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COLUMN

In Sports, Loyalty Can Hurt The Team

Vivek Rao

Ever notice how people in the professional sports world only mention the business and economic aspects of their line of work when they stand to profit? We hear players complaining all the time about how they deserve to be paid a salary comparable to their market value. Or owners griping about politicians who refuse to pony up the money needed to build a stadium, which they claim would be all the team needed to be a financially viable championship contender. And who can forget Jerry Maguire, a rather realistic portrayal of an agent determined to snag the biggest contract available?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to wax poetically about the glory days when athletes played for the love of the game and cared not whether they made money. Such a notion is ludicrous. After all, professional sports are businesses above all else. Players and coaches should be encouraged to seek as high a wage as conditions dictate, while owners should not be excessively chastised for pursuing profits instead of victories.

Unfortunately, fans are the very last ones to accept this blatant and undeniable truth. They continue to buy tickets and satellite television packages, wear team merchandise, and collect paraphernalia, all while failing to adjust their standards to the quality of play they witness on the field, court, ice, or gridiron.

All of this can really be sized down and summed up by basic concepts of supply and demand. Professional sports teams supply one main product: a game. Sure, they sell caps and beach towels, hot dogs and beer, but when all is said and done, it is the game that draws people. Fans, meanwhile, demand this game, and they pay for it by showing up at the gate or watching it on television.

The problem is that there is often a far too huge disconnect between the quality of the product supplied and the demand for that product. When an owner opts not to spend the money required to assemble a talented team, inevitably the wins dry up and quality of play diminishes. However, while we demand quality and performance from everything else we buy in our daily lives -- our food, our appliances, our automobiles -- we tend to subvert those high standards when it comes to following sports, all in the name of “loyalty,” emphasis on the quotation marks.

For some reason, there is a wacky but established notion that says that a “loyal” sports fan is one who follows his team through thick and thin, who will show up for just as many games in a rebuilding year as a championship season. The notion is thick-headed and unproductive, and ultimately ends up undermining the team’s future success.

The Boston Bruins are a perfect example of this phenomenon. Miserly owner Jeremy Jacobs views his franchise as a business operation -- a perfectly reasonable stance -- and as such, he is rarely willing to spend the money needed to attract top-class talent and produce championships. In a more ideal world, fans would respond to this business strategy by demanding fewer tickets and avoiding spending money on their favorite team, thereby forcing Jacobs to pursue some amount of talent in order to continue to profit. Sadly, Bruins fans instead forget about business and economics, and instead return to their lifelong emotional arguments of “loyalty,” choosing to support the team even in times of dearth. A fan with a better sense of the big picture must realize that the only way to be loyal to one’s team is to attend games when the team is performing at a high level, but limit following them during unsuccessful runs, relying primarily on the daily paper or the nightly news and severely cutting down trips to the stadium.

As a lifelong local, it pains me to say that my beloved Boston is the home of another useful case study, but of course, it is. A few miles away from the Bruins’ home at North Station, the Boston Red Sox charge fans an average of $42.34 to see a ballgame at Fenway Park. For some more perspective, consider that the second-highest average ticket price in Major League Baseball is the New York Yankees’ $24.86, with an overall league average of $18.69.

How is it that the Red Sox are able to get away with this highway robbery? The answer in part lies in the fact that fans realize that the team faces a major obstacle in the small size of Fenway Park. However, that is not the complete story. Sox fans are -- in my humble opinion -- even more “loyal” than their Bruin counterparts, and the results are both heavenly and disastrous. On one hand, the team has become a pillar of the city. On the other hand, it hasn’t one a championship in 85 years. New owner John Henry, meanwhile, convinced that Fenway gate receipts and NESN television subscriptions will not drop off in the near future, slashed the team payroll this year and opted not to go after a few talented players via free agency or the trade. And yet the fans will still be there, all season long.

The solution is clear; fans as a whole must find some way of boycotting -- not necessarily completely, but, more realistically, partially -- struggling and unproductive teams who produce a less than entertaining product. To be certain, some strides have been made. Throughout much of the country, losing teams often tend to draw smaller crowds, but the phenomenon is hardly universal. A number of franchises attract people regardless of their actual product, and the situation is simply infeasible financially -- for fans, not owners, of course. The fault of high ticket prices in professional sports lies solely on the head of fans, as owners are merely exploiting the obscenely and unnaturally high level of interest that frequently accompanies even the lowliest of teams. Even if it may mean sacrificing some of my devotion to teams like the Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots, I, for one, intend to follow through with my new philosophy. Well, starting tomorrow, that is. Tonight I head to Fenway. Come on, Pedro is pitching; can’t miss that, right?