Thursday, September 3, 2009

What I Want Sully to Write About: A Treatise on Fandom

A few days ago, I wrote a post about Jerry Sullivan's most recent Sunday column. Someone (hi, Joe!) asked me in the comment section, "What do you want Sully to write?" I think the comment I wrote in response to Joe was actually much, much better than the initial post. I don't know if everyone who reads this blog reads the comments (for the record, I would love for you to because I think we get some really neat discussions going there sometimes) so I'm going to post the comment here with a few tweaks and additions. I know that some of you are probably tired of reading me criticize the Buffalo News and honestly, I'm getting pretty tired of doing it so I'm hoping this will be my last word about it for the season.

So, what do I want Sully (and Bucky) to write?

I want Sully and Bucky to write whatever they want about the Sabres but I want them to stop dragging fans into it. Fans have one job: Cheer for the team whenever and however they choose. If the owner doesn't care about winning, that's on the owner. If the GM is an idiot, that's on the GM. If the team signed the wrong players, that's on the guys who evaluate talent. If management is happy to just make money, that's on management. If Larry Quinn and Tom Golisano are businessmen who don't care about anything but business that's on.

Would me not buying tickets send them a message? I don't know, maybe. But I shouldn't have to do that if I don't want to. It's not my job to make the team better, it's not my job to change the talent, it's not my job to make trades and sign free agents. If there are fans out there who want to pull all their financial support from the team, great, I think that's fine. I'm completely sick of the local paper making me a bad guy for choosing not to do that. I don't want to do that. I want to go to as many games as I can, I want to watch the rest on TV, I want to go to Puck Drop and get autographs, I want to buy a new Sabres hoodie, a car flag for my car, and a new jersey. And yes, I absolutely want to do all that AND complain about the team. I'm a fan so I can do that because there are no rules on how to be a fan. None of that makes me culpable in the team's mediocrity. Sully and Bucky are right about some things. (Some.) They are not right about the fans. They are so far off on the fans that I'm pretty close to never touching another copy of the Buffalo News.

I understand people getting to a point where they feel like a franchise is jerking them around and just throwing in the towel. I do. But I'm not there. I haven't gotten there with the Pirates (and that's 17 years of losing seasons and counting) and it'll be a long while before I get there with the Sabres. I don't think I should be lectured for that.

Please understand that I'm only speaking for myself here, but as much as I would love to see one of my teams win a major championship, my fandom is about so much more than winning and losing. When I watch the current Pirates squad, I'm remembering Andy Van Slyke and Jay Bell and Doug Drabek and falling head over heels in love with a sports team for the first time. I'm thinking about family vacations to Pittsburgh and how one of the clearest memories of my childhood is driving out of the Fort Pitt tunnel and seeing the bridges and buildings explode seemingly out of nowhere, lights reflecting off the rivers. I'm seeing my mom, exhausted from a long week of work and night classes, loading me and Lee in the car and driving from Birmingham to Atlanta because I really, really, really wanted to see the Pirates play in person and I'm seeing John Smiley warming up just below our seats and remembering how I thought that was surely the greatest night of my life. I'm thinking about my dad and how much I miss him and how much I wish I could go see a game at PNC Park with him. I'm watching Andrew McCutchen and hoping that he's the future we've been waiting for, finally arrived.

And while my connection to the Sabres doesn't go back as far, it's very similar. When I watch the Sabres, I'm falling in love with Buffalo again and remembering how I finally felt at home here. I'm remembering good times out with friends and family. I'm thinking about how awesome it was to find myself completely taken with a team and a sport that I barely knew existed for most of my life.

Even when the team you're watching isn't very good - and come on, give us some credit, we know when our teams aren't good - if you're paying attention you still catch the beautiful things about sports. The bare-handed grab and the perfectly turned double play, the throw from the wall in center field to home plate, the pitch that breaks so suddenly and sharply that the batter is frozen in place even after the catcher has jogged off the field, the screaming puck being tipped into the net at just the right angle, a desperate 5-on-3 penalty kill.

I don't say all this to say, "Look at me, I'm such a great fan!" because I'm willing to bet that just about everyone reading this right now could write their own version of the above paragraphs. I say it all to make the point that fandom is emotional and sentimental and because of those things, it's often irrational. It's, as John Updike wrote, rational people feeling indefensible hope. It's not a political statement, it's not a chip to be slapped down on the table, it's not something you shut on and off at will. For me, my fandom is too personal and deep-seated for that and Sully and Bucky continuously talking to me as if I should just toss all that aside to make a point is insulting and I think it shows a glaring lack of respect and understanding for the people - fans - who are reading what they're writing.

