The Eleven Stages in the Life-Cycle of a Sports Fanbase

>> Tuesday

This one reads like a bad Bill Simmons column, but bear with me.

Hearing the Rockies fans kick ass til their dying hour Sunday night--screaming through the ninth inning as if they were the ones just outs away from a title--had me wondering: What makes them so positive? They were down 3-0 in the series and trailing in the game, facing the almost-hopeless prospect of rallying against Papelbon.

So why were they so boisterous when so many other fans might have given up?

Well, out of this line of thinking, I came up with a hair-brained theory. I think all sports fanbases cycle through these following eleven phases from the birth of their franchise to its indefinitude. Teams fluctuate between these phases as success or failure dictates, sometimes moving up the scale, other times moving down.

Of course, these are totally made up and mostly written during my lunch break at work, so don't hold me to any standards of coherence or intelligence, please.

1. Infancy

During infancy, the fanbase had that childlike sense of wonder--not knowing what's to come, not really caring. They have no expectations because they don't know what to expect or when to expect it. This stage lasts through the first couple years of a franchise (or a new league) before superstars emerge or major free-agent agent signings take place.

Going with the example of the Rockies, even though they acquired Andres Galarraga prior to the inaugural season, they didn't expect much out of him. (They certainly didn't expect his mind-blowing '93 production.) Their first real free-agent score was Bill Swift prior to '95, which, incidentally, panned out pretty well.

2. Optimism

The fanbase moves into optimism at the first tangible sign of improvement, whether this be the first winning season or the rectification of the team's early flaws.

Again in terms of the Rockies, the '95 season fits this description on both accounts. Not only did they win the Wild Card, but they overcame their pitching woes of '93-'94. Ostensibly, the '95 season was no better, with the Rocks ranking last in the NL in ERA. But adjusted for park factors (i.e. being in way higher altitude), they ranked second.

3. Gratitude

You didn't get the miracle that optimism conjures up with that first whiff of success. But you're grateful nonetheless. Your boys didn't go all the way this year, but you still applaud their effort as they leave the field for the last time on the season.

This stage may be the most wholesome and heartwarming of them all, but it's also the most fleeting.

4. Disappointment

After that initial stride of improvement, you're convinced that better things are ahead. So when the team regresses or treads water the next year, disappointment sets in.

Of course, disappointment is all relative to where the bar's been set. For a team coming off its first winning season, disappointment is missing the playoffs. For a team that's lost in the first round a few times, disappointment is falling short of the championship. And so on.

This phase is sometimes passed over because the team does, in fact, take that next leap immediately. But this is not very typcial.

5. Fatalism / Self-pity

After a few years, disappointment turns into fatalism and self-pity. "We'll never win!" "Why do we always get the bad breaks?" "When do we get our year?" "Why does God hate me?"

Once a fanbase hits this stage, it's hard for them to leave it. Just ask the Cubs or every Philadelphia team. Even when things go right, the fatalistic mind only sees the hardships. And the longer this phase lasts, the harder it is to escape.

6. Guarded optimism

This is the old, "We've seen this before. Well, I'm not getting sucked into believing this time!"

As opposed to plain old optimism, which is positive and forward-minded, guarded optimism is mostly governed by expectations of failure.

7. Belief

The team is finally nearing the pinnacle, and the fanbase finally believes. The longer the fanbase has been mired in fatalism, the later this stage hits. It might not kick in until there's two out in the ninth inning of the World Series clinching game with the home team holding a ten-run lead for some fanbases. For others, it might start with a great first-half of the season.

8. Euphoria

Just as fleeting as gratitude but far more dangerous, euphoria is reserved for the title clinch. It usally carries through the first month or two following the championship, if not longer. Arguably, this should be called the "schmalz phase," since this is the period during which every player's biography comes out in paperback and every fan buys a championship license plate holder.

9. Skepticism / Disbelief

Once the initial euphoria wears off, the fanbase turns its thoughts to what might-not-have-been. As the focus turns toward the next seasons, the definicies that the previous year's team overcame are picked apart and belabored. No one is entirely convinced that last year's team was "for real," nor that they can reproduce their results in the years to come. The pressure to buttress and/or maintain the already talented roster is immense, and management usually obliges.

10. Expectation

This is the ugliest of all the phases. It marks the destruction of innocence, the beginning of the end. Euphoria warps its way to greed, and greed leads to delusion. The championship is no longer an aspiration or a prize; it's manifest destiny. The fans forget that each new season brings new players and a new set of circumstances and fail to see past the uniform colors. Expectation is where sport devolves from object of enjoyment to ugly obsession.

11. Jadedness

Jadedness is the end of the line. It can come about either from an overabundance of winning or simply from too many years of repeat results. The jaded fanbase supports their team--often in record numbers--but they do so coldly, lovelessly. Any sense of wonder or mystery have given way entirely to expectation. Adulation has given way to suffocating scrutiny. There is no joy in winning, only relief, and the anger in losing is violent.

So, kids--Now that we've explored these eleven stages that I've completely made up, what stage is youuur favorite team in?????


Nathan 7:05 AM  

I am obviously biased, so feel free to tell me I'm full of shit, but I think the Packers are one of the rare examples of a fanbase that is, to a great extent, consistently optimistic and grateful. I attribute this to the fact that Green Bay has nothing else even remotely interesting in their city, and their absolute obsession with the Packers has spilled over into the rest of the state (though any obsession outside of Green Bay will never come close to matching the obsession within the city).

Other than that, I guess your theory kind of makes sense...kind of. Except you misspelled "optimism" so I'm throwing your entire theory out.

Vinnie 11:51 AM  

Fixed. Happy, pappy?

Iain 3:40 PM  

Nice to see the Boston fans go from 5 to 11 so quickly.

Paul 7:51 PM  

What about a "just plain giving up" stage? Certainly no fan base completely abandons its team, but I'm pretty sure that there's something worse than self-pity. Perhaps fatalism is worse, but I think apathy is real end of the line.

Zuch 9:24 PM  

You forgot stage 12, Hawk Harrelson:
No matter how much statistical evidence there would be otherwise, your team is actually good and it's a season full of injuries and shitty umpiring keeping them down.

Judging by this previous paragraph, I am definitely at stage 11, jadedness, as a Sox fan. 2005 looks like the definition of the term fluke, yet the front office continues to operate like the Sox are one big move away from being contenders again. Right about now, I want to consult a Balitmore Orioles fan on how the handle the next ten seasons of 70-75 win mediocrity.

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