On Sports Irrelevance
E-pundit and male-human-who-is-a-fan-of-sports Bill Simmons has cashed in nicely on being among the first to Web 2.0-ize sports journalism (a topic addressed here). He’s also likely the most knowledgeable person under 50 on professional basketball, so I found myself revisiting a much-discussed column of his in trying to process the unlikely run of success my hometown Milwaukee Bucks have had in the NBA playoffs. Essentially, Simmons proffers the sports equivalent of “Better to have loved and lost…” as a way to hierarchize whose fans have suffered more than others. Fans of the New York Knicks, for example, are more “tortured” than, say, those of the Pittburgh Pirates not only because the former has gone longer without a title (1973 for the Knicks; 1979 for the Pirates), but also because the Knicks have since played in more “gut-wrenching” games and suffered through the historically ruinous tenure of general manager Isaiah Thomas. All the Pirates have done recently is set the North American record for futility last fall when they completed their 17th consecutive losing season.
Now, Simmons is a bar-room philosophizer and an unabashed homer. His version of Theory is mostly fun and innocuous as a conversation-starter (except when, um, it isn’t), but something about his terms of debate seem sympomatic to me of how mainstream sports media institutions cover various teams, markets, and their fans. That is, the teams/fans we define as most “tortured” or “suffering” are almost always the ones that have first been deemed worthy of our attention. Part of this definition, obviously, is based on history. The Chicago Cubs became the nation’s “Loveable Losers” in large part because they haven’t won the World Series in over 100 years. The other part of the definition, though, is based on narrative. Teams with a long history of losing have ready-made stories for sound-bite-sized consumption; others have charismatic superstars or cancer survivors or some other compelling triumph over adversityTM. But what about the teams that have neither history nor story; the ones that simply loiter in the lower half of the standings year-in and year-out; the ones so unremarkable that they don’t even have a bandwagon? And what happens when these teams do, every once in a while, become relevant?
This brings me to the Milwaukee Bucks and their unexpected playoff success against the far superior Atlanta Hawks. Both teams share similar histories of middling success, but the Hawks play a camera-friendly brand of basketball that’s led to their home court being nicknamed the “highlight factory.” Talking points and b-roll for games telecast from Atlanta were a no-brainer, but what of their star-less, style-less opponents? Some tidbits about the telecasts from Milwaukee:
- When coming back from commercial during game 4, ESPN showed stock footage of the Capitol building and State St. in Madison, WI.
- Responding to an Atlanta player’s complaint that “there ain’t nothing to do in Milwaukee,” color commentator Jon Barry half-jokingly sang the praises of the city’s beer and bratwursts.
- Marvelling at the unusual sight of capacity crowds in Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, players, coaches, and broadcasters alike asserted that the Bucks were “doing this for the city,” the ultimate trope for narrativizing sporting “success” in a small market.
Regarding the last bullet point, don’t mistake this for a big-market vs. small-market beef (the Los Angeles Clippers are just as pitiful and ignored by sports media as the Pittsburgh Pirates). I just want to know more about the isolated incidents of irrelevance like the ones I experienced this past week, ones that are inexorably swallowed up by coverage of the Yankees’ victory parade or LeBron’s free-agency or Tim Tebow, lemme tellya, this kid, he has HEART, but he has no chance in THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE TM, must never be said as acronym and must always be shouted. I want to know more about the teams that perennially make first-round playoff exits, or ones that had no business being there in the first place. I want to know more about expansion franchises and league contractions and the flotsam and jetsam of teams that relocate. I want to know about season-ticket holders for the WNBA and the MLS. I want to know how a Toronto Raptors fan feels about Vince Carter, how a Seattle SuperSonics fan feels about Kevin Durant, or how a Florida Marlins fan feels about Scott Stapp.
Mostly, I want fans who claim to suffer so much more than those not fortunate enough to follow a tortured team to recognize the difference between being “tortured” and being irrelevant. If you’re really not sure which you’d rather be, try meeting a 17-year-old Pirates fan.