So there you go. I want Sully and Bucky to write whatever they want to write about the Sabres and the Bills, whether it's concerning the players or the people in the front office. But I want them to leave me and everyone who still feels an irrational, emotional connection to those teams out of it. I really don't think that's asking too much.


Katebits said...

Oh, snap.

My overwhelming feeling after reading Jerry's column was just, "This column is unbelievably lazy."

This post stands in stark contrast to that. Good for you.

Katebits said...

I'm starting to think maybe the sports editor at TBN is a fan-hating crankpot. I don't know much about how newspapers work, but shouldn't an editor be like, "Hey guys, how about you write something else this week? We've already heard a lot about how the fans get what they deserve. Also, enough with the snarky rhetorical questions in your columns. And Bucky, there is a FULL BAN on the word 'Gee' in our newspaper from now on."

Becky said...

Quite a while ago I questioned what exactly the current sports editor at TBN really does to earn his keep. When Larry Felser was the top guy readers heard from him regularly - in fact we still do on Sundays.

Great post!

James W said...

My favorite part is when the boys over at TBN write that markets like Carolina don't deserve their teams because the fans never show up when the team stinks and then they crack on Buffalo fans for supporting their teams when they stink.

I'm with you on this and that was a GREAT post!

S.A.M. said...

Well-written, as always Heather. I love your emotion and how well it carries in words. :)

And it brought tears to my eyes, because I can totally relate (from a hockey point of view) to much of what you said.

Because you're right- fandom is personal. We don't do it for the team- they don't know us or really even probably care about us as such- but we do it because we like the way it makes us FEEL, and the connections we forge between ourselves and other fans, and ourselves and the players. (however one-sided that actually may be, the connection is there!)

I don't even bother to read TBN anymore. I like my FAN blogs much better!

Caroline said...

Very well said, Heather. I agree completely. I don't understand how columnists like Bucky and Jerry Sullivan can be so condescending to their own readers. Just another reason why I stop reading an article if I see their faces next to it.

Mark B said...


It's clear that TBN sport department is completely and utterly disconnected from the fans. Which is unacceptable really.

Mark B said...

I was just thinking some more about this more and I had a minor revelation.

TBN overstates our role as customers while discounting the aspect of fandom. This is what sets sports apart from other businesses you might support. It's a completely different animal.

But again, how can they really be this clueless about things? Like Kate said, it's lazy journalism.

joe said...

Heather, you said it yourself. You’ve been a fan of the Sabres for only a couple of years. I don't want to sound like the old groggy man, but when I was a kid in the 90's the Sabres had a really hard time selling out the building and they were still good. You could make the case that the late 90's teams were more successful than the 2-year run they had in 05-07. The biggest difference was the building didn’t come close to selling out then, like it does now.

Heck, Rigas gave away tickets during the late 90's. The Bills on the other hand had a ton of blackouts during their superbowl run, because they didn't sell out some of their games. I can remember in 1997; the Bills lead by Todd Collins had only 44,300 and 47,000 people for their last home games of the year. The reason being the team sucked.

Now things have changed, are you going to tell me the fans from 13 years ago were douche bags (pardon my French) and today's fans are loyal? That’s the point sully and Bucky have always brought up, how during the 90's and 80's fans would stop going to games if the teams sucked.

The reason fans flock to games now isn’t because there love is stronger, it's because the sports scene in Buffalo represents the big time. The city has changed over the last 13 years, and not for the better. It's getting smaller and smaller, while the sports scene gets bigger and bigger. Golisano and Quinn are business men, hence the reason they didn’t pay for Drury and Briere because they thought even if the Sabres tanked, the fans would keep coming. They won’t say that, but I didn’t have to goto college to figure it out.

I agree that Sully and Bucky sound condescending when it comes to talking down to the fans. But you just can’t fault their logic on the scene. They are paid to be critics of the team, not fans.

Vanek's Hair said...

I think the argument that fans are consenting to bad or mediocre teams by going to games is lame. What's more, if Sullivan and Gleason wanted to be intellectually honest and consistent, they would also insist that all fans stop attending games, watching televised games, purchasing merchandise and visiting the team website. All of these are actions by which team generates revenue from the fans.

