On Sports Irrelevance

May 2, 2010
By | 11 Comments

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.


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11 Responses to “ On Sports Irrelevance ”

  1. Lindsay H. Garrison on May 2, 2010 at 10:41 AM

    Great column, Nick. The media narratives created around what you call “irrelevant” teams when they become relevant (i.e. in the playoffs, tournaments, championship games) are always fascinating. The “doing it for the city” certainly gets picked up a lot, and of course the “Cinderella” bit. You mostly refer to professional teams, but the narratives around college teams are also equally interesting, with Butler’s run in the NCAA tourney freshly in our minds. But I wonder, is it easier to root for “irrelevant”/underdog/small-market college teams? We get stories of hardworking childhoods, school spirit, and misty-eyed parents as opposed to shots of other cities and cliched ‘eat a brat’ talk. (Also, on a related note, after Duke won, I think Bill Simmons tweeted something like, ‘Thank g-d for the Saints, or we’d have Duke, Alabama, the Yankees, the Lakers, and the Colts reign in 2010, otherwise known as the apocalypse.’)

    On another related note, a bit more personal, I myself am also a fan of what many might call an “irrelevant” baseball team – a little baseball team called the Texas Rangers. They’re one of only 3 or 4 teams in the MLB that has never been to a World Series, and among those, they’re the oldest franchise that’s never been. NOr have they ever been close (they’ve never even won a play-off series, period). There is something to be said for investing summer after summer (never fall, of course) in the Rangers, but that fandom always seems to be dismissed by others, who often tell me “oh, whatever, you’ve got the Cowboys.” Indeed, when A-Rod came to Texas, so much of the coverage was, “in a sports town like Dallas” – cue shot of Cowboys Super Bowls, the stadium star, blah blah – “fans are used to big names and big paychecks,” with only a brief mention of the Rangers, the ballpark, and actual Dallas baseball. So, it’s somewhat of an interesting fact that “irrelevant” teams in large markets tend to be doubly erased. Although, I have to caveat that I, too, am a so-so fan of the Cowboys, having grown up there, and I’m also a fan of another “perennial” team, the Texas Longhorns, having gone to school there, so I can hardly claim all-around hardship of irrelevant sports fandom. Nonetheless, it irks me to no end when Rangers fans, stories, and experiences are brushed aside not only in national coverage but in local coverage as well.

  2. Myles McNutt on May 2, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    Great stuff, Nick – I think we tend to take sports narratives for granted outside of Olympic seasons, as one of the things you note is the entrenched nature of these perspectives. It’s not like Sports narratives are constantly changing, as the most “change” which can take place is that new teams take on the same old roles (as is the case with Milwaukee being placed in the “Doing it for the state” mode, which was last brought out in its “Doing it for the city” form with THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE’s Saints).

    The ongoing NHL Playoffs are an interesting example of this, from a broadcasting perspective. In Canada, national public broadcaster CBC and TSN share the rights, an odd lottery process which essentially boils down to “CBC gets to pick first, then TSN gets what’s left over.” So CBC was forced to decide between the two Canadian teams in the Eastern Conference (the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens), while TSN got whatever they didn’t select. They chose the Ottawa Senators, because they were hitting a “star narrative” in the form of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, a series which Pittsburgh won pretty easily (albeit in 6 games).

    However, while Montreal were expected to go down pretty easily to the NHL’s best team, they turned it into a 7-game thriller that gave TSN the best narrative of the opening round, hands down. However, the joy of sport is that no one could have seen it coming, the unpredictability meaning that even TSN had no idea what they were choosing when the broadcasting rights were organized.

    But now they adapt: Montreal becomes the scrappy underdog trying to pull off another upset, this time against the star narrative of Sidney Crosby, which gives CBC (who now gets every Canadian team left by default) an even better narrative in the second round. Playoffs force networks to “adapt” on the fly, making it an intriguing test for the entrenched narratives omnipresent in such sporting events.

  3. Mabel Rosenheck on May 2, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    This is really interesting on so many levels.
    First of all, I’m a baseball fan and I grew up in Connecticut. My dad grew up in New York and was a Giants fan, obviously they were long gone by the time I started following baseball. I’m a staunchly National League girl so no Yankees or Red Sox for me… and the Mets never really did it for me either. Point being, I essentially grew up without a team, and my boyfriend and I have had endless debates about whether its worse to grow up without a team at all or with a team that is largely terrible. He is a Phillies fan, and I have become one too.

