When Team Loyalty Dies, Fan Loyalty Follows
A Business Comparison
Sports have been ruined not only by their commercialization, which I will not cover here, but equally importantly by a lack of substance. It is the same reason why we work jobs that we don't care about to make products that we don't care about. This is also the reason why there is poor quality, poor customer service, and a general lack of value for much of what we see around us.
When you produce something that does not directly impact you, the extent to which you care for the product is hindered, whether through natural processes or outright apathy. It's only reasonable that your concern for quality will be limited in as much as "how does this affect my next raise/promotion/performance review." Why would you care any more than that?
And on a mass production level, how could you care any more than that? You cannot be fully invested in the pure quality of every piece that leaves your factory, nor with every customer experience. You take the one bad review for every 99 good ones and call it a day. You accept the x number of failed parts-per-million and suggest that the number be lower but never fathom hitting zero. Never mind those ten thousand customers that have a bad experience, compared to the millions who enjoy the product.
The point being, you may be invested in the growth of the company, increased share prices, the performance of the product on the whole, or any number of things—but your focus is always on the money and how to make more of it. In this event, there will be no loyalty, except to that which will generate revenue in the next quarter or fiscal year. You will listen to the consumer only because they buy the product. But that is where your connection with them will end.
In some ways, this is simply business. Why trust the consumer wholeheartedly when they could just as easily buy from your competitor? Their loyalty is as firm as your own—that is, it isn't.
But it has to start somewhere and somebody has to extend an olive branch. And it has to be the company. When consumers devote themselves to a specific brand or label, they are making a personal commitment that resonates beyond a simple business transaction. They have formed an interpersonal relationship with an unknowing conglomerate and therefore the relationship is one-sided and always will be.
No company will make an exception for Dave in Texas and treat him better than any other customer just because he has "professed his commitment to the brand." They will treat Dave the same way as every other customer. No, if we want a true trustworthy relationship, it has to start with the company seeing each customer as an individual and connecting with that person. Something that is improbable in some ways but not entirely impossible.
Sports Without Purpose
Which brings me back to sports. If it were not for the American public's natural desire for competition in any form, then sports leagues would be hard on their luck. I imagine if you convinced two parakeets to fight, people would line up and pay money to see it. Not because of a firm connection with one of the two animals but simply because they want to watch two birds fight. Sports teams as they stand today are no different than this. I am going to use my own beloved teams for this example but do not misinterpret this to mean that they are the problem in and of itself. Every professional team is part of this problem, with only the Green Bay Packers being remotely unique in that their city owns the team.
When I cheer for the Cleveland Browns, what am I actually cheering for, and likewise, what are they providing for me? As a Browns fan, I'm well aware that the answers to these questions are "nothing" and "even less than that." But in seriousness, what are the answers?
What does it mean to cheer for the Browns? The basic answer is "well, they're my team," but I would ask what does that even mean? What is the team, exactly, and what does it represent?
Some would say it represents the fans, but that just seems cyclical and nonsensical. They represent the people that cheer for them, who cheer for them because they represent them? Something is missing there.
Some say that the team represents the city and having pride in one's city, but I would also ask how does it accomplish that? Just by being there? That doesn't seem accurate. If that were the case, why do the Houston Texans represent Houston when the Houston Oilers were what represented the city with which to begin? Wouldn't the Houston Oilers still be the representative of the city if it meant something more?
I'm not saying I'm right about this line of thinking or this judgment, but it is where my mind is at, currently. When my beloved Cleveland Browns were torn away from the city in 1995, we were devastated but what was it that made us so miserable about it? What was our connection to the team?
It has to be something more than just those hideous colors. It had to be more than those jerseys which would soon read "Baltimore." There was something deeper and more meaningful to the fans, and I would suggest that that something was tradition and familiarity. Years of watching the Browns with Dad or Grandpa. Childhood memories of Jim Brown or Ozzie Newsome that you could link with the smells of Mom's cooking or hanging out with your best buddy. Whatever it was, something was being ripped away from the people. Just like in Baltimore in the 1980s. Or more recently, San Diego.
These were not simple business transactions for these fans. It wasn't the case of "I like Wendy's but I think I'll go to Burger King instead." They were committed to their team and had chosen to make a personal connection with that team and its product—a commitment that was not reciprocated. See, these relationships don't work that way and never will because the provider entity only cares about consumers in as much as they feed it cash. And if it can get more cash and increase its value with a different group of consumers, it will follow the dollars.
