Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Sports turns word definitions upside down

It’s become a fashion of late to declare that anyone who’s not a total convert to your cause is committing the sin of apathy.

In recent Gainesville City Commission elections, most of the registered voters failed to turn out to elect the candidates, leading to letters in The Gainesville Sun condemning “apathetic” citizens for failing to vote. At the University of Florida, a regular lament is that “apathetic” students fail to vote for anyone in Student Government, or are focused too much on their education and not enough on political activism in the SG context.

And in sports, the “apathetic” fan (I’ll explain this odd construction later on) is the lowest form of life. How dare you not come out and support the local team with your presence, your cheers and – here’s the big one – your money? It’s pretty much made clear in such declarations that the empty seats are the reasons the players are not performing up to par, and not the other way around.

As a wordsmith and copy editor, I find oxymoronic constructions endlessly delightful and frustrating at the same time. One way to dismiss a person is to attribute to him or her in two words oppositional attitudes and motives. It’s sort of like calling someone a moderate conservative or moderate liberal, or saying a worker is both lazy and hard-working in the same sentence.

In sports, there is the fan. Short for “fanatic,” fan implies a level of interest in a team beyond just being aware that the team exists. Back in the day, you knew the starting lineup, the batting averages, and the earned run averages of the starting lineup and if you were really dedicated, the stats of the rarely used scrubs on the team.

When I was a teenager and a fan of MAD magazine, one of its features was called “You know you’re really a sports fan when …” and one of the classifications, to a line drawing of a man in bed with a book open while his wife slept, was that you memorized the names and numbers of your favorite football team’s punt return and kickoff squads. Another was that you were making $10,000 a year, and enraged that O.J. Simpson was only getting $25,000.

Let’s face it, there have always been “Fans” and “fans” of sports teams. Some people went to every game (back when season tickets could actually be bought by someone working for middle-class wages, and the seats actually had a decent view of the playing field) or attended as many as their finances and schedule could, supplementing their fandom with watching games on TV or listening on the radio.

Maybe they followed the team in the local newspaper or newspapers (easy to do even today in New York City; much harder in one-paper towns), or today followed bloggers or even started their own fan blog with their own news and views.

There are those who keep an interest mainly through following the games on TV or radio and in the news media. Maybe because of geography, they cannot attend games but feel closely connected to their team. I feel that I fit into this category because I still follow the New York Mets, but not as closely as I can, because of a host of other interests that take up my time. Generally, though, I know how they did in their recent games.

There are the “fair-weather” fans, whose interest ebbs and flows with the performance of the team. It’s a matter of pride for many people to say they are “real” fans, and not “fair-weather” fans of a team. With the Mets, for example, many people gave up on the team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the team finished last or next-to-last in the National League’s Eastern Division, and Shea Stadium was sometimes dubbed “Grant’s Tomb.” (After chairman of the board M. Donald Grant, who was blamed for the team’s decline on the field.)

The Mets started to gain in the public eye again with the hiring of Davey Johnson and the ascension to the team from the farm system and through trades of a number of players who had real talent and ability. This began to manifest itself in on-field performance and even when the Mets’ performance did not live up to the fans’ hopes, the belief that the following season would be better kept people loyal.

The years 1985 and 1986 were probably the height of the Mets’ history, when on-field performance was just beyond what Mets fans had seen in years and the years of loyalty were repaid. In truth, who cares — when a team is winning — about fair-weather versus real fans? The former’s money is just as legal tender as the latter’s, right?

Of course, high expectations can lead to intense frustration, as we’ve seen with the Mets’ decline since 2006. The high hopes of the mid-2000s have not been repaid, and again we’re hearing talk about fan apathy. In their new sports palace, Citi Field, the Mets are struggling both on the field and in the owners’ box, as attendance at home games is down and there is little positive buzz.

And then there are the “fans.” This is mostly a theoretical construct of team owners, who simply declare that all residents of a team’s geographical area must be “fans” of the team, and that a lack of attendance and support is a sign of “fan apathy.”

Cool toward the Heat
A recent article in The New York Times about the Miami Heat’s troubles points out that there is another classification of fan, the fan who really is not a “true fan.” These are the folks who show up in the second quarter, the article noted, and leave to beat the traffic before the final buzzer. They stand around, swallow canapés and fine wines while LeBron James and his cohorts pass and shoot the “rock” on the hardwood, and are just at the game to be seen there.

From the story, in the Times from April 15, 2011:

Rick Torrente, a season-ticket holder since 2000, is stunned that some season-ticket holders in his section do not take their seats until halftime. “In general, and I’m sorry to say this and sad to say this: Miami fans are not true fans,” Torrente said. “I have never seen a team work so hard to get people to cheer.”

So it’s not enough anymore to have season tickets and just show up at the game, you have to show up on time, cheer the performance and stay until the end, or you’re not a “true fan.”

Apathy around the Rays
Few teams’ front offices have done more whining and complaining about the locals than the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays. For some odd reason, this is a team ownership that believes that it has an incontrovertible claim on the wallets of everyone in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and that “fan apathy” is directly behind the team’s underperformance.

Like most teams, the Rays have had their ups and downs. The ownership’s complaints about the stadium, Tropicana Field, and the openly expressed wish to have a new stadium built at public expense (though the bonds for the Trop will still have to be paid for the next 20 years) plus threats to move elsewhere have cut into public support for the team.

Let’s face it, most people in the Rays’ surroundings have seen a significant drop in their economic prospects in the past few years, and have little patience with the notion of cash-starved governments spending money on sports when schools, libraries and other government functions are being cut back severely.

But as with the Heat, the problem of distracted people at the ballpark is an issue. I attended a game (the only pro sports game I have attended in the past few years) and got to go on the field as a reporter because a Bradenton Fire Department firefighter was tossing out the ceremonial first pitch. We sat way up in the left field stands and I saw tens of thousands of people at the game, but most were walking around in areas with no view of the field or in the many retail stores, and few were paying attention to the game.

But then again, the team placed all those distractions there to extract more money from the wallets of the fans who got into the stadium through their paid admission. So to complain that people aren’t paying attention is absurd.

And it’s nothing new. Many years ago, I went to a Yankees baseball game at the old Yankee Stadium with my friend from the neighborhood John Komendowski. (As an aside, hey John, if you read this, get in touch with me, OK? Just want to talk about old times and see how you’re doing.)

He and I drove up and found a place to park, bought tickets from a scalper and got seats along the first or third base line. I remember that it was the era of Billy Martin (don’t ask me which one) and we arrived for batting practice. Around the second inning, a group of yuppies showed up (so this had to be sometime in the 1980s) and made a lot of disruption. They had their dinners and their bottles of wine, and one of them spilled wine on John’s hockey jacket, to his dismay.

What was interesting was that when I went back to use the toilet, there was a bar where you could sit there and be plastered, and watch the game on TV, and there were lots of folks doing just that. Imagine that, going to the stadium, paying admission and then sitting at a bar and watching the game. You could have saved a lot of time and effort by just going to your neighborhood tavern and watching the game.

That bar didn’t just materialize in Yankee Stadium; it was placed there, so I can safely assume that it was approved. So when people start griping about the “fans” at a game being distracted, let’s remember who is distracting them and why (hint: it has to do with making money.)

In a nutshell, I think it’s just totally pointless to go on this long thing about true fans versus “not-true” fans. If sports teams don’t like being followed by certain people because their loyalty is questionable, then maybe people will find something better to do with their money.

Come to think of it, in many cases, people already have.


April 16, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , ,

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