Also, with the NHL and sports in general, there are really two different fan types. The ones who watch on TV and the ones who attend games. I am one who attends games. They really are two diverse people, connected by their interest in the sport. The fan that goes to the game is there for far more than "pure hockey" reasons. That person wants to watch the game, associate with other fans and perhaps enjoy a beer, soda, pretzel, etc. The TV fan wants to watch the game.

Personally, I prefer attending games. I watch games on TV because I don't have unlimited time and resources to attend every game. I find TV presentation of sports to be generally terrible. But that's probably another topic

Heather B. said...

Now things have changed, are you going to tell me the fans from 13 years ago were douche bags (pardon my French) and today's fans are loyal?

Joe, I think I was pretty clear on the fact that I have no problem with fans not going to games for whatever reason. I'm in no way saying that I'm a great fan and other people aren't. I think I was pretty clear about that too.

The reason fans flock to games now isn’t because there love is stronger, it's because the sports scene in Buffalo represents the big time. The city has changed over the last 13 years, and not for the better. It's getting smaller and smaller, while the sports scene gets bigger and bigger.

I get that. I guess what I don't get is why that's a bad thing. (Not the part about the city dying, obviously, but that the role of sports has changed in the community.) What's wrong with peoples' relationship to their team and their city changing with the times and the situation? I'm not better for continuing to go to games, fans in the 90's weren't better for not going to games. If what you got out of this post was some kind of message about who loves the Bills/Sabres more, I'm not sure what to tell you other than I think you completely missed the point.

But you just can’t fault their logic on the scene.

Oh, I can. This post is about being a fan and how that's not a logical thing. Being a fan has absolutely zero logic involved and to try to address it that way is, quite frankly, stupid.

They are paid to be critics of the team, not fans.

That's my whole point, Joe.

Anne M said...

I'm not really following the logic about lack of sellouts during the Super Bowl years. Since the Bills got worse after going to the Super Bowl for four straight years, and there weren't sellouts during SB years, how did the fans not buying tickets affect the team? Seems like not buying tickets made it worse. What would be really good is if TBN would pull together some statistics on team records combined with ticket sales during those years and see what the numbers show. And not just for the Bills and Sabres, do some comparison across the league and see how these things really work. Of course, it's a lot easier to just write the same old shit you always write without looking for any facts. I know these are opinion pieces, but it's still the newspaper and facts are good.

I also think Buffalo fans are terrified of losing one or both of their teams (a justifiable fear). That fear just didn't exist in the early 90s, or if it did, it wasn't at the scale it is now because we hadn't seen some of the stuff we've seen in the past 20 years. I think for a lot of fans, it's not about supporting the specific guys out there now as much as it is about proving (to the leagues, to the owners, to the world) that we DO care about our teams and we DO deserve to have them here. Even if they suck. That's a huge factor for fans, and I don't see that addressed (or even mentioned) in these pieces in TBN.

The point about the editor is also a good one. A few weeks ago, Bucky had a column about Steve Mesler, a Buffalo native on the US Olympic bobsled team. In the course of the column, Bucky referred to the 2006 Games in Salt Lake City and the 2008 Games in Turin. As my brother ably pointed out in a Fire Joe Morgan-style review of this column, the SLC games were in 2002, Torino was 2006 and 2008 was Beijing (SUMMER games). NO ONE noticed this? Not one person in the newsroom recalled that it was only a year ago that we were cheering for Michael Phelps in the summer games, or bothered to check? We're talking about less than a minute of effort in Google to find these facts. As a senior sports writer, Bucky should know this. And if he doesn't know, he should check.

Here is the column in question (last sentence, 4th paragraph):

joe said...

Hey I agree, there is nothing wrong with that, it's an inexpensive way to have fun in buffalo. It shouldn't be frown upon to goto games.

I'll just say this, I think fans buying into the team dictate how the team will make product better. Take for instance the Yankees, they spend millions on their product because if they don't fans won't go to their games. It's the same for all NYC teams.

lets be fair, the Sabres and Bills are all about dollars, more so than any team i've been around. When you hear the words market and cost used more so that finding a play making center, you know their intentions.

joe said...

my point on the super bowls, was even as good as the bills were, they didn't sell out all their games during the time. Heck the greatest comeback game didn't sell out. Now the Bills and Sabres sell out regularly when the product was so much better in the 90's.

