Is fan loyalty bunk?

The readers write -- some more! -- about bandwagoning and whether fandom is really just a consumer choice.

Published October 22, 2008 6:45PM (EDT)

I can't stay out of the mailbag! This column has been indulging in a lot of real and imaginary mailbag items this week, but we've had a few days without games here, and the conversations in the letters threads are so good they deserve not only to get wider distribution but to be ruined by my comments.

These letters are all real, and mostly about the topics of fan loyalty and the bandwagon effect. Let's start with a Phillies Phan who took issue with my statement that there are probably 10,000 hardcore baseball fans in any city -- which I'll admit was taken out of thin air and probably a little low.

In exciting housekeeping news, I'm indenting the letters, rather than putting them in italics, because the column was starting to look a little too much like a ransom note.

jamartinjr: 10,000 hardcore Phillies fans prior to the Bank opening? How are you counting fans? I dunno about most of the readers of Salon, but I couldn't (and can't now) shell out for more than 12-15 games a year ... Phillies fans are loyal. Just because some shitty product was on the field for a long time shouldn't reflect on the fans.

It doesn't.

And don't compare us to the Johnny Come Lately Rays fans. They may be the better team (actually more hyped team), but we are the better fans.

No, you aren't. It's just a different situation. Also, we're talking about Philadelphia, right? I've heard Philadelphia sports fans described as the worst in America a lot more than I've heard them described as "better" than anybody. And it was usually Philadelphians talking.

J T: One of the things we've noticed in the D.C. area is that you only get so much of a boost from a new stadium (or a shining beacon of a stadium just north of here in Baltimore). You really need a winning team to help draw those people into these nice new palaces of baseball.

You get a one-year novelty boost in attendance from a new yard. After that, you have to win to maintain it. Classic example: Pittsburgh. Here, in thousands, rounded to the nearest, is the Pirates' yearly attendance over a recent 10-year period:

16, 20, 19, 20, 22, 30, 22, 20, 20, 22

Guess which year PNC Park opened. Sometimes, for example in Milwaukee, there's a slight residual effect. Miller Park seems to have been worth about 5,000 fans a game to the Brewers before they started winning.

Not always, though. The Reds haven't drawn any better at Great American Ballpark than they did at Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field. Attendance has gone up slightly, but all attendance is up. As a percentage of all major league attendance, the Reds' crowds have stayed constant at the new place.

jimmyjazz: I'm a lifelong Cubs and Sox fan, but I really kind of detached with love from the Cubs after the Sox won in '05. It hit me like a ton of bricks at that point that I had literally been waiting a lifetime (AND STILL COUNTING) for the Cubs to win it all. I started to feel like a sucker.

I felt the same way rooting for the Golden State Warriors in the '90s. I felt like they were so aggressively, actively incompetent, they were daring me to still be a fan. I decided not to take them up on it and started rooting for the Sacramento Kings, down the road.

Now that the Warriors are once again making an honest attempt at being a good team, I'm back rooting for them. My teams don't have to win -- I'm still a San Francisco Giants, Oakland A's, St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders fan -- and they don't even have to rise above bumbling in the attempt. I'm still a San Francisco Giants and Oakland Raiders fan. But they have to make an honest effort.

jimmyjazz cont'd.:

That's why their [the Cubs'] October collapse this year didn't hurt me all that much; I had already chosen to invest a lot less than in the past. (And unlike your consumer comparison, the investment here is a lot more than money; it's all tied up into who you are, where you're born, who your dad rooted for -- we're talking pieces of your soul!)

A lot of consumer choices are about a lot more than money.

misterchops: By the way, as one reader mentioned, I don't understand somebody changing teams.

I don't see anything wrong with changing loyalties. Becoming a "fan" of whoever's in first place is kind of lame, but you know, so what? If that's how someone wants to consume the product, more power to them.

But I don't think it reflects poorly on a person to, say, stop rooting for the team from the town he or she grew up in and start rooting for the team in the town where he or she chose to live as an adult, as letter writer farnsworth did. Why should he be expected to root for the St. Louis Cardinals, in Houston, just because they happened to have a farm team in Tulsa and the big league club's radio signal was strong there when he was growing up?

Why should I be expected to root for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team from the city where my parents chose to live, rather than the Giants, the team from the city where I chose to live? I stopped rooting for USC and started rooting for Cal when I enrolled, and nobody thought that was strange.

Those of us who change loyalties from our childhood teams pay a price for it -- I don't have that lifelong connection to a baseball team, which I kind of miss. Any nostalgia I feel for, say, the 1974 Dodgers, the first team I followed to a World Series, is tempered by the fact that I now root against that very same uniform.

Then again, it's nice to go to the local park and root for the home team too. I'd had enough of going to Candlestick, rooting for the Houston Astros, let's say, and thinking, "Why am I sitting here rooting for the Houston Astros?"

Tom 70: Who said fan base can be measured by attendance? Regardless of the argument about "bandwagoning," you can't just gauge the size of a team's fan base, or its degree of loyalty, by attendance at the ballpark ... I don't have an impact on attendance figures, but I'm a loyal fan and I have been all my life. You've got to factor in people like me if you really want to measure this stuff.

Very true, although every team has fans like you.

But I think that's a lot like the point I've been trying to make. Poor attendance doesn't necessarily mean that a team lacks a loyal fan base. Loyal fans might be making the rational choice not to go to the ballpark because it's too expensive, too uncomfortable, too hard to get to or any number of other reasons, none of which mean those fans don't still follow the team.

Clearly there were people in places like San Francisco, Cleveland and Seattle who were willing to go to ballgames under the right circumstances.

The longer I live, the less I believe there is such a thing as a good or bad baseball -- or football or basketball -- fan base on the major league level. Given sufficient market size, a decent venue, a competitive team and competent marketing, any major league team will gather a large, loyal fan base.

I don't think there's anything special about St. Louis or Boston or the North Side of Chicago, for example. They've just had all or most of the above for a real long time. If the same had been true in Montreal, the Expos would be an attendance powerhouse today.

It's a truism in St. Louis that the city wouldn't support an NBA team. History is on the side of that argument, and there might never be another test, but I don't believe it. I think a decent team marketed well would do fine there, just as it has in another town that wasn't going to be able to support an NBA team: Sacramento.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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