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Monday, December 5, 2005
Updated: December 8, 2:12 PM ET
The Ultimate Standings: SportsNation Speaks

By Peter Keating
ESPN The Magazine

"It's all about the money."

When that thought first sinks in, it's a jarring moment in the life of every sports fan. Most of us are drawn to sports for reasons having nothing to do with money: we love competition, emotion and excellence. Then your favorite player bolts for free agency, or your team's owner threatens to leave town, or its GM lops off half its roster to get under a salary cap, and you're forced to recognize that sports is big business, too.

This isn't bad or good, it just is. Like most things human, sports -- on and off the field -- involves motivated people trying to advance their interests. But over the past year, sports threw its business side in our faces with quite a vengeance.

Tiger Woods
If SportsNation could choose, they would be Tiger Woods for a day.

Maybe you wanted to see an NHL game sometime between New Year's Day and Father's Day. Or wished any of the national champion Tar Heels' star underclassmen would stay in college. Or believed Terrell Owens when he said playing in Philly was more important than his salary. Or thought Larry Brown should honor his contract to coach the Pistons. Or hoped the Yankees, after failing again to win it all, would hold the line on ticket prices. If so, you were disappointed, and probably not for the first time. In today's sports marketplace, the bottom line trumps old-school virtues. Maybe it always has, but it certainly always will. Team revenues, TV deals and salaries for players and coaches are all still rising, relentlessly driving up the stakes involved in sports' various financial battles.

So where does the triumph of the profit motive leave fans, whose allegiance fuels the sports economy? We decided to ask. With the help of Markitecture, a Norwalk, Conn., research and consulting firm, ESPN The Mag conducted an online survey of 1,529 fans across North America. We asked about everything from which sport is the best to watch on TV to which athlete you'd most like to be for a day to how many of you have kissed someone of the same sex because of a sporting event. (The answers: football, Tiger Woods and 23 percent.) The result is what may be the most comprehensive portrait ever of the state of the fan.

What did we learn? Well, first and foremost, it turns out that when it comes to dealing with the sports economy, the inhabitants of SportsNation are a lot like real-world Americans. When businesses raise prices or lay off high-priced workers or cut back services -- when they tell the people who depend on them and whom they depend on that it's all about the money -- there are three basic ways to respond. You can shrug, whip out your wallet and keep buying the stuff those companies produce. You can try to get in on the action by investing in them. Or you can rail about those left behind.

It's the same with fans, who, according to our research, are clustering into three groups:

Fan as hungry consumer
The citizens of SportsNation are gobbling up more games, information and memorabilia than ever. Fans now spend an average of 6.5 hours a week following sports on TV, up from 5.3 hours when we asked in our first SportsNation survey in 2002, plus 2.6 hours on the Internet and 2.5 on the radio. The most expensive ticket our survey takers have bought costs, on average, $112 -- up a whopping 67 percent from $67 three years ago. And two-thirds have purchased memorabilia, spending an average of $148 on their most expensive souvenir, up from $100 in 2002.

Tiger Woods
Is face-painting on the way out?

But the extra time and money fans are pouring into sports don't equal more passion. Fans love their teams and players, but the proportion of them dedicated to extreme displays of affection is declining. Just 27 percent agree with the statement, "When my team is winning, all is right with the world," down from 40 percent in 2002. Only 18 percent fantasize every so often about being their favorite sports heroes, down from 32 percent. Yelling at the TV while watching sports, praying for their team to win, crying over games, missing a day of work or school to go to a sporting event -- fewer fans report doing each of these than they did three years ago. And there's less naming of pets after sports heroes, and less face-painting, too.

Fans still say they get more out of their favorite team than from actually playing sports. And when we asked them what they find most desirable about following sports, 72 percent said "pure entertainment," leaving options such as escape from everyday life (47 percent) and an appreciation of athletics (44 percent) far behind. As digital deities supplant old cathode gods, TV continues to pull fans into its orbit. Some 62 percent of fans say they like to keep up with new technology, 46 percent have a home video game system and one in five is already recording multiple games per month. Nearly one-third of fans agree with the statement "the bigger the television, the better the game." And, most telling, 57 percent would prefer getting a large-screen TV and satellite sports package to four season tickets to their favorite team.

It's all about the money? If so, then fans will care a little less and put a lot more cash into tricking up their dens.

Fan as general manager
Unless you've been lucky enough to inherit shares of the Packers, there's essentially no way to invest your money in major pro sports teams as businesses. But fans have figured out how to invest their passion in the business of sports: through fantasy leagues. Think about it: fantasy leagues have spending limits, waiver rules and trading deadlines, and they make players important to you whether or not they're loyal to your real-life team.

