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.