Last week, GQ released a list of the worst fans in sports. Clocking in at No. 15 were the fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, the only NBA team to make the list. Whereas all the other teams listed achieved their villainy through a combination of rowdiness and excessive vitriol, Lakers fans are apparently guilty of the exact opposite: they aren't devoted enough to the cause.
GQ calls the Lakers' fanbase the fairest of fair weather fans, citing two separate instances (after the retirement of Magic Johnson, and again after the trade of Shaquille O'Neal) in which Laker Nation suddenly shrank, only to grow again a few years later once the Lakers managed to rebuild. Also referenced was the environment of your average Lakers game, in which a fair number of the "fans" close to the court are more interested in their phones and the people sitting courtside than in the game itself.
As a card-carrying member of Lakers Nation, I took about as much offense to GQ's article as I do my chores: mild annoyance followed by complete disregard. Laker fans have been called celebrity hounds and bandwagon riders since the day the internet was invented. For all I know, that might be why the internet was invented.
And it also happens to be absolutely, positively true. The atmosphere in Staples Center is tragic for all but the most important occasions, because the people who care most about the team are not the people who can afford most to drop thousands of dollars on seats which aren't a mile high. This fact bothers Laker fans far more than it bothers you.
But I'm not here to defend my brethren. I'm here to talk about the fair weather fans.
That part is true, too. The Los Angeles Lakers certainly do have a ton of fair weather fans. Whether its because the Lakers are one of the most successful franchises in the NBA's history, or because they exist in the nation's second-largest media market, or whether it really is a failing of L.A.'s Hollywood atmosphere, there can be no doubt that Laker Nation is filled with people who won't be there if and when the team starts to fold. When Kobe Bryant is cryogenically frozen until scientists can find a cure for old age, when Pau Gasol retires to open a ballet company, when the team finally falls out of fortune, support for the Lakers will dwindle dramatically.
So here's the question: Why exactly is being a fair weather fan such an insult?
You know what they call fair weather fans outside the sports world? Smart customers. Think about it. If McDonalds starts making crappy food, do you stick it out with Mickey D's in the hopes things will improve? Or do you decide to stop going, or go to Burger King instead? Unless you are an idiot, it's an easy choice to make. If your dishwashing soap leaves lots of streaks on your dishes, you change soap. You don't sit around lamenting about how you thought this was the bottle of soap that was going to turn things around. Fair weather fandom isn't despicable behavior, it's a market correction for a bad product.
Before we go any further, it needs to be pointed out that there are two different kinds of fair weather fans.
One kind is quite deserving of your ire: the front-runner, the win-chaser, the turncoat. You know exactly who I'm talking about, that guy who mystically seems to have affiliations with teams that have nothing in common except that they win a lot. This guy roots for the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, Duke Basketball, and Florida Gators football. He also enjoys Brazilian soccer, Kenyan distance running and Canadian curling. In truth, said person isn't really a fan of any of these teams. He's not even a fan of sports at all. He is a fan of being right, and nine times out of 10, he roots for these teams so he can rub it in your face.
Nobody likes that guy, and nobody should. Being a know-it-all is annoying even when it actually indicates a certain level of intellect, but choosing a bunch of winning teams to cheer for isn't exactly rocket science. So, by all means, please hate that guy.
But the other kind of fair weather fans, the ones who's level of engagement changes in accordance with the team's success? What is so wrong about that? As fans, we are constantly reminded that this game we love is a business. When a star skips town over a few million dollars, or when your favorite player gets traded, or when a group of 30 millionaires decide they need a lockout in order to drive down player salaries because those same 30 guys can't control themselves individually, we are the innocent bystanders that get caught in the crossfire, and the excuse is always the same. This game is a business.
Well, this game is a business, the business of entertainment. And if the entertainment isn't up to snuff, why should we as fans be expected to maintain the same level of support?
Let's say you were a Robert DeNiro fan because of the excellence of his early work like Raging Bull, The Godfather and Goodfellas. Based on that excellence, you watched every DeNiro movie. Would that attitude survive the entire Meet the Parents trilogy, Hide and Seek, or Showtime? For your sake, I sure hope not. There's a reason why all but the greatest television shows rarely enjoy a run lasting more than 2-3 years. When entertainment isn't entertaining enough, people tend to ignore it, and that is as it should be.
There are a couple of other sides to this card. The first is an unfortunate consequence of supply and demand. A professional basketball team, even a really bad one, is a hot commodity. So, if support for a team does dwindle, said team can just pack their bags and move to greener pastures, even if the dwindling support is completely justified by a crappy product. It happened in Seattle, and it now appears to be happening in Sacramento. In those situations, the choice is very different. Instead of "I am choosing not to support this team right now because they haven't done a good job creating a good product", small market fans are left with "I am choosing to potentially lose the ability to support this team forever because they haven't done a good job creating a good product."