A Missing Connection to the City
These teams mean nothing to the cities that house them because the owners are often not from that city and don't care about the city and secondly, the players are not from that city and don't care about the city. From time to time, you'll see an athlete that becomes totally enamored with the city in which he plays and call it his home. He'll buy a house, contribute to the community, raise a family there... it's an awesome thing when it happens and you can see that in the way the fans rally around that player, even if he is relatively mediocre by professional standards. The reason being is that there is a connection there—a person who cares what the fans want because he wants the same thing. A person who does represent the city and its people, in some ways, because he actually lives there.
If you are a player on, I don't know, pick a team... the Kansas City Chiefs... but live in Long Beach, California, then what on Earth do you care what the people of KC think? What are your motivations by that point? To play to the best of your abilities in which your true motive is either notoriety (career leader, hall of fame, etc.) or a bigger contract with the highest bidder. Nothing in your mind thinks about Kansas City, its football history, what the team might mean to them... none of it.
These big leaguers talk a good game at their post-draft press conferences with statements like "This town has a proud tradition of football and I'm just happy to be a part of it" or some other blender babble that has been said by every other three-years-then-gone-in-free-agency player that has entered the league. Quite honestly, with teams built from the top down with outsiders, I'm surprised anybody at all ever cares about any team. Again, it has to be that people love competition and have personal connections to the local team but that is absolutely where the romance ends in most cases.
For evidence that fans want a deeper emotional connection to their team (and to have that connection reciprocated), look no further than the case of LeBron James. Akron-born and a local superstar before he had even received his high school diploma, Northeast Ohio cherished James like no other since Bernie Kosar. He took the Cavaliers to the NBA finals in 2007 and got swept, but Cleveland and the rest of northern Ohio didn't care. We were proud of him because he was one of our own, playing for us.
I'm not sure how else to put this into words. LeBron James could have never won a single title with the Cavaliers, only bringing them to elevated mediocrity over a 16-year career, and we would have renamed a city after him and given him free breakfasts at Bob Evan's for life. Because, again, he was our own, playing for us. Representing us. So when he left the team, it was a deeper cut than, say, Kyrie Irving leaving (I know, Irving was traded. I'm hypothetically comparing if he had left town on his own accord).
Part of that is the way he did it, of course, stringing the Cleveland fans along and then announcing his break-up on live TV to the world. But even without that, Clevelanders, Akronites, and every other Ohioan that followed the sport would have felt betrayed—the local kid who dumped his people for Miami.
A Simple Solution (That Still Needs Work)
The people in your community are your people. You may not agree on religion or politics or any number of other things but you do all know what it is like to live in that city, metropolitan area, region, etc. You share the same storms. The same stories. The same news. It is that sense of community—a oneness—that brings a group of people together.
Sports teams have been hijacked and transformed into a collection of paid-to-play freelancers that don't care about anything related to the city or its people. But if we changed that—if the league were instead structured in such a way that you coached or played for your home team, imagine the bond between player and fan. Not only would the fans be screaming "you are one of us" but the players and coaches would be screaming, with equal ferocity, "I am one of you." The team would mean something again, as not only would it be labeled with the city name but it would be comprised of those very people it supposedly represents.
How would you define a person's home town? Is it their birthplace? Where they grew up? Where they graduated? I imagine there would be leeway there and I would hate to lose sight of the principle in the name of bureaucracy. Coaches and players should not only love their sport but should also love the team they are joining. They should know that where they go is where they spend their career. In some ways, it would be unfair to force them to stick with one job in one location—especially if the team happens to be a toxic environment (camaraderie with the city doesn't make the locker room immune from turmoil) and those are finer details that would need to be worked out.
Then there are the cases of disproportionate populations, regional disadvantages, salary disparities, and so on and so forth. The point is that starting from that place and working backwards for the outlier cases as noted above seems more appropriate than the wholesale shuffling of the deck and sending guys to any-which team in every state for big-money contracts. In the former, at least there is a desire to play the sport and to play it for your own community, even if salary or performance issues arise. In the latter, money motivates far too many decisions, leaving the fans to cheer for something they deep down, do not care about.