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Monday, January 20, 2003
Updated: January 21, 7:17 AM ET
Ultimate Standings: What it all means

By Peter Keating

At some point, the same thought bubble pops out of each of your heads.

It might be when you're writing out a check for season tickets, or while you sit in stadium traffic, or in the middle of the night when you're replaying (for the 37th time) the botched field goal that knocked you out of the playoffs. But sooner or later you all ask the same thing:

Painted fans
Jersey: $80. Face paint: $10. Bandana: $3. Pouring your soul into the Black Hole: Priceless.
Is it worth it?

Because, you know, all that cash you flow into game tickets is just a down payment. Parking and hot pretzels, jerseys and cable TV -- they make up only a partial list of the prices you pay to be a sports fan. Your full bill also includes your time: all those hours you spend in front of the tube, on the Internet, buried in the sports pages, shooting it at work.

And your emotions, too: all those hopes you pour into save opportunities, fast breaks, draft lists, interior linemen and anterior cruciate ligaments. If you directed all those dollars and days and passions someplace other than sports, well, you might not find a cure for cancer, but you could probably make some pretty decent headway toward paying for that vacation or losing some weight. Instead, you happily invest in your teams, expecting that the love you give will be equal to the love you take.

But then -- often after a crushing loss, sometimes after a hollow victory -- maybe you start to wonder exactly what your teams give back to you.

Luckily, this moment of reckoning usually passes quickly. For one thing, it's painfully revealing for most of us to calculate just how much of our lives we have tied up in, say, the question of whether or not an offensive lineman was an eligible receiver on a game-ending field goal attempt. For another, how would you figure out the answer, anyway? What do your teams give back to you?

That question leads to one of the stupidest things people say about sports -- that it's a business. That's like saying marriage is a business, or 11th grade is a business. Of course sports is a business. But sports is also about all that other stuff Vince Lombardi used to talk about (or gets the credit for talking about, anyway): competition, emotion, excellence, tradition. After all, the worst teams don't just rip you off, they rip out your heart, too.

So when sportswriters, fans and your brother-in-law snicker and say "sports is a business" -- or when they ignore the money side of sports altogether -- it's really because they don't know how to combine the emotional and financial aspects of fandom. You've got your costs and benefits on one hand and your adrenaline and anguish on the other -- and nobody has been able to figure out how you put the two together.

Until now.

The Ultimate Standings is the first attempt ever to measure which teams do right by their fans and which put the hurt on their loyal followers.

And not just in one league, not just Steelers vs. Cowboys or Yankees vs. Dodgers, but across all four of the major North American sports: MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL. The Ultimate Standings rated all 121 teams on a wide-ranging set of criteria. Some were subjective: 34,000 fans graded their favorite teams in such areas as owners, championships, coaches, players and stadiums. (And if you think fans tended to be homers, keep this in mind: The Eagles likely would have finished No. 1 on our list if their own fans hadn't savaged Veterans Stadium.) But one criterion was objective: We commissioned a never-been-tried-before financial analysis of team wins per dollars spent by fans over the past three years.

This edition of the Ultimate Standings is the culmination of more than six months' work by The Magazine, and expert analysts. On the following pages you'll learn which teams deliver the most and least to their fans, and see what we and you have to say about your most-loved (and most-loathed) franchises.

But much more came to light from our obsession than just a list to spark debate (example: Seattle's Safeco Field has more concession stands per person than any MLB ballpark). Our computations reveal that the absolute costs borne by modern-day fans are staggering: You could visit Tahiti -- or start a small business -- with the money it takes to faithfully follow a team today. Exhibit A: Parking and dining at Fenway Park last year over a full season of Red Sox games would have run you $4,448, the highest total in sports. Even being a Clippers fan costs more than $2,000 a year, according to data crunched for us by the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "We have seen 6 to 9 percent annual increases in fan costs going back to 1991," says Dennis Howard, professor of sports marketing. "Across leagues, many teams are exceeding the price tolerance of fans."

George Steinbrenner
As King George knows, money can't buy you love -- his Yankees rank only 27th in our Ultimate Standings.
Despite these rising costs, 32 percent of fans in our national poll say their commitment to their favorite team is getting stronger, while just 13 percent say it's weakening. The most important revelation in our ranking, though, is the answers to the question: What do fans ultimately want from their teams? Winning championships, surprisingly, falls far down on the list. What fans really care about is commitment from ownership. The Mavericks (run by a fortysomething billionaire who personally responds to fan e-mail in the middle of the night) and the Packers (owned, essentially, by a giant co-op of cheeseheads) have little in common except that their fans believe their owners care -- and the numbers back them up. Both teams ended up in our overall top five. The Yankees, meanwhile, come in 27th, one notch below the bankrupt Ottawa Senators, because for all the talk about how George Steinbrenner only wants to win titles, what he does is milk his fans as hard as he pumps his front-office people.

The final results reveal some harsh truths about the relationship between pro teams and their fans. Plucking some numbers off the charts, we find further evidence that football truly is our national pastime: The NFL placed seven teams in our top 20, compared with five for the NBA and four each for MLB and the NHL. We also learned that newer isn't necessarily better when it comes to facilities: Fans ranked Safeco, PacBell and The BOB among the top 10 stadium experiences. But Minute Maid (née Enron), Comerica and the new Comiskey ranged from 30th to 101st.

The Motor City is the ultimate boom-or-bust sports town. The Red Wings rank eighth overall and the Pistons 13th, but the lowly Lions (115th) and beleaguered Tigers (116th) are in the bottom five. And we discovered that the sorriest corporate owner in all of sports is surely Cablevision, steward of the 109th-place New York Rangers and the 117th-place Knicks.

Those are just a few of the surprises in the rankings that follow. There is one certainty, though. At the end of the day -- or in the middle of the night after yet another crushing loss -- hope springs eternal for fans of even the last team on the list. Okay, maybe not the last team on the list, but you get our point.

This story appears in the February 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

See more of the Ultimate Standings.