What Are We Owed?

The recent talk about which end of the pretty-good-to-great scale the Blazers will end up on this years has brought up a tangential observation that I've been thinking about for some time.  Somewhat in the comments, a little more by e-mail, I'm noticing a trend.  As the team gets better and the perceived minimum win level rises excitement over said wins morphs quickly into expectation.  Once expectation becomes the norm it's only a brief step to entitlement.  Almost nobody says it openly but the tenor of correspondence makes clear that, in many people's minds, failure to breach the success barrier this season will also breach the implied contract between the team and its fans.

I wonder about this.  I am expecting a fairly healthy win total as well.  I expect the Blazers to do anything necessary to make that happen.  But are Portland fans owed that success somehow?  Do the years of following in anticipation of glory mandate the payoff?  How deep will the failure run if the team doesn't meet expectations?

I would argue that even in a situation like this--with long-suffering, passionate, faithful supporters in tow--a team does not owe its fans victories.  Sports are entertainment.  We've been trained to expect, perhaps demand, the happy ending from our entertainment media.  Movies are supposed to tie up neatly, usually with the good guy winning.  If that doesn't happen we call it a bad flick and blame the folks who produced it.  You don't lose video games anymore.  Nobody feeds quarters into a never-ending treadmill of agony.  Instead you purchase a game and play it until you finish it (successfully) or grow bored and move on.  If you happen up against a game that's so hard you can't get past Level 3 you curse the developers and rant on a forum about paying $40 for a coffee table coaster.  Sports teams are supposed to win.  When that happy ending doesn't come we fillet the coach, trade the players in our minds, and contemplate subbing ourselves in for the GM or owner.  Somewhere in there is the implication that since we spend our time and energy and money, success is the inevitable destination.

Sports differ from other forms of entertainment in that they are real-life endeavors.  This makes them inherently more risky and inherently more rewarding.  We pay money and invest passion precisely because we don't know how these games will turn out.  We're betting our hearts on the ultimate outcome, knowing they're just as likely to be broken.  Without that outcome sports become glorified versions of professional wrestling.  Fans get angry at the first hint of such an intimation.  The ultimate way to disparage a league is to infer it's crooked.  In order to avoid that predictability and preserve integrity and excitement, we have to understand that winning isn't guaranteed.  And if it's not guaranteed, we cannot be owed it.

I believe sports franchises do owe certain things to their fan bases.  Fans need to know that a team is trying to win, that the fan's payoff is top on the agenda list of organization and players.  Fans need to be assured that the people running the show are competent, or at least not completely incompetent.  Teams have to understand that being able to root for and in some ways idolize players is part of the entertainment and owe the fans, especially the kids, enough of a community image to maintain at least the illusion of likability.

Beyond that, though, the ground gets shaky.  Teams do not owe their fans the correct decision every time (as opposed to a reasonably smart decision).  Teams do not owe their fans that vicarious experience that lifts them out of an otherwise mundane day.  (A 100-60 loss can fulfill the contract as well, if not as happily, as a 100-60 win.)  Teams do not owe their fans a victory or a title.  Each fan must decide for himself or herself where the threshold of enjoyment is as far as victories go.  If a team doesn't win enough to meet that fan's requirement they are more than justified in feeling let down or even departing.  But that choice is individual and remains in the purview of the fan.  For a fan to turn it around and blame the team for not fulfilling their end of the bargain by providing enough enjoyment abdicates the responsibility for that choice.

This has little or nothing to do with my perception of how the Blazers will finish in this, or any other, season.  It has everything to do with why I follow and write about the sport and the franchise.  I get a return on my investment when the team avoids incompetence.  I get a return on my investment when interesting events transpire.  I get a return on my investment every time I hope the team will win even if they don't end up with the "W" and every time I contemplate the possibility of them achieving the ultimate goal.  The actual day-to-day winning is very, very nice gravy.

That's my take.  What's yours?  What do you feel a team owes its fans?  Anything I missed?  Share below.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com) 

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