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The Quality of Fandom: An Object Lesson

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As we cross the 60-day mark before Opening Night, it's time to dust off the keyboard, get the creative juices flowing, and prepare to begin anew. What better way to start than with a discussion of the fan experience itself? And what better focal point than Wrigley Field?

Opening Night is 59 days hence.  Cannonfest  -- which for many begins the official countdown to training camp, pre-season and the season itself -- is a mere twelve days away.  Slowly, the attention shifts from the off-season personnel moves to the game itself.  It is an exciting time, as the "dog days" of hockey summer begin to fade and the anticipation of a new season begins.  The slate is clean, the injuries and sins of the past consigned to memory and hope springs eternal.  It seems only appropriate, then, to spend some time looking at this whole "fandom" thing.

"Fandom" is technically classified as a portmanteau -- a merger of portions of two otherwise unrelated terms to describe a third concept.  "Smog" is a more familiar example, combining "smoke" and "fog" to describe the quality of air in Los Angeles, where they won't breathe what they can't see.  "Fandom" can be used to describe either the aggregate fan base  of a team, or the "state or attitude of being a fan"   Wikipedia -- a source normally viewed with extreme caution -- has a nice turn of phrase in its discussion of fandom, characterizing it as a "subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of empathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest."   It is this more esoteric "feeling of empathy and camaraderie" where our focus will lie.

This topic crystallized for me this past weekend, when my wife and I traveled to Chicago to catch my San Francisco Giants playing the Cubs at Wrigley.  I had never seen a game at Wrigley, and in fact had never seen Chicago from any perspective other than O'Hare Airport.  So this presented a chance to get a bucket list item checked off and have a nice weekend away.  What I hadn't counted on, however, was learning something more about this fandom thing.

To set the stage a bit, and keep things within the baseball analogy, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my loyalties remain with the Giants.  They moved to town when I was two, and my father and I quickly adopted them, and loved watching Mays, Marichal & McCovey display their talents at Candlestick Park.  (My mother --who had no New York contacts -- was inexplicably a Yankees fan. A vivid childhood memory involves coming home from school after Bobby Richardson had robbed McCovey and the Giants in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, only to see a Yankee pennant affixed to the front door of our home.  The shame . . . )  My wife, although born in Cincinnati, spent most of her formative years in Los Angeles.  As her father was a native New Yorker, the entire family was raised to bleed Dodger Blue, and she spent her youth at Dodger Stadium, rooting for the likes of Drysdale, Wills, Garvey and Cey.

When we were married, we became the rarest of couples -- the Giant/Dodger household.  My wife took no end of abuse when she would appear at Candlestick Park in full Dodger regalia, and in fact has been severely chastised by friends and family this week, after I posted pictures on Facebook of her sporting Giants gear at Wrigley.  I had my sanity regularly questioned for marrying a Dodger fan, and her sanity was similarly suspect for marrying me, though I always suspected that this was perhaps unrelated to my Giants allegiance.  However, we had reached an accommodation early on in marriage, where we agreed to externally support the other's team when attending games - other than Giants/Dodger games, when all bets were off.  (My turn comes in two weeks, when the Dodgers visit the Reds.)  However, for the most part, the teasing is good-natured, and within the bounds of reason.  While that has deteriorated somewhat over the years, it still largely holds true.

This digression was simply to point out that the fandom we were raised with was independent of performance or results.  It mattered not where the Giants or Dodgers were in the standings -- the passion was uniformly intense.  Those qualities of "camaraderie and empathy" were appropriately displayed as the teams' fortunes waxed and waned, but the support never flagged.  We were raised with the precept that fandom involved unwavering loyalty, through think and thin.   Which brings us to Wrigley Field . . .

Wrigley Field itself is a baseball icon.  The second oldest active ballpark in the major leagues (trailing only Fenway Park in Boston), the Friendly Confines are classic in every sense of the word, from the simple configuration to the ivied walls, it is a great, great venue.  However, this is not about the field, but about those who make the pilgrimage through those gates 81 times each season.

