Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sportertainment: When The Whims of The Fans Taint The Merits of The Game

sports fanThe product changes at the whim of the consumer, the government answers to the voting population, and professional sports teams are at the mercy of their fans.

This is the way that our society works; the natural order by which “the little guy” is imbued with a modicum of control over things larger than himself. While this is an invaluable system for many operations, sometimes I wish that the mass of sports fans would just shut the hell up and leave their damn teams alone.

The fickle and capricious entity that is “the fan base” has nearly total control over the path that a professional sports organization takes for a number of reasons, some sensible and others troublesome. In the purest sense, a professional sports team’s function is entertainment – that’s their business model. A movie can be artistic, but it requires money and that money comes from attracting viewers. A sports organization may love the game and may wish only to display the talents of dedicated athletes engaged in skilled competitions, but to do so it must obtain its primary income from those who pay for tickets or merchandise.

Just as I have felt agonized over the careful balancing act between art and entertainment in the film industry, so have I become frustrated with the similar conflict between my love of a sport and its role as an entertainment medium. I project my hopes of teamwork, dedication, hard work, and responsibility onto my local team and instead find it subject to the whims of opinionated sports bloggers who play fantasy sports online to satiate their irrational urges to control. And no matter how noble, how respectful to the purity of the game that a general manager wants to be, he or she must always act with the underlying understanding that the ultimate goal is to put fans in seats and money in vendors’ registers.

My bitter acknowledgement of this duplicity usually dissuades me from becoming involved in professional sports organizations, though it’s not hard to sweep me up in the excitement despite my ethical and self-important reservations. I became a dedicated Mariners fan in 2001 when the team won a record-tying 116 games and I haven’t been able to wean myself away since.

Yet through all of my life in Portland, I have never been tempted to become a Blazers fan until last year. A team of young, energetic athletes who never gave up, fought hard for each other, gave back to the city, and acted as role models to their community was easy to root for. Even their bitter defeat in the first round of the playoffs was a glorious defeat, worth watching every heartbreaking moment of. As this year’s season reaches its peak, I sadly watch as the raging, mercurial fans pour comments across the internet, which slowly worm their way up the organization. I fear that my hopes of purity will be lost in the gluttonous struggle for faster championships and bigger piles of money as dictated by a bunch of jerk fans who know exactly how much power they have to complain.

The Trail Blazers joined the NBA in 1970 and failed to qualify for the post-season for six years. It wasn’t until the ABA-NBA merger of 1976 and the drafting of Bill Walton that the team had  winning record, and the Blazers won their lone NBA championship in 1977. Starting that year, the team began a sellout streak of 814 games -- currently the longest-standing in sports history -- that did not end until 1995 when the team moved to a larger facility. Since then, Portland has continued a strong pace of consecutive sellouts even during the rough years. This sounds like a dedicated fan base, right?

During the 1980s the Blazers were a consistent presence in the playoffs. But because they never advanced beyond the conference semifinals (what sports-writers cutely like to call “struggling”), coaches were fired and replaced. After the team was purchased by billionaire Paul Allen, coach Rick Adelman nursed the Blazers back to the NBA finals in 1990 and 1992, and in 1991 they posted a league best 63-19 record. However, because of their failure to win championships, Adelman was fired. Naturally, that kind of utter failure could not be tolerated

… wait, what? The failure of going to two NBA finals and posting a league-best record?

Despite controversial moves, the team still appeared in the postseason for 21 straight years from 1983 to 2004 when the pressure of micro-managing and championship-obsession finally caught up. During the 2000’s, the “Jail Blazers” showed repeated patterns of irresponsibility and disrespect. Numerous players were arrested for marijuana possession and animal abuse, and Bonzi Wells famously told Sports Illustrated, “"they [fans] really don't matter to us. They can boo us every day, but they're still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street.”

In 2007 the team was resurrected by the miraculous combination of Kevin Pritchard becoming the General Manager, rookie of the year Brandon Roy, and Paul Allen building an incredible staff to rebuild the team’s image and win back the city. They did a spectacular job is just two years.

Heading into this season, everyone was salivating over playoff hopes. Players’ faces covered city buildings; they have inspired the love of fans of all ages. Unfortunately, a slew of freak injuries (including one to the head coach during a scrimmage with his short-handed team) have seen the team struggle to meet the exceptionally high expectations placed upon them. While they’re still in the playoff hunt, a competitive conference may end up edging them out.

Fans have lost their minds over this. Pushing for trades, crying for the firing of Coach McMillan and constantly criticizing the lineup, Blazers fans can’t possibly accept the idea that not making the playoffs would not in fact be the end of their team forever. A talented group of incredibly dedicated athletes are trying desperately to maintain their optimism, unselfish play, and team chemistry in the face of trade rumors and whiny bloggers in only the third year of this ethical 180 degree conversion. 

A few weeks ago, Pritchard and Allen traded away two popular players for a short-term, high-risk, unfamiliar player from LA, sending a message that the immediate satisfaction of a playoff berth is more important than long term goals, more important than team chemistry, and more important than all the attitudes they were trying to build about dedication, drive, and teamwork.

Sports fans are just like every other entertainment-hungry viewers. They don’t know how to look back, other than to count how many years it’s been since the last championship. It’s easy to ignore 21 consecutive playoff berths; it’s easy to forget which past mistakes lead to dark times.

What do people root for in a sports team? Why the loyalty? It’s obviously not the players, the coaches, the front office or even the stadium, since those things are transient. Is it just about the name and the fame? It should be something deeper. Of course the ultimate goal is to watch your team win it all, but it should also be about winning with certain values that you share. For me, it’s integrity, dedication, and cooperation – elements than many fans are all too ready to forget about.

I know there is no real reconciliation between the merits of a game and the necessity for entertainment. I am familiar enough with history and with professional sports that I am prepared for the inevitable disappointment. I just wish that fans weren’t so fickle, and that watching sports could be as pure as looking at art or watching film…oh wait. Damn.