Jan 27, 2011

Changing Face of Sports

The Super Bowl is coming up in a little over a week.  This is the biggest single sporting event in the country.  Some would argue for March Madness - but that is spread out across weeks.  The Super Bowl is just a mammoth day.  It is treated the same as a holiday.  Stores put on Super Bowl sales - mainly electronics, food, and electronics stores.  Non-sports news devotes significant time to covering it.  It is just huge.  In fact, the hype surrounding the game has basically dwarfed the game.  Rarely does the game itself measure up or carry the same interest as the concept of the game.  Sure, some years like the Patriots/Giants matchup a few years ago and Saints/Colts last year can actually hold our interest.  But, for every game like that there is a Steelers/Seahawks that doesn't.

I've written about the Super Bowl several times on this site.  I've examined how the Super Bowl gains and loses interest based on how many national/regional/local teams are involved.   I've talked about how important the event is to me.  I've even looked at how the Super Bowl contributed to my eating problems over on my Darth Fatso blog.  This year, I wanted to look at the matchup - along with a little on the issue of loyalty in today's sporting world, especially when it comes to the Super Bowl.

For most of the fans of the other 30 NFL teams, you probably don't really care too much about the outcome of this game.  Sure, Browns fans hope the Steelers get annihilated.  The same goes for Vikings and Bears fans with the Packers.  But your average Dolphin fan or Cowboy fan or Rams fan (are there those?) probably doesn't really have a rooting interest.  [If you are gambler, of course that is thrown out the window due your financial interest.]  This year's contest has two very popular teams - ones who have a long history, many Super Bowl wins, a huge national fan base.  They are two of the six or eight truly national teams - franchises that have large groups of fans all over the country.  So, for the NFL, this is a great matchup.  People have a knowledge of the Packers and Steelers.  The game sounds important.  It has a Super Bowl aura about it - unlike something like Jaguars/Seahawks or Chargers/Lions.  Those games don't have the regal sound like this one does.

The really strange thing about this matchup, though, is that it shouldn't work.  Yes, there is a ton of history and everything.  But leagues always are hoping for matchups between big market teams.  You know, the LA and NY and Chicago and Dallas teams.  They want the ratings those teams bring - between their huge population and former residents.  Green Bay and Pittsburgh hardly qualify.  They are "small market" teams.  In every other sport, Pittsburgh is always in danger.  The Pirates are horrible.  The Penguins nearly disappeared a few years ago.  They don't even have an NBA team.  Green Bay is known for freezing weather, cheese, beer, and Brett Favre - and the legacy of an old team.  Basically, the city's entire identity is wrapped up in this team.  Without it, that city is just another Duluth or Lansing - a frigid northern city.

Leagues also want to showcase their super duper megastars.  They want Kobe and LeBron and Jeter involved.  They want Sid the Kid and Peyton/Eli Manning in it at the end.  In today's sports culture, the superstar is more important to the league than the team.  Free agency has seriously eroded team loyalty.  It used to be a team would sign a player and he would play there his whole career.  They went hand in hand. Think of the great players and you immediately think of their team.  Now, though, players jump ship all the time - even the big name guys.  Look at LeBron to see this demonstrated the best.  He should have stayed in Cleveland forever.  Those two should have gone together - with kids growing up as Cavs AND James fans.  Instead, he left for Miami.  Overnight, there were a ton of "Heat Fans."  Team loyalty isn't there.  It's hard.  You get attached to a team, then they trade half the team.  I'm a Magic fan.  I like the way the organization is run.  So I follow the team, and develop a fan relationship with the players.  You get to know them and connect with them.  Then they don't get resigned.  Or the team trades them away and takes on some head case (Arenas).  Shaq is the poster child for this.  Easily one of the ten best players ever - and he's played on SIX teams (and counting).

But the Steelers and Packers aren't jam packed with these stars.  The biggest name is Big Ben Roethlisberger - someone with a seriously damaged reputation.  Aaron Rodgers, while one of the best QBs in the NFL, still isn't a "name" player yet.  Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews are both stars, but not on the same plane as the big names (Brady, Brees, Manning) - largely because they are on defense.  The rest of the roster is filled with guys doing their jobs without the fanfare.