Packers Fans
Fantasy has been much more fulfilling than reality for Green Bay Packers fans this season.

Small wonder that in this era of the GM, 22 percent of fans (including 33 percent of those aged 18-34) say they've participated in a fantasy league in the past 12 months, up sharply from other recent surveys we've conducted. Of those, 75 percent are in football leagues, 34 percent play fantasy baseball and, amazingly, 11 percent participate in leagues dedicated to something other than the big four pro sports or golf. (We hear fantasy bass fishermen are very passionate.)

Some armchair sociologists argue that fantasy sports contribute to the distance and growing distemper between fans and athletes by making fans feel they "own" players. Our research begs to differ: 73 percent of fantasy sports participants say that their games make them bigger fans of those sports, while 55 percent feel their fantasy leagues make them bigger fans of their real-life favorite teams. And 66 percent say the success of their favorite team matters most, versus 24 percent who care more for their fantasy team.

It's all about the money? If so, fans will devise their own salary caps and mix-and-match rosters, and they'll play, too.

Fan as last angry man
Asked which emotions they experience intensely because of sports, a majority of fans say "happiness," while a sizable chunk name "disappointment" or "frustration." But 17 percent go beyond that natural level of negativity to report "anger." A small minority, but not so tiny that they can be ignored.

Maybe you'd guess that 63 percent of fans have heckled a referee or umpire, or that 40 percent admit to getting drunk during a sports contest. Even yelling at a loved one over sports (39 percent) or rooting for an opponent's injury (38 percent) might not seem out of whack, given how hot emotions run during games. But 14 percent of fans have gotten into physical altercations over sports, 13 percent have threatened another person with injury and, creepiest of all, 10 percent have sent hate mail because of sports.

Fans getting autographed balls
Signing autographs is one way to get in the good graces of the fans.

Unruly fans and the cost of games now rank as fans' top dislikes about sporting events, and surely the two problems are connected. Teams have spent the past few years figuring out how to squeeze fans for every possible dollar, boosting revenues but busily pricing many would-be followers out of the experience of actually attending games. The Red Sox have shown that such a strategy can work, but when a club isn't committed to winning, gets too gluttonous or puts its customers through too many hassles, nobody should be surprised if its fans grow surly.

The most depressing number from our survey: 43 percent of fans say they have turned their backs on once-favorite teams or players. But suppose you're a Marlins fan. The tickets you bought last season cost 30 percent more than they did in 2004. You paid $1 more than you did the previous year for parking, $1 more for every hot dog, $1.50 more for each soda and $5 more for caps. The team stumbled to a third-place finish. It's now busily auctioning off its best players. All the while, club officials have demanded taxpayer funding for a new stadium. And recently, while traveling in Europe, owner Jeffrey Loria said the team might move. How happy do you think you're going to be next Opening Day? You don't have to answer.

It's all about the money? If so, then upwards of one in 10 fans will turn into powder kegs just waiting to be set off.

We conducted our SportsNation survey in conjunction with research for the fourth annual edition of our Ultimate Standings, which combine fan grades with financial data to rank all 92 MLB, NBA and NFL franchises. (To see our methodology, go to espn.com, search: sportsnation.) For the second year, we did not include the NHL in our survey, because the lockout would have made its data meaningless.

Fans polled for the Ultimate Standings told us louder than ever this year that they care more about fan relations -- owners and players who show their appreciation for the fans and players who act professionally on and off the field -- than pretty stadiums or even winning championships.

The top teams in our rankings are mostly perennial contenders who have made fans believe in their honesty and commitment, whether through the enthusiasm of relatively new ownership (Angels, Falcons) or the long-term efforts of management that truly identifies with their hometowns (Spurs, Pistons, Steelers). The worst teams aren't all stuck in last place or strapped for cash -- our bottom 10 include the Dodgers, Phillies, Trail Blazers and Vikings. What they have in common is simple: whether it's due to extortionate owners, confused management or unprofessional players, their fans feel abused.

So even as we all keep adapting to a world dominated by the bottom line, fans can still tell, and still care about, which clubs are working to stay connected to their followers. Our franchise rankings show fans saying that if a team wants to last as an ongoing business, rooted in its community and bringing people together for sporting events, it can't let all its customers retreat into home theaters or rotisserie leagues or angry mobs. It has to offer a return on all the emotion and time that fans invest, not just their money.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine.

See more of the Ultimate Standings.