You see, just about five generations of fans have triggered the turnstiles at Wrigley Field without ever seeing their Cubs hoist a World Series trophy.  Their last championship was in 1908, a victory over the Detroit Tigers.  That bit of knowledge has, of course, reached folklore status.  What  perhaps less well known is that the Cubs have actually been to the Fall Classic seven times since then, all without success.  The most recent visit came the year World War II ended -- in 1945.  So, a little over three generations of fans have come and gone without even seeing an appearance in the World Series.  Applying current standards, you would expect a bitter crowd and sparse attendance.  You would be wrong.

Wrigley Field was sold out on Saturday, and judging by those who were searching for tickets outside the gates, it could likely have had two seatings.  Sure, the Cubs are solidly in the wild card chase this season, but the phenomenon is not limited to this game or this time of year.  The Cubs rank 7th in overall attendance this season, and are 4th in terms of percentage of capacity.  In the last five years, they have never been out of the top ten in percentage of utilization, nor out of the top twelve in total attendance.  Winning or losing, the Cubs fans show up, ardently support their club, and do it in style.  Whether walking the streets, attending the game or riding the "L" back to our hotel -- all done in full Giants garb -- nary a cross word was lobbed in our direction.  The fans and staff at Wrigley were almost embarrassingly polite --  something seen more frequently at a Canadian hockey arena than an American sports venue.

Keep in mind that Chicago is a rabid sports town.  Even the broadcasters are revered -- with Harry Caray's cartooned image adorning the press box facade, and a statue of the legendary Jack Brickhouse presiding over Michigan Avenue adjacent to the WGN studios.  So, the passion is unquestioned, and the Cubs fans have never allowed the lack of success to affect that level of devotion.  That's an impressive feat, made more so by the changes  that have taken place over time. Trades used to be a fairly rare circumstance.  Players were signed, and chances were that they would be there until somebody better unseated them.  Fans were rooting for more than a team name -- they were rooting for a specific assemblage of individuals, each with their own quirks, which every fan knew and related to.  Then came free agency, television contracts, salary caps and the rest, which changed the economics of the game forever.  The player who remains with a franchise for his entire career is now the exception, and a rare one at that.  The pressures of economics have raised ticket prices to the point where professional sports are no longer accessible to the casual fan.  That economic pressure, in turn, promotes a sense of entitlement in the fans, who believe that they deserve to see championships in return for their hard-earned dollars.

At the same time, the flood of information available to even the most casual fan is overwhelming.  There is no aspect of any sport, from the on-field performance to the finest details of the player contracts, that is maintained in the private domain.  While this is terrific from the standpoint of analytics and engagement of the avid fan, it also creates millions of coaches and general managers, and raises the level of "noise" to near deafening proportions.   It is a double edged sword, as social media unquestionably provides unprecedented scope and depth to the fandom experience, for those so inclined, while others may be overwhelmed by the need to filter out the "noise."  Against this backdrop, the Cubs experience is all the more remarkable.

So, what does this all have to do with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the looming hockey season?  Plenty.  It's been a fascinating process to observe -- and be part of -- the evolution of a franchise and a fan base, particularly in a town with no history of professional sports.  I was at the first games of both the California/Oakland/California Golden Seals and the San Jose Sharks.  Unfortunately, the Seals were not around long enough to truly go through the evolutionary process, and we moved to Columbus a few years into the Sharks experience, when they were still dreadful and playing in the Cow Palace.