The thing is, these are actually easy teams to root for.  They are doing things right.  The Packers are not owned by some mega-billionaire software developer or former Russians mobster.  The team is owned by the fans - people who bought shares in it years ago.  How cool is that?  Back when I was a child picking teams, I didn't care about that stuff.  I just hated the Packers because they had ugly colors.  Then they kept messing around with the Cowboys and Bucs.  Now, though, as I get more and more disgusted with the business end of sports - something like the Packers' ownership situation would get me to root for a team like that.  The Steelers are a family-owned team from the old days of the league.  They don't overpay for big name free agents.  Frequently they lose players to other raiding teams (Randel-El, Santonio Holmes).  But they just rebuild and challenge again.  They are loyal to their players and coaches - but they don't tolerate idiocy.  (Proof of that was when they seriously considered cutting Roethlisberger during his scandal this year.)  They have only had three coaches in the last 40 years  (Wha!?!?) - Chuck Noll 1969-1991, Bill Cowher 1992-2006, Mike Tomlin 2007-present.  And, with the way they treat coaches and how well Tomlin has done (and how young he is), he could be there for another thirty years.

The Steelers and Packers both have so many positives.  They have two of the best stadiums in the NFL - legendary Lambeau and the beautiful Heinz Field.  Their uniforms are two of the best in the league.  The Steelers are 6-1 in Super Bowls.  The Packers are 3-1.  Together they hold 20% of all Super Bowl titles. They have likable coaches, players, owners.  And both are located in hard-working cities with hard-working citizens who "deserve" something to rally behind.

This is why I find it so hard to believe an adult can stick with one team their whole life.  It may be different for someone who grows up in an area with a rabid fan base - like New York or Boston (shudder) or St. Louis.  But for most Americans who are trying to pick a team, how do you stay loyal?  Things change over time.  People change.  I don't like the same things I liked as a kid.  Why would I like the same teams?  I used to eat fern leaves and paint from off the chair in our living room.  I don't do that now.  I used to think the Flinstones were the funniest thing ever.  I owned albums by Nelson and Color Me Badd.  I had big round glasses.  Times change.  People change.  I'm older with a family.  I struggle financially and have a hard time having tons of sympathy for "financially strapped billionaires."  Different things are important to me.  When I was younger, something like uniform color or the team having the same name as my street (Georgia Avenue - UGA) could sway things for me.  Now, though, other things matter.

I used to have a complete set of NFL pencils.  They all laid there in a tray - each one painted solid in the team colors, with the team name written in the secondary color.  Later, I got another set with fancier markings - the logos, mascots.  I never used either set.  I just would arrange them in the order that I liked the teams.  Dallas was always first.  Washington was always last (biggest Dallas rivalry, also as a way to tick off my brother - a Redskin fan).  The Dolphins were always second to last - actually last, but the whole brother thing kept them from really going where they deserved.  Things in the middle would change over time.  But the bottom ten or so never changed much.  Washington, Miami, Oakland, Jets, PACKERS, STEELERS, Giants, 49ers, Broncos.  Without fail, those teams were in my bottom tier.  I hated those teams.

So imagine my surprise when I was watching the championship games last weekend.  Jets, Steelers, Packers, Bears.  I couldn't care less about those teams.  The Bears was the only team I never "hated" - largely because my dad was a huge Bears fan.  Yet, I found myself rooting for the Packers and Steelers.  As I thought back, I realized this was not the first time, either.  I remember rooting for Pittsburgh against the Cardinals two years ago and the Seahawks in 2006.  Why was I rooting for the Steelers?!?  And why in the world was I wanted Green Bay to win?  That was a new thing for me.  I realized that my total hatred of them really disappeared when Favre did.  Now, I admired those teams.  I had positive feelings for them.  That can't happen, can it?  If you hate a team, hate it forever.  Sure, if Pittsburgh was playing Jacksonville, I would have been rooting for them all to have their legs fall off.  But in this case, I actually found myself aligning with former enemies.

I've changed.  The league has changed.  Teams have changed.  Things that used to be important aren't now.  I loathe the Cowboys.  They used to be my team.  I had so much Dallas Cowboy stuff.  That was true through college.  But at some point, I just couldn't take them any more.  I got tired of the signing of guys of poor character.  I couldn't stand Jerry Jones and his weasel act.  Their ego and overinflated view of themselves just got to be too much.  Now, they have dropped into that bottom tier.  And a couple other teams have crawled out.  I'm excited for this game.  Either way, a good team will win.  The teams seem to match up well.  It should be a fun watch.  And, of course, the commercials and movie trailers will make up for it if the game is a snoozefest.  I just find it humorous that a matchup that would have sent me to the movie theater a decade ago actually has captured my interest.

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