Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fandom's kaleidescope

Growing up in New England in the 70s and 80s, fandoms were always clear cut. The teams are so close together, and so many - be it baseball, football, or hockey - that rivalries were intense, and when you were a fan, you were a fan for life. People also didn't move around like they do now, nor was there the ease of access to other markets that modern cable/internet provide. As an example, the Hartford Whalers haven't even existed since 1997, but they were still able to draw several thousand fans to "Whaler Fest" this summer in Hartford. Stories of baseball loyalties in the Northeast are legendary. 

It's not to say that other parts of the country are any less dedicated to their local sports teams. That's not the case at all: over the years, I've met fans for minor-league teams (no matter the sport) that are so fiercely loyal to their boys, you'd think there were no other teams out there. And that's fantastic. 

We, as human beings, need competition. It stimulates us, excites us, its a natural part of the psyche. It's about challenging our limitations, stretching the body to the point of breaking, and coming out a winner. On the deepest psychological levels, competition speaks to our basic gut instinct to survive: the fittest reach the top of the heap, the rest are left behind.

There's something about sports that draws us deeply in. Professional sports figures are generally the crème de la crème of physical specimens: humans whose primary role in life is to be in the best shape they can be in, to publicly compete for a championship of some kind. (The newest issue of ESPN The Magazine emphasized that ideal considerably this month). They wear bright colors that draw your attention, cut in styles that allow them to play their best while emphasizing their form. It's hypnotic to us. 

Sport lifts us. It engages us, energizes us, elates us. When two teams are close rivals, it can pit us neighbor against neighbor.

It bonds us. It can help us find an identity as fans, as a city, as an entire nation.
It can bring us joy of the highest levels, and crush our hearts so fiercely it makes us cry.

And that's when we're just the spectators.

Perhaps no picture illustrates that moment better than the one Bruce Bennett of Getty Images snapped at the end of round one of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, at end of game 7, as Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halák raised his arms in triumph as Washington Capitals star player Alex Ovechkin skated away, a stunned look on his face:

Not everybody likes the same sport. If I were a psychologist, I might hypothesize that a person's athletic preferences might reflect personality profiles. But there are certain elements of sports fandom that remain true from sport to sport.

Let's make a quick, general ranking of levels of fandom, to start (not every fan will be exactly defined by these) :
- Bandwagoner. May or may not know much about the sport; gets interested because the local team in doing well/on a championship run, or because all their friends are into it. May or may not continue their interest long enough to become a lifelong fan of the sport. Is along for the parties and good times so long as the team is winning, but rapidly disappears in a slump. Often quick to make judgments about what's going on with the team roster (trades, etc) or on the ice without fully knowing what they're talking about. Likely to be the guy who shows up at a game and attempts to get the wrong local chant started, because he/she wants to show they support the team, but doesn't know enough about the team to know the right chants, or, for example, that there's no wave in hockey.

- Newbie - new to the sport, just learning. Depending on how good of an introduction they get to the sport, may jump right over "casual fan" status and right to "core/dedicated fan". Willing to learn, and energized by the sport.

- Casual fan - Follows the sport, has a favorite team. Can converse about the sport to a reasonable extent. Follows along with the playoffs for as long as his/her favorite team is in the playoffs. Maybe can tell you who won the championship last year, and may or may not have ever attended a live game, especially at the major league level. May or may not have any team clothing. Has a solid, ongoing interest in the sport, but doesn't have the time or inclination to follow the sport as closely as they might like.

- Dedicated fan - Has a solid understanding of the sport, and will follow their favorite team's season. Probably owns at least one, if not more, piece of clothing with the team's name and/or logo on it. Goes to at least one live game per season. Enjoys watching games with teams other than their favorite team just to get their "fix" for the sport, or because there's other players they like. Can discuss some team history and the finer points of memorable plays or events in their team's history. May occasionally hold a grudge towards team ownership when the team fails to re-sign, or trades away, a favorite player.

- Diehards - Can tell you more information about the team that you thought there was to know. Can identify most if not all players by face and number. Has a team jersey and it's very likely signed. Goes to as many home games as possible or makes a lot of effort to watch as many games as possible; extremely likely to be a season ticket holder or at least on the waitlist. May or may not paint their face or otherwise do something extra/special for home games. Will likely make one or more road trips in their lifetime or adjust the timing of a vacation just to watch their favorite team play on the road. Has probably been to an open practice at least once, or at least knows they exist. Will discuss/argue the minutiae of plays, roster movement, team history, and more. Has team memorabilia, and if their team has gone on to a championship, very likely has a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings to go with it. Very likely has a story about at least one personal interaction with members of their favorite team. Generally very strongly dedicated to a single team.

