Sports fans pay the price for hope
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/10/2018 (1709 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Professional sports are costly — for the fans who buy the tickets and the merchandise; for the cities that all too often supply the stadiums and arenas; and, in the long run, for the athletes who reap huge financial rewards but often pay a huge price in terms of their well-being.
But you knew all that already. Today’s topic is a different question: is it worth it?
I got thinking about that over the weekend, after coming across a new study that examined what fans get for all the money invested in beloved sports teams.
The study’s release was serendipitous, coming as it did in the same week as revelations Manitoba taxpayers are now stuck holding the bag on almost $200 million in construction costs “loaned” to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to build Investors Group Field, but which the province has now written off.
University of California, Berkeley data science Prof. Amit Bhattacharyya took a long, hard look at what fans of the teams in North America’s big four pro sports leagues — NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL — get for the estimated US$56 billion they spend on game tickets each year.
Bhattacharyya compared the cost of attending a game — which included the price of a ticket, parking, one hot dog and one beer — against things such as the value of the franchise, the cost of living in the area, attendance, and a team’s winning percentage over time.
What he found: the Winnipeg Jets were the seventh-most expensive night out in the NHL and the fifth-worst “deal” in the league overall, when comparing how much it costs to go a game to the team’s overall winning percentage.
In contrast, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the NHL’s cheapest night out and the best “deal” when correlating their low costs of attending a game with the club’s high-flying winning percentage in recent seasons.
It’s worth noting Bhattacharyya’s sample didn’t include the 2017-18 NHL season, which was, of course, the Jets franchise’s best season ever and would have altered some of those metrics.
Leaving that aside, I’m not sure many Winnipeg fans would agree with the premise supporting even a struggling Jets team is a lousy deal.
On the contrary, even when the Jets were at their worst and struggling to be playing relevant hockey past Christmas, the season-ticket renewal rate was above 95 per cent, and the club had no trouble finding fans on the waiting list to replace the handful who did move on every year.
Some of the high retention rates might have been the sheer novelty of having NHL hockey back in Winnipeg after a 15-year absence. Even bad hockey is better than no hockey, to most Canadian hockey fans.
But there’s something deeper at play — a sense that even in a town that loves a bargain as much as Winnipeggers do, some things you just cannot put a price on.
For sports fans here — and everywhere else — I think that thing is hope.
You see this dynamic at play most compellingly with the Blue Bombers, a CFL franchise that has tested the faith of fans like almost no other in pro sports through a championship drought now being measured in quarter centuries.
Yet, through all the dysfunction, Winnipeggers continue to show up in droves every game day. The Bombers have played to 82.5 per cent capacity at IGF this year, the fourth-highest attendance rate in the league, behind only the Saskatchewan Roughriders (who are in a league by themselves in these matters), the Ottawa Redblacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, both of whom play in undersized stadiums.
So why? Why do tens of thousands of Winnipeggers continue to turn out for a team that has only disappointed them for the better part of three decades with losing on the field, dysfunction off of it, and now a reneged loan agreement?
Because we are nothing as a species without hope, and so a flicker of a flame continues to burn in even the most pessimistic of Bombers fans that this might finally be the year they get it right.
We continue to believe, even in the face of mountains of evidence that we shouldn’t, because life is a despairingly empty enterprise if you don’t have something to believe in.
If not our imperfect sports teams, what would we believe in?
Our politicians? In a city in which the police department currently eats up more than one-quarter of the entire civic budget, cops are the highest-paid civic employees and even constables pull down six-figure salaries, the current crop of hopeless mayoral candidates would have you believe the biggest issue in the 2018 election campaign is… pulling down a couple concrete barriers at a downtown intersection.
You will be celebrating a Grey Cup at Portage and Main millennia before a Winnipeg mayoral candidate finally gets serious about taking on a police union well on its way to single-handedly bankrupting this city.
But I digress.
Hope doesn’t come cheap. There is a price to be paid for having something to believe in, and in pro sports, the fans pay that price at the ticket window, merchandise counter, beer stand and in those crazy cable television subscriptions.
It adds up to a lot and, at season’s end, the supporters of every team but one leave unsatisfied.
If you purchased any other product that left you wanting as often as your favourite team does, you’d have stopped buying it years ago. However, just putting your feet on the floor every morning is also a leap of faith, and still we make it.
So yeah, maybe the Jets are expensive. Maybe the Bombers don’t win nearly often enough. But we hope our faith will be rewarded and someday it will finally be our turn to hoist a championship trophy and know, even for a fleeting moment, we were the very best at something.
Maybe it will be this year? A big win over the weekend in Edmonton got the Bombers back in the thick of the West Division playoff race. A defence like the one that turned up Saturday could take this team a long, long way.
Or maybe it will be next year, and a Jets team that, for the first time ever, you can say with a straight face has as good a chance to win the Stanley Cup as anyone.
Or not. Probably not, if we’re being honest here.
Still, we hope. And that makes it — our money and our time and, yes, even the tax dollars we throw at these maddening teams — worth the price of admission.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.