All week long, I’ve been posting thoughts from Leaf fans on everything from the state of the franchise in general to another disappointing season in particular. Perspectives have varied from optimistic to less so, and to having given up on the team altogether. In looking at the situation as a whole and from a broader perspective, my question is what compels some to remain so loyal to one particular sports team that they will suffer through even the lowest of outputs on the ice while putting up record TV numbers & shelling out more money per seat than any other fans in the NHL? The reality is that this particular team has finished out of the playoffs in every season since the lockout, a feat which they currently hold on their own. Yup, the Islanders, Wild, Thrashers and even the Blue Jackets all qualified for the second season at least once since ’05-’06, while the Leafs have been on the outside looking in. Yet every fall, hope springs eternal, and even a positive record over 10-20 games is enough to convince fans that things are going to be alright. Yeesh.
Think of it this way. John Q Fan freakin’ loves McDonald’s, just can’t get enough of it. He goes as often as possible, orders up a Big Mac, fries & a Coke, soaking it all in and just happy to great a seat in what is usually a packed McBistro. Sure, there’s other fast food options out there, and maybe he goes home and has the runs every once in a while, but McDonald’s is the place for him, no matter what. One day, John gets a bad case of food poisoning from the special sauce, and spends the night hovered over the toilet. “Oh well”, he thinks, “I got burned once, but McD’s has been pretty good to me so far and I’m not about to give it up now.” It happens a second time, and then a third. By the fourth time, would anyone blame the guy for seeking nourishment elsewhere, or maybe taking a break altogether for the sake of his health & sanity?
Or consider the following. You need a new computer, so you purchase the first laptop you see. It starts out fine, but at some point over the winter, the thing just crashes & burns. Next fall, you pick up the same brand & hope for the best; it seems to have a bit more speed & the performance output has improved, but again, it doesn’t come through when you need it most as deadly viruses start getting past the computers defenses. Would anyone think twice about you doing some research, thinking logically about your options, and making a more educated choice about what computer to buy going forward?
It could be argued that when it comes to sports, the dynamics of being a consumer shift a bit because one is a fan of individuals or a group of individuals, and not just some corporate entity. Fair enough. But then I think about my love for Adam Sandler, and how I used to think that he could do no wrong. I ate up his movies, watched them repeatedly, and considered myself a ‘Sandler Man.’ But then Little Nicky happened, and I found myself walking out of the theatre. And the Grown Ups happened, and I didn’t bother going to the theatre. And finally Jack and Jill (of the 3% on Rotten Tomatoes variety) happened, which I have vowed never to watch. Sorry, but Sandler needs to seriously step up his game before I shell out more coin to see one of his movies.
Coincidentally, there happened to be an article by Michael Woods in the Toronto Star the other day with the headline “Maple Leaf GM Brian Burke’s head would roll in business world, experts say“. The basic premise of the article is that in the business world, high level people get about 3-4 years to prove their worth; if overall performance goes down or expectations aren’t me, someone has to be held accountable. Says Ken Wong, a business professor at Queen’s University: “We would certainly not tolerate what we’re seeing from Burke in the business world. He would certainly be asked a lot more questions in a much more adversarial way than the media has asked him. In financial circles, they’d be on him like a flock of buzzards.” In the article, Woods compares the Leafs situation to that of Blackberry maker Research in Motion. As Wong argues, “RIM keeps promising a breakthrough product and it doesn’t appear. You don’t have fans, but you have a whole bunch of pretty angry shareholders. The question becomes what do you do in that situation, and how do you turn it around.” While it is the shareholders who are ultimately in charge of taking those in charge to task, any necessary repercussions come about as a result of the fact that there are a multitude of disgruntled consumers out there actively seeking alternatives, as evidenced by the news that BlackBerry is now being outsold by the iPhone here in Canada. Some remain loyal to the RIM device, but a lack of innovation & a failure to tangibly demonstrate that the brand is moving forward in a positive fashion is starting to push others away. It’s a simple matter of the customer not being satisfied with the product delivered, and taking their business elsewhere.
Look, I’m all for supporting sports team to the end, and there’s a certain level of community & honour that comes with remaining faithful through the worst of times. When my beloved Bruins traded away Joe Thornton for a bag of hockey pucks, or tanked against the Flyers in 2010, I didn’t think twice about continuing to hope for the best for the old Black ‘n’ Gold … and yes, my patience was rewarded by being able to get my picture taken with the Cup last summer. At the same time, I’ve been called out in the past for not fully supporting the Raptors during their recent struggles, or for jumping on the Bills bandwagon when they achieved success early last season, for example. Granted, these are not my first sports loves, but, when it comes to the Raptors, I just can’t justify spending any amount of time watching this team on TV, let alone dropping my hard earned money to see them play at the ACC, as I often did in the past. If management or ownership isn’t committed and/or able of putting forth the best possible product, then why should I as a fan be bound to stick with them when I am more apt to be rewarded elsewhere? In the same way that we have no issue going a different route in terms of products & brands when not satisfied, one should be able to pull back and enjoy some other form of entertainment or consider other options in terms of teams or players to root for without any repercussions.
Something’s terribly wrong when it’s more acceptable to forego the ‘for better or worse’ of marriage than to switch allegiances in regards to your favorite sports team, or at the very least to say “you know what, I need a break.”
Alas, it doesn’t quite work that way. Whether it be sheer stubbornness or simple blind love, we feel compelled to remain with our teams through thick & thin, from Cup contention to the Draft lottery. Again, I can’t see myself never rooting for the Bruins, and I certainly can’t fault folks who remain loyal through even the darkest of times in their teams histories. What’s odd to me, however, is the disconnect between the world of sports and the rest of society in general when it comes to the issue of loyalty. At the end of the day, I’m not trying persuade folks to abandon their favorite teams; it’s only game, and I’m not going to begrudge anyone for choosing to support their team even in the worst of times, nor do I particularly care if someone feels the need to take a break from constant mediocrity. But if one is constantly settling for inferior products, investing time & money into something that quite simply has little to offer, sometimes it only makes sense to move on, or at least demand a better return. If this is true for all that we consume on a daily basis, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to allow that principle to translate into the world of sports and the concept of being a fan.