- Superfans - Diehards who've taken it to a new level. Have lots of team gear and memorabilia; may have a shrine or a section of their home dedicated to their favorite team. Have season tickets. So dedicated to their team that they may identify colors by the team known for wearing them ("Chicago red", "Vancouver blue", "Philadelphia orange"). Is identifiable because they bleed that team's color. Extremely likely to dress up in some manner for games (face paint, wigs, etc).

Once you get past the larger generalities, you start getting into the subcultures of fandom. For hockey, that means the rink rats and the puckbunnies, although every sport has its equivalents. (Rink rats are those who generally  spend all their time at the local rink - they play, but they're also fans; puckbunnies are the hockey sports equivalent to rock groupies, and generally not held in very high regard but other female fans.)

With such varying levels of fandom, the question is: can we all get along? And how can a single sports entity such as the NHL draw in and court as many fans as possible without alienating the others?

Of course we can get along. We do. There aren't fans who are "better" fans than one another (although "bandwagon" and "puckbunny" fan jokes will never, ever go away, for good reason), there are simply different levels of fandom that satisfies each person's needs and desires when supporting a team.

This summer has seen a lot of movement around the NHL. The Chicago Blackhawks weren't alone in turning over their roster; the Atlanta Thrashers also brought in about 10 new players.  In the era of the salary cap, rosters are no longer sacred - if you cost too much in relationship to your salary, out you go. If you're underperforming, they'll find somebody else to do your job.

Fans understand this movement for the most part, but when players are popular, the transition can be painful, and can create some strife among fans.

It's been an interesting summer as a Blackhawks fan. Those players traded away or allowed to walk after their contract expired are generally regarded as victims of the salary cap - thanked for their contributions, and missed. The sole exception to this was Antti Niemi - loved as the Stanley Cup-winning goalie, but fan sentimentality slowly degrading over the summer once he filed for, and then went to arbitration. And while the majority of the fan base seems to be of the opinion that the loss of Niemi was due to his agent, the fans also recognize the simple reality that a player always has the last say about their contracts. Water under the bridge now, but still coming up regularly as fans bite into the new season and the new pair of netminders in Chicago's goal.

By getting to know a fairly good-sized slice of fans over the past season and this summer, it has been interesting to see where fans draw the lines on their fandom. Who will root for one team, and one team only? Who follows favorite players to new teams, and what does that kind of fandom mean for the league?

The die-hard fans have pretty clean-cut opinions about fandom: It's interesting, for example, to have found a female fan who stated they could never support more than one team, but if a favorite player gets traded, "absolutely will always support and follow that player for the rest of their career."

One fan, Steve, a Chicago fan, stated, "It's interesting to find out why they [fans might support more than one team]. But it doesn't make sense when you hear of people who support both the Cubs and White Sox in this city. That's just weird. In general, I don't have anything against people that support more than one team because in some cases, there is no local pro team in a particular sport (ex. no NHL team in Green Bay)."

A second Steve - this one a Maple Leafs fan - called some fandoms "something inherited.... most fans are basically born into the tribe." He further expressed his depth of love for his team, expressing "there's a spiritual reward to following a team your whole life, through thick, thin and emaciation... True fandom does not permit divorce or polygamy. Your team is your team until they fold." When asked about players who may have left the team, Steve said, "If he's not wearing my colors, he's one of 'them,' not 'us.' It's pretty simple. I'll cheer him on when he's playing somebody else, but my loyalty to my team--probably since it's so old--outstrips my loyalty to any player." He was also perhaps the most strongly opinionated of the "die-hards", stating that fans who support more than one team are "abominable" and that "Supporting more than one team essentially means you don't really support anybody."

Several of the players who classified themselves as single-team fans said that they viewed their fandom as something "inherited" - it was something that not only they identified with themselves, but that something which defined their family. These are frequently the fans who will tell you memories of being brought to the stadium as a kid by their parents or grandparents - whether it's hockey or football or baseball.

They may even see those in their family or circle of friends who do not support the same team as different.  "I don't know what I did wrong," one older woman joked with me at a hockey game. "The whole family are Packers fans, and somehow, my older son turned out to be a Bears fan."

Interestingly, there were a number of players who support their sport on a wider basis (one top favorite team, but supports other teams or players as well) - and many of them also viewed their fandom as inherited. They might have grown up with parents who supported different teams. Perhaps they went to school somewhere very different from home, and came to support the local team in addition to their original team.

Those who considered themselves "multi-team fans" varied greatly: from those who supported two or more teams on a near-equal basis, to those who just support one team, but who considered themselves to have several admired/favorite players around the league. The majority of them, however, stated that X team was their absolute favorite, and they would always root for that team above all else.

