Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Cold Dome of the Soul

Ever since B.J. Upton meekly popped up for the final out of the final game of the Rays’ 2010 season, nearly every scribe, blogger, writer, and analyst following the team has penned his or her ode to the past seven months of Bay Area baseball. Some have written of disappointment, some of joy, and others of promise. Yet they all convey the overall emotion of a fan’s love of both their team and the game of baseball.

After every baseball season, whether good or bad, whether I rooted for a winner or team that lost hope after the second week of April, I am reminded of “Green Fields of the Mind”, a brilliant essay written by former Major League Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. Although it is over 1,300 words, the first 91 are among the most poignant ever written about baseball.
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

Giamatti’s essay discusses his passion for following the 1977 Boston Red Sox, a team that won 97 games yet finished 2.5 games behind the eventual World Series Champion New York Yankees. Giamatti goes into depth discussing their eventual elimination and how a simple fly ball to center drained the life and feeling from all of the New England faithful.

(Note: if baseball had the wildcard in 1977, Giamatti would have never written his piece. Boston would have made the playoffs thanks to winning the season series over a Baltimore Orioles team that also finished with 97 wins and 64 losses. In a 2010 world, the Sox would have clinched the wild card on the day prior to the one Giamatti wrote about and played the Kansas City Royals as the Yankees would have coincidentally played the Texas Rangers.)

Of course, it is not only those in New England whose passion comes to an abrupt halt. In every region of America, wherever fans follow their favorite team, wherever fathers and sons play catch, or wherever people pack stadiums or bars or living rooms, there is a feeling of emptiness every October.

Even in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

For us here in the Tampa Bay area, it begins at FanFest, when we re-awaken to baseball and explore the new facets of the upcoming season – whether it be a new player, new member of the announce team, or a new feature of the ballpark. There is a joy not unlike a family reunion, when you greet the friends and “family” you parted ways with the October before. You are together again for another season.

(From 1999 to 2007 that exchange was not unlike the reunion of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

Fan 1: Together again, huh?
Fan 2:
Wouldn’t miss it.
Fan 1:
How we doin’?
Fan 2:
Same as always.
Fan 1:
That bad, huh?

Then of course came the “new hope” of 2008.)

Following Fan Fest, we have the added advantage of seeing our team up close and personal during Spring Training. We are not as beholden as the rest of the baseball nation in relying on beat writers and bloggers to tell us who is winning a positional battle or who is going to make the team. We can make the short jaunt to Port Charlotte and see it with our own eyes.

Then comes the magical moment of Opening Day – a day that should be a national holiday – where every fan has hope and everyone is in first place, if even for 24 hours.

The real thrill, and one we are barely getting used to, is when our team remains in first, or at least in a battle for first from April to October. It is a fun ride. One of scoreboard watching and magic numbers*, wild cards and aces. One I will miss. One I shared with friends, family, and the entire Rays community, both online and at the ballpark. Sure we’ve fought, we’ve argued, and we’ve blown a few gaskets, but that’s what a family does. And now that our summertime reunion is over, as Giamatti said, we are left to face the fall alone.

(Isn’t it fitting that for most teams, “magic” numbers make hope disappear? Almost as if David Copperfield or David Blaine waves a wand and makes teams vanish from relevance.)

As for me, I’d like to thank Cork for my midseason call-up and now that the season is over I hope we can talk about extending my contract. Keeping it team friendly, of course.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Battle for the Passion of the Florida Sports Fan

On August 3rd, 1980 more than 16,000 people packed Tampa Stadium for the “Last Tango in Tampa”, a Championship Wrestling of Florida event featuring the best wrestlers of the day. Through a sweltering heat – the air was “hot and heavy” according to announcer Gordon Solie – fans watched legends such as Andre the Giant, Nikolai Volkof, and Dusty Rhodes duke it out in the squared circle. According to the Tampa Sports History blog, fans “came from all corners of the state” to see the show and be part of what was then the largest crowd to see a professional wrestling show in the State of Florida.

Besides record-setting wrestling crowds, 1980 was a good year in the turnstiles for other Tampa-area sports clubs. While the Tampa Bay Bucs were drawing over an average of 62,000 per game, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the local professional soccer club, were also setting their franchise attendance season record. The sports fever wasn’t exclusive to Tampa either, as the Florida State Seminoles were also averaging nearly 52,000 per game, a surprising 101% of their stadium capacity, and over 125,000 people sat in the bleachers to watch the Daytona 500.

With two pro teams and three college football powerhouses (FSU, UF, and the University of Miami), there was no doubt in 1980 Florida was a football state that dabbled in soccer, pro wrestling, and the occasional NASCAR race.

As the population of Florida exploded from 9.7 million in 1980 to 18.5 million in 2010, so too did its sports climate. While Championship Wrestling of Florida folded (only to return as Florida Championship Wrestling in 2007) and the Rowdies folded (only to return in 2008), nearly a half-dozen major league teams joined the fold. The state is now home to a third NFL team, two NHL teams, two NBA teams, and two Major League Baseball teams. And that does not include representatives in the Arena Football League, the XFL, the Senior Professional Baseball League, the Lingerie Football League, numerous minor league hockey teams, a gaggle of minor league basketball teams, and an alphabet soup of professional wrestling organizations. And the Florida State League is still alive and well. And the University of South Florida is now a force to be reckoned with on the state college football scene.

