Sep 7, 2010

What's a Title Worth?

What's your favorite team? Get that team in your head - the one that you are really passionate about. Now, let's assume that, as a fan, you were presented the following scenario. "If your team can guarantee it will win the title next year. BUT, to do so, they will have to suck for AT LEAST the next ten years." Would you do it? Is the joy of the title worth the decade of frustration that will be following? I know Bill Simmons has kind of examined this before on his ESPN site. He argues that if your team wins a title, you are not allowed to complain about anything they do for the next five years. Normally, I think that Simmons is pretty on target with his take on sports. But I disagree with this proposition.

The Florida Marlins have two World Series titles. They were won ten years apart. And in both cases, the team did the same thing. They built a good team through drafts, farm system, trades. Then, the loaded up the team for one year. They snuck into the playoffs as the Wild Card and then raced through the playoffs - winning the World Series. Then, they dismantled the team and were absolutely horrible for several years. Then, due to that, they were able to cheaply restock during that time and repeat the process. It is actually pretty good business for the team. They pay through the nose for salaries for a couple years, get the most they can out of young talent, and then dump everybody before they have to re-sign anyone to more than a rookie deal.

So, as a Marlins fan (are there any of those?) would you be okay with this? Every ten years, you will win a title. But for seven of those other nine years, you will have a losing record. In today's sports economic system, it is pretty obvious that it is impossible to compete every single year and keep a roster intact. The superstars want big pay days, which means that you can't keep the other surrounding players - the unrecognized, but vital, parts of the team. To keep the quarterback, running back, top receiver, a couple defensive stars the team has to sacrifice offensive linemen and tight ends and safety. Next thing you know, the team is going 10-6 and losing in the first round every year. (Eagles, I'm looking in your direction.) Eventually something has to change - so the team gets blown up. As a fan, would you rather be like the Eagles of the NFL - competitive just about every year, going to the playoffs, never winning the big game? Or would you rather be like the Marlins - rarely competitive, winning record three years out of ten, title every ten years, no continuity?

I thought about all of this when I thought about the Tampa Bay Bucs. When I lived in Tampa and really started cheering for the Bucs, the team had a personality. It took after its coach, Tony Dungy. The players seemed nice. They had fun together. They worked hard, played tough, and were always competitive. They turned a loser franchise around and made it a contender. And the fans responded. At one point, they had 40,000 people on a waiting list for season tickets.  But, they were not quite getting over that hump. It was frustrating to the fans - and apparently extremely frustrating to ownership. So they made the decision that has changed that franchise forever. They fired Rich McKay and Tony Dungy and brought in Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden. The very next year the Bucs won the Super Bowl. It looked like they made the right choice. Except....

In retrospect, we can see what we should have known at the time. Gruden won with Dungy's team, except with a couple of tweaks. He was this legendary quarterbacks coach, but ended up getting minimal help from Brad Johnson. They rode Monte Kiffin and the defense to the title. And they probably would have at least gotten to the Super Bowl with Dungy. The team wasn't that much better under Gruden. It went 12-4. If you broke the season into quarters, they were 3-1 in each one. They just hit it right. And the biggest advantage Gruden brought to the team was the fact the Bucs played the Radiers in the Super Bowl. He was able to completely undermine the Raiders since he built their team. That was where the move proved its worth - if they had played another AFC team, Gruden would have been irrelevant to the season.

Dungy went to the Colts and did the same thing as with the Bucs. Very consistent, very competitive, never winning the big one. But, eventually, he did win. And he would have won eventually with the Bucs. They may have even won more than one title - once the first one was in the basket. Instead, the Bucs now had a new approach to football. And Allen/Gruden couldn't stand the constant accusations being levied at them that they had just won with Dungy's team. So they began a systematic rebuilding of the team in their images. How'd that work out?
  • 2002 - Record 12-4 - won Super Bowl
  • 2003 - Record 7-9 - no playoffs
  • 2004 - Record 5-11 - no playoffs
  • 2005 - Record 11-5 - lost in wild card game
  • 2006 - Record 4-12 - no playoffs
  • 2007 - Record 9-7 - lost in wild card game (Gruden/Allen re-signed through 2011)
  • 2008 - Record 9-7 - no playoffs after Bucs lost last four games
  • Gruden/Allen fired
Their record was 57-55. If you remove the carryover year from Dungy, they went 45-51. The team won three division titles in the shaky NFC South. The first was the Super Bowl year. The other two, the team quickly exited the playoffs. So, would you say the experiment was a success? The team won a Super Bowl, so you could argue that it was. But, now the team is a complete wreck. Last year, they were terrible under their new head coach, Raheem Morris - who was still in high school when Brett Favre started in the NFL. And this year doesn't look any better. Neither does next year. The team itself has completely lost its mojo. That huge waiting list is gone.  Now the Bucs are one of the dozen teams that will be forced into home blackouts by the NFL due to poor ticket sales.  They really don't have anyone on the roster that even inspires a level of excitement for the future. They don't have a franchise quarterback. Their receiving corps looks to be the worst in the NFL. Their two premiere players are Cadillac Williams - who appears to be named after the 1980s Caddys that broke down a lot - and Ronde Barber. While Ronde has been a rock for this team, he is winding down his career. And he's older than the head coach.

