Wake up fans Sports are not about you


“It was a business decision.” Familiar refrain, remixed ad nauseum.

Carmelo Anthony signed, sealed, delivered himself from Denver’s crisp mountain air to the bright lights of NYC’s concrete jungle. Sure, he held an entire fanbase hostage. Mere collateral damage. Shoulda stayed home from the bank that day.

Deron Williams orchestrated his own coup, getting himself shipped from the pristine banks of the Great Salt Lake, to the muddled-up shores of the Hudson River.

LeBron and Bosh left the rust belt for the sun belt. Amare fled the desert. The Great Migration of the 2010-2011 NBA season is fully complete; players taking it upon themselves to redraw the borders of the basketball landscape. And they have every right to do this.

If you felt you could get paid more, and work your way higher up the ladder in another job at another company, wouldn’t you make this leap, too? In our millennial generation’s mindset of finding deeper meaning and chasing our fantasies through constantly shifting careers, we’ve become hell-bent on eschewing loyalty to achieving what’s ours, bystanders be damned.

So when fans say athletes don’t represent their values, they’re either older and out-of-touch with today’s culture, or they don’t own a mirror. Athletes are exactly like fans, just propped up by extra zeroes on their paychecks. They want to do what’s best for them, provide for their families and realize and maximize their full potential. Success, wealth, fame, fortune, independence. We all strive for these to some degree. Athletes are just rewarded more lucratively, and scrutinized more heavily, than you or I.

Writers (perhaps wrongly) believe if they don’t represent the voice of the true fan, no one will read them. That’s why Rick Reilly’s latest column (intentionally, or not) misses the point: “The NBA is no longer fan-tastic”, he claims in over 1,200 words. Was it ever? Sports is a business. Fans of business are called “customers” and “clients.” That’s what we are. Clients. “The Customer is Always Right” or “The Customer Comes First” are PR euphemisms for “We know we can’t make any money without you.” It’s why teams and leagues have marketing departments, why athletes have image managers and representation and ‘handlers.’ They do their best to convey a false premise of “we couldn’t do this without the fans.” It’s why writers side with the fans when analyzing various transactions. The fans drive the industry, but not with their passion … with their wallets.

The sports industry is no different than the manufacturing, finance, health care industries. They all exist to turn a profit. They all exist to make as much money as a whole, and hiring the best people to make that happen, and paying them appropriate wages to do so.

The nature of the industry, the purpose it serves, however, inspires irrational devotion and incredible brand loyalty. You don’t see too many posters in kids’ bedrooms of Blue Cross – Blue Shield or Applebee’s. But you can’t throw a six-yard out anywhere in Western PA without finding a Steelers flag, bumper sticker, or some kid wearing a Troy Polamalu wig.

There would still be sports without fans, followers, devotees and scribes. They’d play pick-up games in local rec centers, just like you or I. But they’re great at what they do, and that’s partly why we watch. The teams assume the name of our city, and that’s why we identify with the teams. It’s a source of civic pride, and that’s also why we watch.

George Karl says, “The question is, will the fans support players whose egos are bigger than the game?” That question’s been unequivocally answered: Yes. We already do … and we have for years.

Athletes always got the girls in high school. We always admired the fastest and the strongest as children. We cheer for our alma mater’s sports teams, and our hometown clubs and for athletes who entertain and engage us. Sports branding is easy: Here’s your laundry, here’s your built-in client base. Also, to further expand your cult of personality, here’s your endorsement options – choose wisely. Here’s a microphone – choose your words wisely.

When the SportsFansCoalition demands representation at the NFL’s labor talks, the premise is laughable. Do Chevy Owners sit in on UAW-GM negotiations? Do students take part in salary negotiations between teachers and administrators? Consumers don’t have a voice. It is not about them.

When Carmelo Anthony “holds a fanbase hostage”, waiting to be traded away from the only team for which he’s played, he’s not doing it intentionally, irrationally or irreparably. He’s doing it irrespective of the collateral damage being caused. Melo’s doing what’s best for him, and the two teams tangoing in the transaction are doing what’s best for them. The league allows it, because it’s best for the game.

It’s not about you, fans, no matter how you express your rage. TV contracts and ticket sales. Until you siphon off the line that fuels the industry, business will keep right on booming. With or without you.