Strictly from a major professional sport perspective, whereas there was once only two teams (the Bucs and Dolphins) for slightly less than 10 million people, there are now nine major professional sports teams (the Bucs, Dolphins, Jaguars, Magic, Heat, Lightning, Panthers, Marlins, and Rays) for under 19 million people.

Earlier this week, New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell explored the difference between passive support and passionate, active support, particularly as it pertains to online communities.  Whereas Gladwell peered into the world of social media as the platform of his examination, he could have easily looked into any group of people spread too thin trying to follow too many things. Although programs such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and YouTube are great for getting out messages or receiving and following messages from a group of people, as Gladwell postulates, actions based on these social media messages are rare.

How fitting then that one of this week’s major admonishments of the active support of the Tampa Bay Rays came via social media – posted on my Twitter feed ironically somewhere between Lightning pre-season scores and press release statements from the Bucs coaching staff.

But David Price wasn’t the only public figure lamenting lack of active support.  On the same day Price and Evan Longoria called out the people of the Tampa Bay area, Orlando Sentinel writer Andrew Carter stated that average attendance to Florida State football games had dropped drastically from over 80,000 in 2006 to barely over 60,000 in 2010, a nearly 20% decrease. Granted, the performance of the Florida State Seminoles had been lackluster at best over the last decade, but this season was supposed to bring new hope in the presence of new head coach Jimbo Fisher and Heismann Trophy candidate Christian Ponder.

Meanwhile, on the exact same day the Rays and Orlando Sentinel stated their claims, President Obama likewise called out his Democratic support base, calling their apathy “inexcusable”. This from the same president with 5.5 million twitter followers and who was widely praised for his ability to utilize the Web in the 2008 elections.

So is apathy a local dilemma, a regional calamity, or a national trend?

Perhaps apathy is the wrong term. Perhaps, like the expansion of sports teams in Florida, “the creators” – both online and through other media – have over-bombarded people with too many messages. People are expected to be masters of sports, politics, movies, television dramas and sitcoms, music, video games, and their personal lives. They are given RSS readers, DVRs, Netflix, and two terabyte hard drives to handle all their information (maybe that’s just me). Those who can surf the never-ending wave of content are looked at as a new breed of Renaissance Man (or Woman). Those who can’t are buried in information and must resort to passive observation in lieu of active participation.

A few weeks ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote an interesting piece on his Blog Maverick website. In his post entitled “The Fan Experience – Never Look Down”, Cuban responded to the question of why people would go to an NBA game instead of watching the game on their 50-inch hi-def televisions. Cuban, one of the brightest media minds in the business, stated that his goal as an owner was to sell an experience – similar to that of a wedding. Fans should see more than a basketball game, Cuban claimed, they should see lights, cheerleaders, and other excitement. They should never have a chance to look down and their eyes should always be on the next part of the show.

I would add that they should also not regret seeing Monday Night Football, “Gossip Girl”, and “How I Met Your Mother” – shows that were on the night Price and Longoria made their infamous statements.

(For those curious, I was at the local Hooters, enjoying the environment and watching both the Rays play the Orioles and the Yankees play Toronto.)

Interestingly, way back in 1980, Championship Wrestling of Florida promoter Dusty Rhodes had the same ideas as Cuban. According to a quote by Rhodes’ biographer on the Tampa Sports History blog, Rhodes “envisioned the (Last Tango in Tampa) as an experience, not just a series of matches” and “he not only wanted a wrestling match, but he wanted to create a spectacle: an outdoor show with all the bells and whistles.”

This may be why the Rays are at a disadvantage. Not only are they competing with a lower person-to-team ratio than the Bucs had in 1980, and not only are their potential customers saturated with entertainment, but thanks to a reliance on tourism, many of their neighboring businesses live and die on the same concept. Like Las Vegas, tourism is Florida’s bread and butter. Hence entertainment is everywhere, from Busch Gardens to the beach to the local adult establishments. And with such a widespread battle for the hearts and wallets of both residents and tourists, Florida sporting events have become a place for purists or diehards. Fans want an overall entertaining experience, something they can actively and passionately participate in.

(This is one of the reasons attendance at local wrestling shows has gone from 16,000 to barely 100. By selling only wrestling, the average viewer has become bored. But throw in WWE pyrotechnics and soap opera storylines and fans will pack arenas worldwide.)

(Also, on a related note, I think the Seminoles may be in worse shape than the Rays. Unlike the Tampa Bay Area, Tallahassee has little to offer besides football and a visit to one of the best old-fashioned blues bars in Florida.)

Assuming non-diehard fans would eventually forsake their multimedia following for three hours of entertainment at Tropicana Field if given the right incentive, what can the Rays do to win the battle to for the passions and wallets* of Florida sports fans?

(Not quite the famous “hearts and minds”, but dang close.)

The Rays concert series has been successful, but has led to the odd phenomenon of fans not arriving until the late innings. The Great Ticket Give-Away* was a success. But what else can they do?

Perhaps the Rays could cross-promote with other entertainment establishments, similar to how the Magic are pairing with Disney. Perhaps they could plot a move to green pastures, somewhere where they face less competition – if such a place exists. Or they could continue their current course, fight the elements, promote their brand of entertainment, and hope the dismal Florida economy swallows the other forms of entertainment, leaving them as the only show in town.

*A week before the Rays’ 20K ticket giveaway, held a contest giving away the exact same amount of movie tickets.