[Side Note on Barber. Did you know that there are less than 20 players who have recorded over 500 tackles and 20 sacks for their career? I was kind of surprised to hear that. Barber reached that level in 2005. At that point there were only nine players. I found one other one who reached that last year. Some of the others include Seth Joyner, Ray Lewis, Wilbur Marshall, Brian Dawkins, Rodney Harrison, and LeRoy Butler. Most of them are linebackers. A few are safeties. Barber is the only cornerback. So far, he has 1156 tackles and 25 sacks. But he also has 37 interceptions. There are only about a dozen players with 20 sacks and 20 interceptions in their career. I'm not sure what all that means, but Barber has been one heck of a player.]

So, back to the original question... Is one title worth years of ineptitude? I don't know. It is hard for me to answer that because I'm not a great sports fan. I haven't been loyal to one team for my whole life. And the teams I rooted for in my early years (Cowboys, Georgia Bulldogs, Yankees) all won titles. So I don't know what it feels like for a tortured sports fan like a Browns fan or Eagles fan or Lions fan. Would it be worth it for them? I know that the Red Sox 86 year title drought has been nauseatingly documented. And the fans there have all said that the 2006 title was worth it. Even those fans, though, once they got a taste of victory got greedy. They aren't satisfied with losing any more. I can't imagine that Boston fans would tolerate ten years of ineptitude without complaining.

I don't let my life get too wrapped up in sports. I love sports. But I find it hard to root for a corporation. Honestly, I root harder for Apple than I do for any of my professional teams. I have changed allegiances over the years. The teams I used to root for I slowly drifted away from. I didn't like they way they ran their franchise, honestly. I rooted for the Cowboys for years, until I couldn't take Jerry Jones any more. I was tired of them before they ended their string of Super Bowls in the 90s. The Yankees got tossed aside a few years back after the Mitchell Report linked 26 players to steroid use. I figured that was just a culture of cheating at that point. I aligned with the Bucs for a while, when I was living in Tampa and for a few years after that. But eventually the Glazer/Gruden/Allen combo pushed me away. So I am not the best person to ask. I respond to a team's personality and not just their players or the team itself.

Now I root for the Jaguars because I get to go to their games once in a while - and my in-laws live in Jacksonville. It is easy to follow that team, and they seem like a good organization. I started rooting for the Tampa Bay Rays - partly because they are an underdog, partly because of the team personality, partly because them winning sticks it to the Yankees AND Red Sox. The Magic got my allegiance due to location (I've lived in or near Orlando since 1992 - for the most part) and the way the team is run - I like the owner and the personnel. And the Nashville Predators fit into those same molds. Plus I love rooting for underdogs and teams with good personalities. You would have sworn I was a Saints fan last year with how much I cheered for them during the season.

I guess the closest I come to being a rabid sports fan is with my college team - UCF. They are the team I follow the closest and feel strong emotional attachment to. That is because I went to that school. My wife went to that school. We lived near that school for years. I had lots to do with students, faculty, alumni of that school. So it isn't just rooting for a random jersey and logo at that point. So, would a title for UCF be worth it? That is a tough question. Their team has been so frustrating to follow for so many years. They never live up to their talent. Sure, they have won conference titles. They have been to bowl games. But they never really seem to get it all together. They are always too impressed with their opponents. They have an abysmal record against schools from the "power conferences." This has cost them numerous games they should have won. And I've also had to watch as cross-state rival USF started a football program, grew that program, beat ranked teams, got ranked as high as #2 in the BCS poll, and beat our butts four years in a row.

