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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Accessibility of Sports and Geography: Changing Fans Loyalties?

I have been working on this post for a while and have been trying to collect my thoughts on the subject.  After I realized my brain was mush, I decided to let my thoughts flow, as this is my blog and I can do what I want.  Forgive me if I sound incoherent and irrational but I think many of you will understand my position.

So my youngest brother took a little spin up to Latrobe last Monday to see my favorite football team fully immersed in training mode.  It's about 45 miles from where he lives up 219 to US 30 West.  I too could take US 30 to get their but travelling east.  Oh, and it would also be about 488 miles.  But, I digress.

Am I jealous?  Yes.  Am I bitter?  No...maybe.  But it's all good.  I have made my peace with the fact that I no longer reside in western Pennsylvania any longer.  Seeing my Steelers, Penguins, or Pirates play isn't an option without travel and expenses.  However, my love for my them was not left behind.  In all the years of living back there, though, I never once had the opportunity/ability (call it what you will) to go up to St. Vincent's College and see Steeler Training Camp.  Most of my tenure in the Burgh or surrounding area was in my younger years leading up to my 16th birthday so the opportunities for me to freely make my way north were not readily available.  My family never made any trips in that direction either and it has since been one of the things on my sports related "Bucket List".  After looking through all the pictures he sent, it got me thinking about how it is that some transplanted people become fans of teams near where they live rather than staying true to their roots.

For me, not bleeding black and gold is not an option.  It runs through my veins and I can't ever see myself going in a different direction.  I imagine that is what happens to most die-hard, life-long fans.  Whatever the circumstance, something must click in their cerebral cortex that tells them "this is YOUR team". Whether it is a great play, a favorite player, a unique event or something else that draws you in, something wins over your loyalty.  I respect that.  I get that. 

Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, it was a no brainer when it came to the three sports.  You had the Steelers who had just completed a dominance the NFL hadn't seen before in the 70s, bringing home four Lombardi trophies in six years.  The Pirates were all part of your "family" after winning a couple World Series' that decade too, ironically both against Baltimore (a far cry from the Bucs and O's of today).  Then you had the Penguins who by league standards were sub-par at best but were still popular with the fans and would begin to change their basement dweller image in the later 80s with the emergence of Super Mario and a front office committed to win.

The Steelers games were on TV every Sunday with no threat of a blackout, ever.  The Pirates were on TV, whether day game or night game.  The Penguins were also on TV for most of what I can remember as a kid, although I remember listening to many of those games on the radio early on.  I guess the point here is that accessibility because of location made it easy to watch, learn, and like the teams that were placed in front of my nose.  With family members all supporting these teams too, it helped to fuel that intensity.

Because I became so interested in the teams, I took time to learn about them.  When I began collecting cards, I would always read the stats on the backs and the little player bios.  I checked books out of the library that discussed topics related to Pittsburgh teams and my favorite players (yes, I know what books are).  I went to as many games as opportunity presented so I could experience being a fan, live and in person.  I made it a point to understand the background behind the teams, the origins, the history, the things that built them and made them what they were at that time.  It made me feel like I had some sense of ownership in my teams and I still have that today.  Those memories that I built will never leave me.

Recently I have had some discussions with people from the Chicagoland area that, like me, were originally from other parts of the country.  One gentleman moved to Gary from Pittsburgh back in the 70s after the mills started closing down and now claims to be a Bears, Cubs, and Blackhawks fan.  Another couple that moved to the Chicago suburbs back in the mid-80s says they used to be Pirates fans but are now diehard White Sox fans, having season tickets for three years prior to the World Series and again last year.  Just the other day, I was talking with a guy that used to live in St. Louis and is now apparently a big supporter of both the Bulls and the Hawks.  He doesn't watch much football so that isn't a fair comparison, but he claims he is a Cubs fan despite going to a half dozen or more Cardinals games a month back when he lived there.  So to me, these are all examples of people that are stuck in a marriage of convenience due to where they live.

I spent the better portion of 1993-1999, and then 2005-present day in northwest Indiana region, which is totally ignored by both the state of Indiana, because of it's close proximity to downtown Chicago (less than 30 miles) and also ignored by Chicago because we are across some imaginary border created for taxation purposes and revenue.  The local TV and radio stations are all out of Chicago (with a couple South Bend stations thrown in) and between the emergence of Comcast Sportsnet and WGN, Chicago games are always on.  My point, you ask?  I live here too and have for quite a while and YOU DON'T SEE ME ROOTING FOR THESE TEAMS!!!

This calls into question fan loyalty from the onset.  If all it took was for these people to move from one place to another to become a fan of a different team, were they really fans in the first place?  I am not the authority to question any ones likes or dislikes or how much more intense of a fan they are but I think it is a legitimate question. 

It boils down to pseudo nature vs. nurture question when it's all said and done.  Is geography a bigger factor in a fan becoming a fan or is it something else?  Does how many games you can readily see/hear when you turn on your TV/radio affect your loyalties?  Is it the merchandise that is being sold in every store all around you?  Is it your friends/relatives that unconsciously (or consciously) persuade you to like what they like? 

