When you’re from a city that loses a team, you can rationally understand the economics, need for a new stadium, will of the league, etc. But there’s no way to rationalize the heartbreak of the fans who live and die with a team for decades, only to see the team wrenched away. Even as adults who get that it’s just a game, it’s heartbreaking, and it does change you in some way. My heart goes out to you, Kings fans.
—Author and Montreal Expos fan Jonah Keri
In another terrible NBA story that has infuriated fans around the league, it looks as if Sacramento is going to lose the Kings to the Anaheim area this offseason. The Kings were among the league leaders in attendance and sellouts as recently as 5 seasons ago, but a rebuilding period has lead to sparse crowds, and now will result in relocation after a few poor years. Last night was likely the final game in Sacramento for the Kings, and emotions were running high. Many fans refused to leave when the game had ended, staying in their seats and chanting, crying, yelling, just trying to savor one last moment of the Sacramento Kings experience. The video below is the emotional sign-off from the local broadcasting crew:
The video really hit me to my core, and got me thinking about the vast gulf in how fans perceive sports and how those actually involved in the sport see it. As fans, we tend to romanticize the connection between ourselves and our team, and the team and our city. We connect with the club on an emotional level, living and dying with each play, and telling ourselves that it all means something in the long run. Those of us who root for the hometown team do so out of some sense of local civic pride, as we interpret the fact that the team plays in our state as making them representatives of a sort for the locality, and by extension, for us. We teach our children to root for the home team, because it is a part of our city and part of us, and we want to share that bond between city, fan, and team with those close to us.
But that is not what the lords of the sport see when they look upon us. When owners and commissioners look at us, they see dollar signs. Sports are a business to them, rightfully so, and I would expect nothing less from them than to focus upon maximizing revenues. I do not mean to suggest that the owners do not care about the fans at all, just that making money will almost always take precedence over making the rabid locals happy. As fans, we would like to believe that there is a public trust aspect to owning a team, that the sweetheart tax deals and stadium subsidies and police support and other advantages afforded professional sports teams creates an obligation for ownership and for the league to treat the city and its citizens with a modicum of respect and consideration. But that is usually not how owners interpret the relationship between city and team. To them, the city is just a place of business, the fans are just consumers, and the games are just the product they are selling. If the conditions for sale are not good enough in City A, they will make the prudent financial choice and move to City B. They have little incentive to “save our team” for us, and it leads to situations like the one in Sacramento, where a rabid fanbase supports their club for two decades, and one lull in attendance and refusal to build a new arena leads to the team leaving for a city where it will likely pull the “if you do not build it, we will leave” gambit again 20 years from now.
I am not blaming anyone for treating their team as a business. While you would like to see the owners exhibit some civic responsibility and sense of acknowledgement of the bond between city and team, no one gets into any business to lose money. If the finances are not working in Sacramento, or if they could be more profitable elsewhere, I understand the action being taken. But that does not make the experience any less painful for fans, as Jonah stated so eloquently in the quote cited above.
As Yankees fans, we are somewhat removed from these concerns, but the same sort of thing is going to come up in Tampa Bay with the Rays, in Jacksonville with the Jaguars, in New Orleans with the Hornets, and in countless other localities where owners are struggling to obtain a new facility from the local government or attendance has lagged. Those teams will move to new places, and the new homes will welcome them with open arms, embrace them as a local treasure, and teach their children to love the home team. However, they may not be the home team for very long, and another generation of scorned fans will wonder what they ever did to deserve that sort of treatment. But the answer is simple, stark, and ultimately unavoidable: you loved your team unconditionally, and invested in them emotionally. You could not help but do so, because to you, sports is about more than money. You acted like a fan. But the people making the decisions cannot always afford to consider how their actions make you feel, and a disconnect like that will frequently lead to pain. To them, you are ultimately just a dollar sign.
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