Reasons for liking players not on their primary team varied quite a bit. Some players like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos were cited because fans admired their skills and talent. Others mentioned specific players that one or both of their parents had admired. Others had more random reasons for liking players.

What both die-hards and dedicated fans have in common above all else is a love of the sport and of their team(s). They both want their team to be the best it can be - to achieve the Holy Grail of championship. They want to believe that the team's management is doing the best it can to manage the players and reach that goal.

And when it comes to being fans, none of them are wrong, be it in how they view themselves or how they regard other fans. Together, all these varying levels of fans - from bandwagoner to newbie to casual to dedicated to diehard - make up the fandom spectrum. If fandom was entirely made up of just one or two levels, we all would be the less for it. We all started somewhere as newbies; but we all have different levels that make us feel satisfied by our sport(s) of choice.

It engages us, energizes us, elates us.

The leagues - be it NHL, NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS - have to balance these fandoms every day. They have to figure out what can help continue to draw new blood to the stands, while simultaneously meeting the demands of the existing fanbase and not make them feel alienated by any changes to the sport.

For a sport like hockey, the league has made an excellent choice in embracing new technology, although there are still occasionally gaps in how accessible the league coverage is. For example, they sell a product called "Center Ice", which promises that fans in any market - no matter how far away from their favorite team - will be able to see their team play. But even Center Ice is subject to blackouts, leaving fans frustrated.

There is a similar product they also offer called "GameCenter", which offers the games streaming online via computer or by smartphone. If the league wanted to maximize customer buy-in and product reach, they would combine the two, allowing fans to access the NFL product by whatever means best suits them at the moment, be it smartphone, computer or television. Since it is an on-demand product, there should not be blackouts - being a paid, essentially private channel.

Allowing that dual flexibility - home or on the road - combined with expanded coverage in the off season (game tapes on demand, etc) would also allow the NHL to set a slightly higher price point on a rolling monthly basis - $20-22/month year-round, instead of the current price structure of approximately $19/month for 10 months.

Hockey has a unique position in the sports world: the regular season runs seven months of the year. The playoffs add two more months, and preseason adds another month. As it also has one of the smallest - but perhaps most diehard - of sports fandoms, the NHL should seek to maximize ways to connect with the fans and constantly grow fan engagement, year-round.

Diehard/lifetime fans are the core of fandom. Those of us who have spent a lifetime with the sport may feel a little ... grumpy when things about the sport we love change too much. ("Who are these young whippersnappers sitting in the seat new to me?") But as fans, we need to embrace each other.

When the league focuses on only a couple players, it has its benefits. The "Ovechkin vs Crosby" angle has been a natural fit: two highly touted prospects who came to the league at the same time and have enjoyed arcs of success that have kept them in close proximity to one another. Sidney Crosby's shining-good-boy image vs. Alex Ovechkin's Russian-bad-boy image tap into sociopolitical concepts that are not that far removed from today - recalling the historical intensity of the 1980 Olympic "Miracle on Ice" and the Cold War of the 1980s.

But by limiting exposure to other teams and players, it does nothing to build fandoms outside those markets. In fact, there's a lot of fans outside of the Pittsburgh and D.C. markets who have had their fill of "Crosby vs. Ovechkin". The success of merchandise sales for the Blackhawks vs Flyers this year further enforces the idea that fans are hungry for local heroes that they can relate to and celebrate.

Every team in the league has its stars, its superstars. The teams are full of players with stories worth hearing. The fans want to hear those stories. They want to see a spectrum of players. They want to know that the modern NHL recognizes and respects the full history of the league - the long-standing rivalries, the team timelines, the iconic players - as not just footnotes to hockey history, but as part of the living fabric of the sport.

The more interest that fans have in players not on their own team, or in other teams, the more the sport can grow. Active fans help draw other newcomers to the sport. The more fans there are, the better the health of the league - through ticket sales, merchandise - anything that helps drive up revenues and ultimately, the salary cap. 

This summer, the Chicago Blackhawks gave hope to the league as a whole.  An Original Six team, they won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years. The party was incredible. There are 13 other teams out there - nearly half the league - who've never won the Cup in their history, and want to hold that celebration for their own fandoms: Atlanta Thrashers, Buffalo Sabers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals. Three teams - the Toronto Maple Leafs (last won 1967), LA Kings (est. 1967) and St Louis Blues (est. 1967) - are now all tied for most seasons without a Cup - 42.

All those teams' fandoms deserve their shot at glory.

We're in this together, even as we each bask in the joy of celebrating (or weeping for) our own team. and favorite players. Hockey is a sport that requires a support team for a player to succeed.

At its heart, hockey's fandom is the same way.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your viewpoint!

Please note that anonymous comments are moderated in order to prevent spam.