    So the debate over which is worse, which is more tortured has morphed into a debate more focused on narratives and media coverage (and umpire calls) of our beloved team. He’s exceedingly cynical and still thinks everyone is against the phils… I’m not so sure. The point is that in the last three years, to some degree the national media coverage of the Phillies has, in some ways, changed pretty drastically. Truth be told, in 2008 when we won the world series, the national media didn’t quite know what to do with us. They wanted a Red Sox-Dodgers series (this is right after Manny was traded from Boston to LA). They wanted two of the biggest baseball markets in the country. Instead, they got the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies. Philly of course is the 4th or 5th largest media market in the country but somehow we became a small market-little engine that could type club. So in 2008 I think you could easily position the Phils as one of the clubs you discuss above. In 2009 however, when we play the YANKEES (much like the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE) a lot of things changed. We became “America’s Team.” We were the noble underdog taking on the Evil Empire. The national media had a way to frame our narrative. (And interestingly we were largely legitimated as a club based on LOSING to the YANKEES… BEATING the rays to take the Series meant far lass.) Now, with Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard’s $125,000,000 contract and a team looking for its third WS appearance in a row… I think the discourse/narrative may be morphing again.

    However, what’s perhaps even more interesting about this post is the emphasis it places on national media. One of the things I think is most interesting about sports is this national/local dynamic. (Like Lindsay’s point about sports in Dallas being overshadowed by football, Philly has become a baseball town in a new way where in the early 2000s it was far more E-A-G-L-E-S than anything else.) the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE and the NBA both have more national coverage in the regular season than does MLB or the NHL, which raises some interesting questions not only about how different sports operate differently but how network tv versus ESPN work to construct these narratives. This post encourages me to think not only about how the Phillies have been constructed in the national media– which is certainly important and revealing– but comparing that to not only local corporate media, but local bloggers/tweeters… which at least in Philly has become huge business. How do we understand grand narratives constructed by dozens of sources? How do they work together continuously and how do they compete? How many local narratives are there?

    All of which is to say good stuff, go flyers and go phils!

  4. Christine Becker on May 2, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    As these comments indicate, it’s also interesting to consider the ways in which sports team narratives get written and inescapably attached to the team’s fans, whether it applies to those fans as individuals or not. As a life-long Cubs fan, I am long-tired of the assumption that my fandom is oriented around self-indulgent self-pity, but that’s the narrative inescapably cemented around Cubs fandom (and perpetuated incessantly by, for instance, White Sox fans. In fact, don’t even get me started on the dueling narrative assumptions b/w Cubs and White Sox fans. I hate the White Sox solely because White Sox fans hate me). Being a fan of a team means you get lumped in with its narrative identity at any given point. Sometimes you want that, and you happily incorporate it as part of your personal identity (bandwagoners being a good example). And sometimes you don’t want it but go ahead and live with the consequences of it because the team matters more to you than narrative, and because you grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and the Cubs were the only team you could tune in on your crappy TV, and your dad instilled in you a one-team-only-in-perpetuity mode of fandom (and thanks a lot for that, Pops).

  5. Derek Kompare on May 2, 2010 at 2:26 PM

    Great post and comments! There’s something that the ESPNization of sports has really, really contributed (or should I say exploited?) in this posturing and positioning and debating. That is, I think the intensity of sports was felt more locally than nationally pre-ESPN; i.e., that the narratives and dynasties and such were primarily experienced locally, and only rarely spilled over nationally. Keep in mind that the NFL TV coverage was virtually nil prior to the first Super Bowl in 1967, and that even NBA and MLB national coverage was limited to a handful of weekly games till the 1980s. College basketball and football prior to ESPN were strictly local aside from a couple of games on ABC and CBS each weekend. In these environments, dynasties (UCLA in the 70s, the Big Red Machine, the Steelers) and stars (Broadway Joe, Dr. J, Gordie Howe) might still hit significant national consciousness, but anything below that level was largely irrelevant outside of those local areas.

    Fast forward to 2010, where wall-to-wall multi-platform interactive sports coverage is the norm, giving virtually endless space for all sorts of positioning (and here Bourdieu’s work on fields of cultural production is pretty important). Every team in every league in every major sport (and many minor ones) is analyzed, broken down, prognosticated, and ranked by fans and analysts all over the continent and planet every day. In this environment, all possible narratives are articulated at some point, by somebody. Locality still matters intensely, but the difference now is that that locality is itself constantly played on national and international stages.

