Monday, September 10, 2012

How much winning is enough winning to change fan culture?

Like Neil Armstrong when he set foot on the Moon and looked at the Earth, there is a tendency to see things different the farther you are away. You see habits you never noticed in friends, family, and as long as you still have the means of observation, the society you came from. From afar here in Afghanistan, my view on the US and the Tampa Bay area has been interesting.

As we enter the home stretch of election season and of baseball season, the US seems like a truly divided culture. The people over there (over there from my perspective, that is) have seemingly dug in and picked their side. Those who object are wrong, and there is no middle ground.

Maybe it has always been like this, but American politics has become very much like sports. Maybe we have always thought in regards to winners and losers. Just like in sports, everyone is divided.

A few weeks ago, I engaged in a brief twitter conversation with Tampa Bay Times writer Michael Kruse in regards to fandom in Florida. Kruse’s claim was that Floridians are not good citizens and that their lack of citizenry is one of the reasons people don’t go out to support the Rays. Kruse bases this idea on the premise that while many people come to Florida to live, they don’t come to join communities and become active Floridians in their local community whether through sports or anything else. The Floridians who move here from all over the country or even world bring with them their own ideologies and interests and keep those ideologies during their time here, staying divided and never modifying their interests for their current environment.

On one hand, why should they? In these days of overarching, easily accessible media, where I am typing about a team in Tampa Bay from 8,000 miles away and people can follow their former hometeam from a new home just as they would from their old home, it’s easy to not have to care about what happens locally. The internet makes it easy to stay in touch with the people you left behind as if you are still next door.

I’m an example of this right now. I stay in touch with friends and family while living on an Afghanistan base I don’t often leave from. When our Internet connection is up, I email, Facebook, Tweet, and blog as if I was still in town. More importantly for Kruse’s theory, I also stay up on my Tampa Bay and Rays news. I brought my affiliations and fandoms with me and I keep rooting for the hometeam even though they are nowhere close to my current “home”.

But like a snowbird who only comes to Florida for the winter, I am not someone who matters in the grand scale of Afghanistan. Here there is a big effort to bring villages, tribes, and people into the fold of an overarching national government. Many of these villages are populated by tribes who have no relationship with their immediate neighbors, no less a government center hundreds of miles away. Many times the chiefs and leaders of these tribes see no benefit in joining the national government or even a more local overarching district or provincial government. These tribes are sometimes even against the national government and give support to the Taliban and other anti-government organizations.

Sound familiar? In a way, the idea of affiliation and winning over hearts and minds is the same in sports as it in government. People have to buy what you are selling. If they don’t, they don’t show up, in the seats or at the ballot.

With this concept in mind, something amazing happened in Afghanistan this year during the Summer Olympics. Afghans from across Afghanistan and all over the world united over a victory. A victory that won Afghan competitor Rohollah Nikpai his second bronze medal in tae kwon do as well as won Afghanistan it’s second ever medal.

According to reports, for one day, Rohollah Nikpai unified Afghanistan.

Although it would be foolish to think one bronze medal could turn around a country that has known little but division and strife for the last 30 years, Nikpai’s win does show that sports provides some possibility for social unification. US hockey’s win over the USSR in 1980 may be our best example. Our national morale was low in the late 70s and perhaps the win aided our national turnaround in the 1980s. Beating the Russians got people talking about America and chanting “U.S.A” and meaning it. It gave them something to be proud of.

There is no doubt most people like to be on the winning side. They like winners. People rally around winners. Winners tend to boost public confidence. And most people do want to fit in, but unfortunately our current state of Florida is so divided it is socially acceptable not to root for the Rays.

So what if the Rays win it all this year and the year after and the year after? Would they slowly build an overarching culture of support? What is the point in which neighbors and local peers start to pressure newcomers to leaving behind their past affiliations and cheering for the local squad? How many wins would it take to create a Central Florida-wide rabid fan base? How many wins until “the bandwagon fans” show up in mass for every game? How long until the Rays become part of our culture?

My worry is that we as Americans might be so numb to winning and athletic victories that no story, no cast of characters, or no heroes can win over a city anymore. Especially one as diverse as the Tampa Bay area. We might rally around our national athletes in the Olympics, or a small town might rally around their local high school football team, but cities might be currently spoken for to an extent.

Another important point in the case of Rohullah Nikpai is that the media helped point people in the direction of rooting. Due to the normally dire situation in Afghanistan, the media painted an overwhelming picture of support. There were no dissenting views on Nikpai’s run for a medal. They didn’t interview a farmer without access to the news or worse yet, a Taliban person who might have been anti-Nikpai. The media was pro-Nikpai. Having the media shape support in the direction your want is imperative.

Of course, most media has to take an unpartial view. But that’s where public relations and other offices come in. They are there to counter bad messages with good – see where the source of dissention is and try to sway it. I wonder if there is anyone in the Rays front office who analyzes what the media says about the Rays, especially in regards to national media. In my estimation, most national media posits positive comments on the players, management, and front office, but typically negative comments about everything else. Just as a college team saturates media outlets with Heisman campaign propaganda, maybe the Rays or even a highly dedicated group of Rays supporters need to send the national media members pictures of sell-outs, stories of fans enjoying the games, and things that might move reporters out of their negative mindset.

No matter how much a team wins or who wins, however, there will always be a segment of the population too new or too engrained in their ways to be swayed. Using the Nikpai example again, although I was rooting for him in Tae Kwon Do events, if Afghanistan was playing against the US in basketball or swimming or something Americans care about, I, as a new “resident” would have probably kept my US affiliations and rooted against Afghanistan.

Winning is just part of the social engineering solution to win hearts and minds and make fans. It takes a combined effort of victories, marketing, advertizing, good media relations, and social peer pressure to turn people into fans. Some may never convert, but hopefully in a generation or two, the seeds will be planted for positive change, and new habits, either in government or in sports fandom, will take hold.

Imagine if one day, people put aside the bickering and their foreign affiliations. Imagine if one day, people of Central Florida all supported one team. Imagine if they were unified in their support of the Rays. It’s easy if you try.