In college, once you win that title - it never goes away. (Well, unless you are USC or play for John Calipari or Bob Huggins.) The constant turnover of players due to graduation means that teams are used to the ebb and flow of success. Even the biggest teams have gone through dry spells when they had bad recruiting or a coaching change. So going through a stretch of suckitude after a title wouldn't be that horrible, I guess. And think about the joy that would come from being able to rub that title as a non-BCS team into all the big guys' faces. I can't imagine the way the first non-BCS team will feel when it finally breaks up the monopoly. (Boise State, TCU - this is your year. Let's find out!) And if you were the team that lost to that non-BCS team? Man, they would be owned forever. "Way to go Ohio State. I understand losing to Florida. But TCU? Seriously?!?" I mean, look at the crap Michigan has taken for getting offed by Appalachian State a couple of years ago.

I guess it would be worth it - being able to gloat over FSU and Miami and UF. Especially UF. Plus, imagine what one title would be worth to a school. That would give them legitimacy when it came to conference affiliation, television money, merchandise, recruiting, scheduling. Plus, even if a college stinks for a decade after a title, they still have some sway. Look at Washington, Georgia Tech, Auburn, and BYU. They still have extra status due to those titles - even though several of those schools have never come close to that level of success again.

Whether or not buying a title would be worth it obviously depends on who you ask.  The owners and players would probably argue that, yes, it was worth it.  A franchise is more valuable with hardware - they can get more allowances from their home city, higher merchandise sales, more lucrative seat licenses.  So the title is worth it to an owner.  To players, their careers are often defined by their ability or inability to win the big game.  Think about guys like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dan Marino, or Dale Murphy.  Their careers cannot be mentioned without the deadly "but they never won a title" attached.  And then there are players whose careers are inflated in importance due to titles (Joe Namath, looking in your general direction).  Plus, you can sucker some dumb team into giving you tons of money if you were a part of a championship team (Larry Brown).  Plus, there isn't a lot of loyalty in sports.  You get your money while you can - on both sides of the labor argument.  Championships equal money.

To the fan, the question is harder.  A rabid, die hard, lunatic fan who lives and dies by the team's success would argue that the title is worth it.  A long suffering fan of a team that is perennially sorry (Browns, Cubs, Lions, Nationals, Clippers) would probably say it is worth it - to get the monkey off their back.  But I would wager they would regret that later.  The title would feel great.  But then to go BACK to the putrid levels of yesteryear - that would be horrible.  Think about Rams fans.  They were the worst team in the NFL - voted worst of the decade.  They had watched the move from L.A. to St Louis.  There was only on Super Bowl appearance where they had backed into the playoffs at 9-7, knocked off the Cowboys, beat the Bucs in the worst NFC Championship game ever, and lost to the juggernaut Steelers in their own backyard (the LA Coliseum).  Then - a miracle.  Kurt Warner, Dick Vermeil, Marshall Faulk, Ike Bruce and the Greatest Show on Turf arrives.  They win a Super Bowl, lose in another.  They are a powerhouse offense for a few years.  Then it all collapses and they are back to the first pick in the draft and yearly ineptitude.  How do those fans feel?  Do they say, "At least we have 2000 and 2002?"  Or do they know how bad it can be, know how good it can be, and realize just how bad it stinks to go back?  Does the winning make the losing worse?  (This could also be applied in an even better way to the Tampa Bay Lightning - league doormats, random title, back to league doormats.  But they don't have any fans.  And no one watches hockey.  So no one cares.)

As a person who has followed the Bucs, I can't stand to see how far they have fallen.  I know that it is possible for Tampa to handle a top tier team.  The city weathered some of the worst teams the NFL ever threw out there.  They love their team - and the responded well to it.  They built it a new gorgeous stadium.  They bought new merchandise when the team changed its look.  And now they are expected to continue to support the team when it has no direction, no prospects, and no apparent drive to do anything about it.  When I went to the U2 concert last October at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, I looked up at the giant banners of their players hanging from the concourses.  In years past, they were adorned by Ronde Barber, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn.  You felt pride in seeing those players on a fifty foot poster.  "That's MY team.  Look at that!"  But this time there were banners with Byron Leftwich and Kellen Winslow II and Aqib Talib.  That is just sad.  And in that moment, I can confidently say it was NOT worth it.

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