Can You Explain Why You Rip the Nationals' Fan Base?

Can You Explain Why You Rip the Nationals' Fan Base?
October 3, 2012, 9:57 am
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I understand that attendance is a point of pride for sports fans, and I understand why.

It's the opportunity to say that we, as a fan base, are loyal. That we care. That we even go so far as to impact the product on the field by giving the organization more of our money, which it, in turn, can potentially use to improve the club.

Those are the positives. As for the negatives — well, I suppose there's bandwagoning. Bandwagoning irks me. So much so that whenever a town is lauded for having "great fans," I almost compulsively cross-reference attendance charts with the last time one of its teams wasn't very good.

But when it comes to a population being generally apathetic about a franchise — what's the problem? How or why does it impact you in another town that has a team? Sure, it impacts the particular league in question, and if you're arguing for the greater benefit of that entity, then there's a real discussion to be had about under-performing franchises, assuming they're really under-performing. I just don't think many of those ripping the Washington Nationals are suggesting that the team be moved to another obvious market. Let's also acknowledge that the Nationals are the least of baseball's worries. (I'm looking at you Tampa Bay.)

Through 78 home games in 2012 (this chart I'm referencing has not yet been updated with the Nats' final series against the Phillies), the Nationals have drawn an average attendance of 29,919, the 14th-highest in the majors.

For the last week, articles like this have been pouring out, reporting that Nats playoffs seats are the hottest tickets in D.C., that the club is claiming they're sold out with the exception of some outrageously pricey seats, and that StubHub is selling them from anywhere between $63 and $500.

Social media and internet comment boards have their benefits, but, as many of us have come to realize, we all probably share just a little too much. Much of the sharing I've noticed related to Washington's empty seats as it clinched the division involved the words "embarrassing" and "pathetic" and "disgraceful."

There appear to be two concerns here:

1. The Nationals fans are "pathetic" because they don't show up in sufficient numbers to support a team about to win the division, as judged by those in another town.
2. The Nationals are now about to sell out a playoff game but didn't draw during the year (bandwagoning).

If it's indeed the case, why is apathy to be condemned? It's possible people in Washington don't like baseball. It's also true that Washington is a particularly tricky town considering its population is, understandably, a bit more transient, and may have allegiances elsewhere. Then there are the points that no one was really clamoring for a team in Washington when the Expos moved there, that there's a semi-complicated geographic and emotional split with the Orioles based on how people react to Peter Angelos, and that it can just take time to grow a fan base. As Dave Murphy pointed out Wednesday, rooting for teams in Philadelphia is part of a generations-long culture. That is not the case with baseball in Washington.

History or no history, I cannot stress enough just how possible it is that a population will simply not care about a particular sport or team. Take, for example, your Philadelphia 76ers, who don't really seem like your Philadelphia 76ers judging by the last five years of attendance. On a different scale, compare the number of comments on articles or blog posts about the Sixers to those on pieces about the other teams in town. You'll notice something: there's generally fewer in total, but a higher number of the "who cares?" variety. Of course, with the roster reshape and the addition of Andrew Bynum, it would be a surprise not to see the Sixers' attendance receive a bump, just as it did during last season and, to a greater extent, the playoffs.

And this gets us to the bandwagoning angle, which given Washington's reported playoff sellouts we now need to consider in tandem with the prior apathy. In short, there's a whole lot of hypocrisy related to fan loyalty. When teams are bad for prolonged stretches, with rare exceptions, fans stop showing up. This is not necessarily unforgivable behavior, as there are justifications for it. Going to games can be expensive even when the tickets themselves are fairly cheap. Then there are concerns over continuing to fund an under-performing franchise — this is a conversation we have about a certain team in this town every so often.

No win is as satisfying as the one you struggled for. The 2008 World Series wouldn't have been nearly as sweet for so many without the 25 preceding years of city failure. No win, for me, will be nearly as meaningful as a Stanley Cup, just as no win, for others, will be more euphoric than a Super Bowl. So I judge the guy in the purple flat brim and black Hunter Pence t-shirt. (Obviously this a stereotype, and, no, it doesn't apply to all black-shirt and purple-hat owners.) In some ways, my behavior is juvenile, as people are allowed to enjoy things in different ways and spend their time and cash however they like. In other ways, it's justified, like when I cannot find a ticket or incur added cost for something I used to enjoy for a lower price relative to a smaller demand. In that same breath, there's an added value to the extra people who show up when times are good — free agent signings are expensive.

My hangups aside, there are reasons why people don't show up to sporting events, in this market and others. Maybe it's because they don't care — and who can condemn? Maybe they won't pay for mediocrity — an arguable but under certain circumstances acceptable point. Maybe they don't have the emotional ties after eight years of a really terrible existence — that's not unusual. And maybe a lot of fans really are just bandwagoners — but those people are everywhere.

If the Nats are good for another five years, their fans will probably have you believe they were in it from the beginning. That doesn't sound unfamiliar does it? Then again, if they stay for the long-haul, then their fandom had to start somewhere.

Finally, on top of it all, there's the curious question of how or why we separate or combine the success of the players on the field with their fan base. And that is a much longer, more complicated discussion.

Whatever the answer, no town is immune from a certain level of apathy nor from bandwagoning. Philadelphians, myself included, are no better.

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