    To chime in with my own sports perspective on this, I’m a University of Arizona Wildcat fan to the bone (painfully, these days, after AZ’s SB 1070), which involves many layers of positioning. Statewide, the rivalry with Arizona State (in everything) is primary, as it is with every other pairing in the Pac-10, and many elsewhere (e.g., Texas vs. Oklahoma). It involves tallying up head-to-head wins, conference wins, bowl games, etc. And that’s just football, and that’s just before you get to arcane individual stats. At the conference level, it involves an annual reminder that the UA is the only team in the conference never to win an outright conference championship and play in the Rose Bowl; painful variations are played out annually (e.g., the Cats were six seconds from defeating eventual champ Oregon last November. Sigh.). At the national level, it’s played out in BCS posturing, with SEC fans mocking the Pac-10 for being USC + 9 for most of the last decade, and Pac-10 fans firing back at the SEC schools’ regular scheduling of out-of-conference cupcakes.

    While the arms race in college football still favors a dozen or so perennial powers, rendering all others (including my Wildcats) as only would-be contenders, parity is much more the case in most other major sports these days. Thus, there is more room for new narratives as teams rise and fall (e.g., with the Phillies, as Mabel points out). Any inkling of a rise or fall will be played up, pounced on, debated and so on, not only locally (where it would have been the only place that mattered, 40 years back) but nationally and even globally. We’re still stuck with the Yankees, Cowboys, and Dukes of the sports world, but I’d argue their cultural dominance is nowhere near as great as it once was.

  6. Christopher Cwynar on May 2, 2010 at 3:21 PM

    I really like Derek’s comments about the interplay between the local and the national in the present-day sportsmedia universe. Consuming my beloved Senators in the first round of the NHL playoffs, I was struck by the contrasts between different media levels in the game coverage by the CBC and Versus, the stories in the Ottawa Citizen (local), CBC.ca and The Globe and Mail (national), and ESPN (international in focus, but heavily US-oriented). The further that one got from the local market, the less awareness there seemed to be of the particular qualities and issues associated with the 2009-2010 Ottawa Senators. This is perhaps to be expected given that Ottawa is a small market and the Sens lack superstars on the Crosby, Ovechkin level. Yet, on ESPN and CNNSI.com the Sens were always mentioned, usually as a middling team that stood in the way of Sidney Crosby’s quest for a second consecutive Stanley Cup. Here, the objective was the elevation of Crosby even at the expense of his own small market team, a team that had been engaged in a struggle over its very existence in Pittsburgh just prior to Crosby’s arrival. In my day-after-the-game reading, I would go from updates on the most minute details pertaining to the Sens’ roster and performance to coverage of the ‘Canadian teams’ and their quest to bring the cup home (it hasn’t been won by a CDN squad since 93) to stock star narratives in which the Sens figured only as a shadowy nemesis to be vanquished by Sid The Kid and company.

    I guess that my point is that the present superabundance of professional sports coverage, which is itself a function of the tremendous investment that fans make in the various entities associated with these leagues, now allows various narratives and characterizations to be played off of one another. Sitting here in Wisconsin, I can access the local coverage of my team and play that off of those who would deem it irrelevant. While I agree with Myles’ point that the same old sports narratives tend to proliferate in this new sportsmedia universe, I think that there is also room for increased pushback on the basis of local affiliation, interests resulting from fantasy sports, and other factors. While the days of cheap tickets to your average playoff game have passed, I don’t know that there’s ever been a better time to follow a team from afar. There are so many resources available now for fans and onlookers to use in the production of their own relationships with the objects of their interest, be they teams, players, coaches, or even executives.

    • Mabel Rosenheck on May 2, 2010 at 5:06 PM

      in response to both Derek and Christopher… its funny because i think that the “ESPNization” of the sports world is in pretty drastic decline– at least if youre a big fan of a specific team and especially if you dont live in that city anymore. Almost all of the coverage I follow of the Phils is local, mostly amateur blogs and tweets, but especially MLB.TV which gives me any home game feed and MLBradio through which I can get every phillies broadcast from WPHT. In contrast to the 10-15 years ago when every morning I got up and watched SportsCenter, now I get up and read blogs.

  7. Michael Dwyer on May 2, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    Great discussion so far. Thanks to all.

    I can offer some perspective on “tortured” MLS fanbases, as I’ve watched the New England Revolution lose four (count ’em) four MLS Cup championship matches, including three in a row. The Revs were soon after dubbed “the Buffalo Bills of MLS”–which I think was inaccurate for at least two reasons. The first is the peculiar status of the American soccer fan, and the second is the function of sports in crafting local identity in postindustrial rust belt cities.

