I’m a Mets, Jets and Knicks fan. I’ve grown up around people who root for the NY Giants, Yankees, Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots. The difference between me and all of those people is that they’ve seen their favorite team win a championship, and I haven’t.
Personally, I don’t really understand how someone that’s watched Tom Brady hoist the Lombardi trophy six times for the city of Boston could still have the same intense fandom as I do. Does win number six feel as good as win number one did? At some point, there has to be a level of expectedness that ruins it for fans of successful teams. Because of this, it can be argued that teams being unable to win it all is actually good for the engagement of the fanbase, but there is definitely an extreme opposing factor here: There is a rock-bottom, where people just stop caring. Because of this, it seems as if the best position for a team to be in is to be on the cusp, but always coming up empty.
In my personal fandom, I’ve seen different phases of my favorite teams’ lack of success. For the Mets, the peak was 2015, where the team made a miracle run to the World Series and then ran out of gas at exactly the wrong time. On the other hand, I’ve seen multiple years between the peaks of 2006 and 2015 where there was simply no hope, and it was legitimately hard to watch. For the Jets, the same is true. Back-to-back AFC Championship appearances were great, followed by the era we’re currently in now where the most memorable phrases I can associate with the team recently are “tank for Trevor” and “fire Gase.” For the Knicks, aside from Linsanity and a few playoff appearances, including last year’s, there hasn’t been much hope.
Hope is the key factor here. The Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940s and 1950s are the epitome of a team whose fandom is fueled by an intense hope. The “maybe next year” mentality keeps people coming back, no matter how irrational it might be. The Dodgers made the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. In those six tries, only one visit to the Fall Classic resulted in a championship, which came in 1955. Three years later, coincidentally, the Dodgers were out of Brooklyn and relocated to Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, this makes it hard to deduce whether a title would have sated the hunger of Brooklyn fans. But after losing the Giants as well as the Dodgers, the National League had a new New York team in 1962: the Mets. The team was very bad, but despite this record-breaking level of ineptitude, the Mets quickly became “the lovable losers” and reset the hunger for a championship.
A more modern example of a team in the sweet spot for fan engagement is the Buffalo Bills. Many fans are still around from when the Bills went 0-4 in four straight Super Bowls in the early ’90s, which certainly formed a hunger. Now that the team is a serious contender again, it’s back with a force. Hope is very much alive in Buffalo, and it’s no coincidence that the “Bills Mafia” is widely considered to be one of the most passionate fan bases in American sports. The question is, if Josh Allen and Co. can get it done in the next few years, will success-based fatigue start to build?
In the end, my argument here is that success in sports is a complicated matter. Winning too much can make fans unable to appreciate success, while losing too much can make fans unable to imagine success. Finding the sweet spot certainly can ensure strong fan engagement for years upon years, but the goal of sports should always be to win as much as possible, so it’s a vicious cycle.