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Marlowe Alter, Detroit Free Press
When looking at the overall problems with our local teams, fans know loyalty can be for better, worse
It’s not an easy time to be a sports fan in Detroit. The Tigers are struggling. The Pistons and Wings missed the playoffs and appear a long way from championship form.
And the Lions?
Well, yes, they made the playoffs in January and could make them again next winter. But they’re still the Lions. Until we see otherwise.
Besides, if you’re counting on the Lions to prop you up during these dark times, good luck.
The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are as varied as they are complicated. Bad draft picks. Bad signings. Age. Injury. Uneven coaching. The natural cycle of competing in a professional league, where rules are designed to spark the downtrodden — in theory, anyway.
Another, less tangible force has led us here, too: loyalty.
To players who are no longer performing like they once did, to coaches who may or may not have championship ability, to general managers who haven’t made enough right moves in forever.
On the other hand, removing loyalty and emotion from sports is almost impossible. Both for fans, obviously, but also for owners and even some general managers.
It’s a squishy realm, professional sports, and operating them, no matter how often we argue to the contrary, is not like running General Motors, or Apple, or Facebook.
“For some owners, owning a team is a business proposition,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “They want to make money. But it also gets emotional. They get to know the players. Or they are fans themselves.”
So when a player like Miguel Cabrera comes along, and it’s time to consider renegotiating a contract — or even when it’s not time — an owner whose grown attached to him is willing to overpay.
“They think: Miggy gave that team so much. (So) yeah alright, sure. We kind of owe it to him,” said Gordon.
Whether they actually do or not.
In the actual corporate world, said Gordon, no company would pay an employee $300 million over 10 years when it knew that employee’s performance would likely slip less than halfway through the contract.
Just as no board of directors would keep a CEO on after consecutive, sub-standard years.
“Some CEOs get fired after a couple of bad (financial) quarters,” said Gordon. “It’s not like sports, where the general manager can go to ownership and ask for more time to rebuild.”
Professional sports teams may be private entities, but they also are a kind of public trust. The emotional connection makes it so.
“It’s like no other business,” said Gordon, who specializes in studying business models. “I go to Chicago a lot and sometimes I wear my Tigers’ hat. I’ve walked past a White Sox fan and heard boos. I kind of like that. But you’d never say to a stranger, ‘oh, Yahoo! stinks!’”
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Or think about it this way: Customers of a company don’t suddenly demand that company fire its CEO or president. Now, stockholders might, but fans aren’t stock-holders.
They just think they are, explained Ed Hirt, a professor of psychology at Indiana University who studies identity as it relates to fandom.
“It’s about self-esteem,” he said. “People suffer when their teams are bad. But suffering can become its own kind of identity: ‘I will suffer because that’s what being a fan means.’ “
The relationship of loyalty between fan and team and team and coach and/or player is a complicated one. Fans tend to stay with a team, even if they pull back on ticket purchases or television viewing. Some fans want their teams to show the same type of loyalty to players and coaches. Some fans don’t.
When teams go through down cycles, said Hirt, fans are more willing to cut ties with athletes they’ve loved.
“Justin Verlander is a good example,” he said. “Do we deal him? He’s been a Tiger forever. He is our guy.”
But, he added, “the Tigers aren’t going anywhere. (Fans) have a difficult time thinking about this from a detached point of view.”
At times, owners and general managers do, too.
Then again, at times they do not.
‘Success is all that matters’
In 2003, a week after head coach Rick Carlisle led the Pistons to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons fired him. This after back-to-back 50-win seasons.
Carlisle had an abrasive personality. Owner Bill Davidson didn’t like it. Didn’t think he could take the team to the top. So he replaced him in with Larry Brown, who won an NBA title the next season.
A year before the Pistons hired Carlisle, the Red Wings promoted Dave Lewis to replace Scotty Bowman. Lewis led the Wings to consecutive division titles but failed to reach the conference finals in the playoffs.
Two seasons in, and Ken Holland, the Wings’ general manager, had seen enough. He replaced Lewis with Mike Babcock. Three years later, the Wings won the Stanley Cup.
In both cases, but for different reasons, owners made merciless decisions to propel their franchise forward. That kind of decisiveness can seem stunning now. Because in the world of professional sports, loyalty and emotion can rule the day.
All you have to do is look around at our current teams, except for (gasp!) the Lions, who are under the guidance of perhaps Detroit’s most ruthless general manager — Bob Quinn.
Elsewhere, we have Pistons owner Tom Gores keeping his faith in Stan Van Gundy and the Ilitch family redoubling its resolve in Tigers general manager, Al Avila, and the Wings’ aforementioned general manager, Holland.
Holland, among the four, presents a kind of litmus test for loyalty and fandom. The Wings have won three Stanley Cups on his watch. He’s shaped two different rosters to earn those titles. But he hasn’t rolled out a true contender in nine years.
And fans are restless. As they should be.
The situation is similar to that of Joe Dumars, an iconic player on the Bad Boys’ teams who reinvented himself as a shrewd team architect. His Pistons résumé as a general manager includes six conference finals appearances and an NBA title.
Yet when he was removed from that spot in 2014, many were happy to see him go.
It was time. It’s just hard to know when it’s time.
Some franchise are more ruthless — or efficient if you prefer — in cutting or removing players and coaches when the performance doesn’t meet expectation. Think of the New England Patriots, say.
Yet other franchises manage to win and hang on to their beloved icons seemingly forever. Like the San Antonio Spurs.
“Some fans are protective of the players (or coaches) who’ve had success and some are ‘What-have-you-done-for-me-lately?’ ” said Hirt, “and success is all that matters.”
In business, success is all that matters, which is why comparing the Lions or the Tigers to Ford is not quite analogous.
“I’m not sure people would apply the standards of fandom to any other aspect of life,” said Hirt. “It’s fundamental.”
It’s also why sports fandom around here is so bleak.
Said Gordon, the U-M business professor who grew up in Midland and fell in love with Detroit’s teams a long time ago:
“When Tigers are doing well, we are happy. When they are not, we are disappointed. (Even though) nothing actually happened to me.”
“It’s ridiculous,” he continued. “Nothing has changed in my life. I get up every morning, get in the same car, eat the same food, and go to the same job. Yet, I’m so depressed. And so bummed out.”