I'm beginning to see this take shape first hand with my 6 year old son.  For baseball, he knows I am a Pirates fan and have been my whole life but my wife and in-laws are Cubs fans.  He tries to tell me that he likes the Pirates too, but other than a few games here or there, he really hasn't seen them play (come to think of it, it has been 17 years since I have seen them play; nudge, nudge, wink, wink).  The Cubs games are always on WGN.  That is who he identifies with because they are in his living room.  The jerseys and t-shirts, posters and memorabilia are all around him when he goes to the store.  It is almost like that is his only option.  For basketball, the Bulls are king and probably always will be.  I lost interest in the NBA when my "heros" went out to pasture like Barkley, Jordan, Bird, Malone, and Ewing so that isn't as much a priority.

He has more opportunity with the hockey and football though thanks to the internet and other sports related packages on TV.  Penguin games can be found all over cyberspace during the season and since drafting Crosby, they have been an excited team to watch, therefore bumping them to a marketable TV ratings team.  As for the Steelers, two Super Bowl titles in his life time have certainly not hurt their cause of getting some TV time in our market, especially when the Bears play opposite.  So at least until the play of both those teams falls off, I think the Black & Gold Nation will still have a chance to make a lasting impression.

I'm sure I will expound more on this topic at a later time but that is all for now.  Talk amongst yourselves.

9 comments:

  1. I grew up in Massachusetts a Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots fan.

    I now live in Northeast Indiana after a 5 year stint in Ohio, and I consider myself a Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Browns fan.

    I don't really watch enough hockey to change that one. Celtics signed the big 3, and I loved Ray Allen since He Got Game, and they now have Shaqtus, so they've got me for life. Red Sox...they're the freakin' Red Sox. Sometimes it pisses me off that we complain about the Yankees when we spend nearly as much..but then I remember how awful the Yankees are and I like the Red Sox again. I've been tempted by also ran small market teams (Reds, Royals, Rays) over time, but my Red Sox love runs true.

    So why did I leave the Pats?

    Well for 1, I didn't completely - they're my second favorite team. I loved when they won in 2001. I loved the second Super Bowl win too. But once Brady became a drama queen...and videogate came out...and we were perennial favorites...and everyone started to hate the Pats...it almost felt like cheering for the Yankees. Which was awful.

    Luckily I saw every Browns game in Ohio, and the combination of Josh Cribbs' kick returns, shoddy QB play, weird unis, a crazy history, and a terrific rivalry (with your Steelers) dragged me in. Then in this past offseason they traded for my favorite player (Seneca Wallace), and I'm so set with them. Let's go Browns!

    Plus it's fun to be the only optimistic Browns fan. With New England sports, we always thought we'd win but had our hearts broken again and again...but then our teams won a ton of championships over an 8-9 year span. I bring that "if you plug away at it you will end up winning" attitude to the Browns...which gets me lots of weird looks, but I love it.

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  2. I've been in SW Michigan for the past 12 years after spending the first 37 years in the Chicago burbs. I am still a Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and Hawks fan with no intentions of ever changing. WW Jr. was born in Michigan, but was never really given the chance to become a fan of the Detroit teams...Dad was always watching or talking about the Chicago teams. I'm lucky that the Cubs are on WGN, plus I pop for MLB Extra Innings each season, so I can see pretty much every Cubs game on TV. We get some South Bend TV stations and they will usually show the Bears, so I'm pretty well set for football. It's been harder to follow the Hawks and Bulls, but until this season, that hasn't been a high priority. The bottom line is that I will always consider myself a Chicago guy, and a Chicago fan, wherever I live.

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  3. See that, with the exception of the Mooss and his newfound support for the Mistake By The Lake, I think you are both in the same boat as I am. Great responses!!

    Mooss, I wonder if the Pats didn't become the perennial band wagon team would you still be a bigger fan?

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  4. Very likely yes. I haaaaaate bandwagon fans, especially bandwagon Yankee fans, and it kind of weirded me out that people from all over the country were all about the Patriots (or all about hating the Patriots) all of a sudden. The Celtics and Red Sox have a storied history, so I got why people would cheer for them from other locales. But the Patriots prior to 2001 were a team with two embarrassing Super Bowl losses and little else to remember other than a Snow Blower. They were the nice perennial also-ran team to cheer for along with the Sox and Celtics. But now they're as big as those teams to a lot of people, which just seems so wrong. It's like, why you gotta love my team? Go love your own team!

    So I went to the team that no one loves (not even Clevlanders) and I've been happy ever since. They're a great replacement for those 90's Pats, as they'll have the occasional wtf season (10-6 a few years back), but they mostly suck year after year. And it's so great!

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  5. And a follow up comment - Brady and Belechik represent a lot of the smug, better-than-everyone-else attitude that I like to forget exists in parts of Massachusetts. The Browns have much more of that 2004 Red Sox average joe feel to them, which I like a lot more.

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  6. Rambling here but I have been throughout the State of Indiana and when I drive to Chicago and go through that very tiny stretch of Northwest Indiana, that does NOT seem like Indiana.

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  7. What does it seem like, if you don't mind me asking?

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  8. It is quite a bit more "industrial" than I am used to driving down to Indianapolis. When I am in any other part of the state, I am thinking farmland. When I am passing through Michigan City, Gary and Hammond, I am thinking tractor supply, truck stops and trees. I don't see many trees driving down to Indy.

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  9. I guess it depends on your perspective. If you are on the Tollway, I suppose that is all you see. Driving down 65 or 69 to Indy pretty much yields you...well nothing. NW Indiana was built on industrial roots but it has since become basically a big city suburb.

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