In the fifteen years since the birth of the Blue Jackets, we have seen the organization go through the full spectrum of travails that expansion clubs typically experience, to one extent or another. A better-than-expected first season artificially elevated expectations, which were then subverted by a diabolical combination of poor drafts and even poorer trades.  A roster of older cast-offs became an impossibly young team, with pieces and parts added and subtracted, seemingly by whim. Dave King, a great teaching coach, presided over a roster of grizzled veterans who had nothing to learn.  Ken Hitchcock, an unabashed advocate of the grizzled veteran, was asked to preside over a cadre of youngsters.   Doug MacLean gave way to Scott Howson, the Scott Arniel experiment failed spectacularly, and subsidiary issues concerning the Arena lease and ownership added fuel to a simmering flame.

Through it all, the Columbus fan base has endured  . . and evolved.  In the early days, it was a highly enthusiastic , albeit marginally knowledgeable crowd, embracing the NHL in Columbus, but not quite sure what to do with it.  Frequently, more Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh sweaters than home town jerseys were seen in the stands, as those are the hockey teams generations of central Ohio fans had embraced.  The fan base had to learn that 82 game seasons are not sprints, and the development of professional franchises are bumpy paths, measured in years and decades, rather than weeks.  Sure, there were times where antagonism and disgust appeared to rule the day, but that's part of the fan experience, when the mutual empathy is needed as much or more than the camaraderie.  When those glittering moments came -- the 2007 Draft and the 2009 playoffs -- the fan base responded like none other.  Game 4 of the playoff series vs. Detroit was the loudest sports venue I have ever seen.

Attendance numbers have waxed and waned with the fortunes of the club, as the bandwagon jumpers come and go.  However, all along the way, the essential core of the fan base has grown, just as hockey has become an integral part of the Columbus fabric, at every level of the game.  A new generation knows only the Blue Jackets, and the foreign sweaters have steadily declined in numbers as local loyalty has grown.  With the arrival of John Davidson and Jarmo Kekäläinen, a new confidence in the essential structure of hockey operations has been provided, even as the "brick by brick" mentality has been adopted.  Another playoff run rekindled the spark, and the disappointment of the injury-plagued campaign last year was manifested more in impatience for the next season than bitterness over the past.  The All Star game showcased the city as never before, and some solid drafts and other personnel moves have served only to heighten the enthusiasm.

Now a decade and a half into the Blue Jackets' existence, hockey fandom is now a twelve-month affair, and hockey has elbowed its way into a seat at the table of respectability -- both locally and nationally.  Blue Jackets sweaters are seen in other cities, and the national media has taken notice of the organization as never before.  Blue Jackets players have won the Calder, the Richard and the Vezina trophies, and the first locally grown player was drafted into the NHL this year.  Gone are the rumblings that Columbus is not a "hockey town" and the threats of relocation.  Those arrows are aimed elsewhere today.  In two weeks, hundreds will gather in downtown Columbus to celebrate hockey.  In August.  Cannonfest was an event organically generated by the fan base, and now morphed into a slicker, more elaborate affair, embraced by the club, as well as the fans.

So as we start measuring the days to a new season, we can take pride in the fact that camaraderie and empathy of Blue Jackets fandom has matured to the point where the passion and commitment are not inexorably tied solely to results.  The passion of the journey and the experience is becoming part of the Columbus fabric.  The fan base's acceptance of the "brick by brick" mantra shows a patience that was not in evidence just a few years ago.   Perhaps not the patience of Cubs fans, but it's progress.

The timelines and memories of professional sports are long. As difficult as it may be to believe, it's been almost 50 years since Toronto last hoisted the Stanley Cup, 27 years since the Los Angeles Dodgers last won the World Series, and 30 years since "Da Bears" won the Super Bowl.  It had been 40 years waiting for the Golden State Warriors before this season.  The Blue Jackets have as many Stanley Cups as Vancouver, San Jose, Washington, Arizona, Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis, Buffalo, Minnesota and Ottawa.  A lot has to go right to hoist a championship trophy, so as the season approaches, let's enjoy the camaraderie, acknowledge the empathy and feast on the experience.  As Ernie Banks said "Let's Play Two!"   More to come.  Stay tuned.