masterfully playing in the absurd realities of Major League Baseball.

The team has no real history. They have no tradition nor generations of support to fall back on. All they have had is astounding success, followed by gut-wrenching declines created by roster decimation. They repeatedly destroyed the fledgling bonds between the fans and the team, and the results have been clear. Even in championship years, fans didn't start coming to the ballpark until August and September. It is the culmination of every MLB owner and player's wishes, laid up unabashedly by Marlin ownership.

Only a handful of teams are remembered for their many championships. The rest are remembered only for their great players. Who are the Marlins great heroes? Who will a young Florida boy emulate when he steps up to bat?

In 50 years, this chapter of pro sports will be highlighted by baseless players like Roger Clemens, Terrell Owens, Shaquille O’Neal and Jaromir Jagr, with 13 teams between them. A bunch of hired goons called upon when it came time to win.

The players and owners have tried to brainwash people into believing it is only a business and success is all that matters. If that were truly the case, teams would go bankrupt at a far higher rate. Leagues aren’t successful because of the winning teams. They are successful because of the losing teams that still fill up half a stadium every year.

Success is a rarity with 30-team leagues, regardless of how diluted the playoffs are. There has to be something else that keeps the fans coming to the ballpark or purchasing the jerseys and hats. That someting is loyalty, however undeserved it is. Unfortunately, pro sports are chipping away, fan by fan. With each hero they trade and every athlete who must leave to capitalize on a flawed economic model, professional sports are turning another fan off to not just the team, but the game itself.

It may be a business, but its profits are based solely on the perception that it is not a business. The hope that there is a deeper meaning when the Bears and the Packers square off at Lambeau Field or when the Celtics take the floor at the Garden to face the Lakers. This is what drives this country, and it is what should drive these sports. I just hope someone realizes before my children are old enough to love.

6 Comments:

Anonymous steven said...

I agree with your point but do not think it is that simple. The teams have to weigh if letting a Johnny Damon leave is going to cause them to lose more fans than having an overpaid Damon for four years that hurts their ability to put the best team on the field possible. In the end fielding the best team possible is what builds a fan base. This is why the Marlins do not have any fans. They field a good team one out of 5 years. It might be a title team but there is no connection. I think the fault is more with the players. The greed is on their side. Their egos build up until it prices them out of a team. The sad truth in most sports today is that true teams win but then those beloved players begin to think they are above the team. Especially with salary caps like the NFL has you can only have so many superstars. After a title everyone thinks they are a superstar and it all falls apart. It is hard on the fans but the system is not going to change anytime soon with parity in most sports creating the best economic interest.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Howe said...

Marlins Payroll from 2001-2006 (attendance %)
2001-35.5 Million (37.1%)
2002-42 Million (23.6%)
2003-48.75 Million (44.8%)
2004-42 Million (60.6%)
2005-60.4 Million (62.7%)
2006-15 Million (40%)

The Marlins simply following the Producers' blueprint: They could make more money on a flop than they could with a winner. Not saying it's right, not saying that the fans want that...but I'm sure that's what they're thinking. Simply looking at player payroll you can see they cut it down by 75% from 2005. The attendance is still projected to be only a 20% difference from last year. They brought their payroll up almost 20 million (50% increase) from 2004-2005 and only say a 2% increase in attendance. I'm not saying that attendance is the only source of income for a MLB team but it's a big part of it. So I'm sure their logic was "Why spend more when we aren't going to get more". And yes, this is a small sample but I'm just trying to translate to you what the ownership is probably thinking

12:11 PM  
Blogger Howe said...

Oh and one more thing: sports leagues are businesses. They always have been. they're not trying to "hide behind it". Fans are the ones that, as a whole, choose not to view it that way. If owners and GM's were smarter they would try and allow fans to view it that way either because it's that simple fact that brings them back for more. Baseball has been a business since day one. Since there were more than just one league competing for fan support. When the Al and NL were separate and fought over player contracts. It's always been a business and always will. It's not a cop out, it's the truth. It's up to the casual fan to decide whether they care that it is just that or decide to ignore it

12:16 PM  
Blogger Orlando said...

To steven:

Yes, putting the best team on the field builds fan base, but incorporating those players as part of your franchise's identity maintains that fan base when the team stinks again. If Gary Sheffield were still with the Marlins, do you not think their would be a handful of fans attending just to see him play?

Teams only have to weigh those options because players and owners have allowed Free Agency, designed as a check on owners profit sharing, to become a mutated monster that is destroying sports.

To say it is not going to change is just as silly. It is an era like any other. I think the NFL is probably the closest to the ideal system there is in sports. The salary cap, franchise tags and other control policies have done a lot to control outrageous contracts. Unfortunatly, it has many drawbacks At least they are taking a more collective approach to the league.

Parity is not a bad thing, but it can be done without sacrificing team identity. Until players allow more regulation of their salaries, it will be difficult.

To Conor:
As I said, the Marlins are using the system wonderfully. They are the perfect business. No illusious and no subtlety. Now, imagine if every team in the league functioned as a soley as business. There would be no league, no mater the sport.

Pro sport is the business of pleasing people. The Marlins are not pleasing people, despite their economic and on-the-field success.

If fans choose not to believe pro sports is a business, and your money comes from pleasing these people to aquire revenue, then maybe someone should look at doing a better job at appeasing them.

What the Marlins have done is happening on a smaller scale all over the athletic spectrum. The changes aren't nearly as dramitic, but each powerplay for money is another straw on a devoted fan's back.

Both, thank you for the comments.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

Orlando-

To me the question becomes what influences attendance more: a long-term marketable player or a winning team? Personally, I have observed that a winning team is going to put more fans in the seats regardless of what players are on the team. Having a player that is the face of the franchise will as you say bring in a HANDFUL of fans but is that even relevant given the huge sums of money associated with sports today.

Even if having such a player did bring in a lot of fans it would probably be exploited by the business model as well. If the team can fill the stands without a contender on the field think of the profits they could have then.

I am not sure why you are touting the NFL system if you want veteran players to stick with their teams. I agree there system is the best but it by far makes it the hardest for teams to hold onto veteran players.

I think overall the problem lies in each fan wanting his interest served by the team even though this is impossible. The owner has to make tough business decisions and the real tragedy is that the true fans are less important than the fairweather fans when economics rules the game.

I do believe at some point this system may be doomed to implode on itself but this is not exactly showing up in the ratings which is why I really doubt the owners and players are going to wake up tommorow and decide to stop maximizing profits. Not to mention the effort would have to be unanimous or it would just create a further disparity in talent. Something that seems higly unlikely with people like steinbrenner still around.

All in all it is the result of the changing face of sports. I do wish it could be more like the way you decribe it however at this point that seems only an idealistic dream. I do not think we can fairly ask the owners or players to take less money and even if we could they would have millions of little green reasons to pay us no mind.

12:54 AM  
Blogger theresa said...

kool nice job i dont think i could type that much in an matter of time so you get my vote for typing the most words well i was woundering if you could maby read some mine and comment on them ok well bye

5:49 AM  

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