    First, despite the futility of the Revs in championship matches (or the pain of fans in San Jose, Miami and Tampa, whose MLS teams either folded or re-located), fans of MLS are generally boosters of American soccer first, fans of their teams second. There are many reasons for this – the original small footprint of the league,the small media presence, and the relatively short history of most teams. But beyond this, I think American soccer fandom is build on the shared experiences of trying to convince kids in the neighborhood to play pickup games in the summer, of searching through sporting goods catalogues and spanish-language channels for any hint of the game, and begging bartenders to switch one TV to a soccer match. American soccer fans thus feel more investment in the game itself, and for that reason prioritize the health and vitality of the sport in this country over individual club allegiances.

    The second reason that the “Buffalo Bills of MLS” moniker is inaccurate is that the kind of “torture” that Buffalo or Cleveland sports fan has undergone–and the celebration that Pittsburgh’s sports teams have experienced–is intrinsically tied to the socioeconomic trauma those cities have undergone. Those cities have lost 50% of their population in the last 50 years, and had their industrial identity demolished within 8-10 years. For Pittsburghers, the Steelers 1970s successes were a reminder of the city’s former glory, and Steeler fandom was one way to maintain a connection to the city even as thousands were forced to relocate to cities across America (witness the worldwide phenomenon of “Steelers Bars”). For Buffalo and Cleveland, their sports failures only reflects their diminished economic and cultural influence–while cities like New York, Los Angeles and Dallas prospered (both economically and on the field), Cleveland and Buffalo could never overcome those ‘big markets.’ That, at least in part, is why their losses resonate beyond those of the Revs–even though the Revs lost 2 of those matches in extra time and one on penalties! And all that with the worst front office in the league. Gah!

  8. Nick Marx on May 3, 2010 at 9:13 AM

    Thanks, everyone, for your insightful (and voluminous!) comments. Some quick thoughts:

    Lindsey–great point about irrelevant teams in big markets. It was a statewide thing for us in WI with the Packers throughout the 2000s. And to Derek’s point a bit, the relevant/irrelevant framework doesn’t work quite as well for college athletics, if only because of the sheer number of teams and subsequently greater focus on localism than in pro sports (more on that in a sec).

    Miles and Mabel–both strong points. I want to stress the “isolated incidents of irrelevance” part of my post not only for its insufferable alliteration, but because I really don’t know how to Theorize Grandly like Simmons. That is, the narratives change on a series by series basis, especially, as Mabel points out, depending on the opponent. But as Myles also says, there’s a certain hegemonic pull towards entrenched narratives. So, like any good cultural studies position, the conclusion is that it’s both.

    Christine–yes and yes. If I’d had more room to write here and/or a pitcher to share with you all in person, this is what I’d dig at more–how at the personal level we constantly adapt to the narratives offered to us by our teams and the coverage of them. This is my beef with Simmons–no one owns passion, it’s not a quantifiable thing just because team X has 14 more years of “suffering” than team Y. Suffering is a qualitative thing. We all suffer in our own ways and to varying degrees. Of course, having the privilege of watching Alfonso Soriano skip in the outfield probably entitles you to more suffering than most, Christine (hey-o!).

    Derek–I agree about the game-changing nature of nationalized coverage and how locality is played out nationally in the present day (what about ESPN.com’s turn to local markets–ESPN Dallas, ESPN Boston, etc.?), but I’d argue that locality is articulated in very specific, structured ways. Indeed, the Yankees et. al. no longer hold the same cultural dominance, but the way we talked about those teams still very much applies. We still need villians, underdogs, etc., it’s just that this vocabulary is so ubiquitous, so shout-y (if Skip Bayless is involved) so that we can make sense of the explosion of localities.

  9. Christine Becker on May 5, 2010 at 9:36 AM
  10. Übersetzung Deutsch Italienisch on August 23, 2010 at 5:32 AM

    “in response to both Derek and Christopher… its funny because i think that the “ESPNization” of the sports world is in pretty drastic decline– at least if youre a big fan of a specific team and especially if you dont live in that city anymore. Almost all of the coverage I follow of the Phils is local, mostly amateur blogs and tweets, but especially MLB.TV which gives me any home game feed and MLBradio through which I can get every phillies broadcast from WPHT. In contrast to the 10-15 years ago when every morning I got up and watched SportsCenter, now I get up and read blogs.” Thats correct mable