Anne M said...

Joe, I think you're undermining your own point, but maybe I'm misunderstanding. Your main point seems to be good teams in general lead to good ticket sales (including sellouts) in general. Your example is the Yankees (and I will take your word for it on the Yankees because I know nothing about their ticket sales). But then you also point out that a specific good team (the Bills Super Bowl team) did not sell out. A good team still did not bring the fans. This is in direct conflict with what I perceive as your main point.

What I think this points out is that it's just not as simple as good team = good ticket sales. There are plenty of examples of good teams with poor turnout and bad teams with great turnout (Maple Leafs, anyone?). There are factors besides the quality of the product, and simplifying it (as TBN columns often do) to "the product will improve if people stop paying for crap" is not only insulting to the fans/readers, it's ignorant of the facts.

Heather B. said...

Anne, Bucky did make passing mention of fans being scared of losing the Bills back in that column that I hated so much (I know, that narrows it down, right?) but he shouldn't have because I think it totally muddied the waters. I'm sure that's the number one reason for the difference between attendance in the 90's and attendance now for both the Bills and the Sabres and I think that's perfectly understandable. It makes sense for some fans to do the only thing they can do to try and save their team which is buy a ticket. (It's debatable whether that actually will make a difference, of course, but it's all we lowly fans really have.) It makes sense for fans who are resigned to the Bills being gone soon to go out of their way to enjoy them and the whole NFL experience while they can. Does it suck that fans are being held hostage by the situation? Of course it does. But anyone who tries to make fans the bad guy is crazy because we did not create that situation. We're just trying to make the best of it.

Shelby Rose said...

I am so glad someone wrote a post on this. Great read!

I hate how the both of them (Sully and Bucky) are basically calling the fans of the Buffalo sports teams idiots without actually stating it. That's great that you guys are journalists and that's your own opinion, but just because I love a team and will be a fan of theirs through the good and bad times sure as hell doesn't make me an idiot.

amy said...

I'm losing track at how many people Bucky and Sully have called idiots in their columns over the last little bit. I think the only ones safe are their co-workers at the News and members of their own family. It gets old after awhile.

But we could also make the argument that Bucky and Sully are just doing their job. As a columnist, their job is to write something that gets people talking. Whether you love it or hate it, or talk about it in-person, on the radio or on the internet, they're doing their job successfully.

Heather B. said...

Whether you love it or hate it, or talk about it in-person, on the radio or on the internet, they're doing their job successfully.

Amy, that is very true. And the primary reason that I'm planning on cutting down on the Buffalo News kvetching this season. I'm sure all TBN cares about is the website hits they get as a result of the complaining.

PKB said...

This post is terrific and I agree with everything you said.

Sullivan and Gleason are professional sports critics. I agree with a lot of what they say regarding the Sabres.

But both seem to be stuck in the past when it comes to judging fans. The Sabres have a greater role in this community than what either is willing to acknowledge. And it IS insulting when they suggest fans are enabling mediocrity when they renew their tickets.

I roasted Gleason the last time he wrote something like this. Sully must have been drinking out of Bucky's Kool Aid thermos by mistake.

joe said...

sully called you out on his chat..well kind of

Heather B. said...

sully called you out on his chat..well kind of

It would appear that Sully missed the point almost as much as you did, Joe :P

Patty (in Dallas) said...

Wow, Heather. That was beautifully put. I got a little misty there.

I hate the two-faced argument about whether fans should stick by a team through good times or bad. Each fan should stick to their team if they want and don't if they don't.

I kind of came in late on the Stars so I've only seen mildly bad seasons and good seasons. I think I'll still stick with them if they get really bad.

I like the Texas Rangers, but I'm kind of a fair-weather fan of theirs. I like them when they're exciting and they don't have any jerks on the roster. Otherwise I forget about them.

Like you say, it's how you FEEL.

Heather B. said...

Joe, just so it's clear, I'm totally teasing you. I think we do have some differences of opinion (on many things :P) but I do appreciate you not be a jerk about it. I actually kind of enjoy someone coming along and disagreeing with me once in a while!

joe said...

Not a problem,

joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GregK8 said...

I didn't go to games in the 90's and I do now. I couldn't afford it then and I can now. It's just that easy.