Since basketball is often one of the only games in town, there is no doubt that owners have small market fans by the balls. It's akin to the only movie theater in a small town. It doesn't matter if that theater plays Battle: Los Angeles for six straight weeks, you'll still go to that theater twice a month because there's nothing else to do, and if you don't, the movie theater might just go out of business. It's the sad price the small market pays to try and play with the big boys.
The other, other side is loyalty. Loyalty is an admirable quality, in friendship and in fandom. Its place in the business world is an ideological debate that I want no part of, but loyalty certainly plays a role in determining how much of a bad product you are willing to put up with before you throw in the towel.
Going back to the DeNiro example, how many bad movies did it take before you realized DeNiro had jumped the shark? If you jumped ship after one bad movie, loyalty probably isn't your strong suit. In sports, loyalty is about sticking with your guys through thick and thin, and that loyalty makes the team's success taste much, much sweeter, because you suffered through all the bad stuff to get there.
But loyalty, as admirable as it is, has to be a two-way street. If you show constant loyalty to someone or something despite consistent evidence they don't deserve it, you are either stupid or related. And your loyalty doesn't just hurt you, it actually does harm to the very thing you are being loyal to.
Undying loyalty which flies in the face of bad behavior/product removes accountability from the object of your devotion. If you'll be there no matter what, it enables the object of your affections to find the depths of exactly what "no matter what" means. Just look at a couple of the league's perennial doormats, the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers.
The W's have one of most loyal fanbases on the planet. The crowd at Oracle Arena is always lively, their attendance has been in the upper half of the league since the O opened up, and they are the only group of fans that I can honestly say completely changed the course of a playoff series all by themselves. All this, despite the fact that the Warriors have made the playoffs exactly once since 1995.
The Clippers are an entirely different situation. Until they lucked into the most watchable player in basketball in Blake Griffin, the Clippers were regularly towards the bottom of the league in attendance and support. But, as the second team in Los Angeles, support for the Clippers will always have a certain baseline, comprised mainly of people who can't stand the thought of rooting for the Lakers, or else can't afford to. It seems unlikely that either fanbase will dwindle below current levels, no matter how bad the teams get.
Considering those circumstances, is it any surprise that those teams have been the worst-run franchises in the sport over the last 20 years? Golden State's has been a failure of ineptitude. A simple formula of bad personnel decisions, bad contracts and bad coaching hires made it impossible for the team to gain any traction, driven by an owner who didn't seem to understand the game.
In the real world, that owner goes out of business. In the sports world, Chris Cohan sold the team for a record $450 million dollars, a return on investment of more than 350 percent over the $119 million he paid more than 15 years ago. Do you think the team would be worth that much, that Cohan would have remained the owner for that long, if W's fans had been a bit more willing to speak with their wallets?
The Clippers are even worse. Whereas the Warriors are mired in perennial suck because of hubris and ineptitude, the Clippers are there by design. Owner Donald Sterling hasn't tried to create a good product, because he can make more money by putting out a cut-rate loser and keeping his overhead low. The Clippers are probably one of the most profitable teams in the league over the past 20 years, despite being terrible the entire time, and the reason is because a certain number of people will continue to support the franchise no matter how bad the team is.
The Clippers are the real life Springtime for Hitler. If that devoted fanbase, loyal to a product which has shown not just to be unworthy of that loyalty, but actively taking advantage of it, were to disappear, so would the Clippers business model.
Which brings us back to the Lakers. The Lakers have the most fair weather fans in all of sports. Why? Because Los Angeles is one of the entertainment capitals of the world. If the Lakers suck, fans have a myriad of other fine options to more suitably distract themselves with. As such, when the Lakers struggle, support for the team dwindles dramatically. That couldn't possibly have anything to do with the fact that the team has missed the playoffs only five times in the 62 year history of the franchise, could it?
The Lakers have reached the NBA finals a staggering 31 times, averaging a Finals trip every two years. They've won roughly 25 percent of the league's championships. There are a whole bunch of reasons why, and a fair number of inherent advantages that allow it to be so, but a Laker fanbase which has made it clear that winning is important has to be part of the equation. Jerry Buss is keenly aware of the price he will pay if the Lakers ever have a prolonged period of poor play, and it drives him to ensure the team reloads quickly.
So, the next time you accuse someone of being a fair weather fan, take a second to think about exactly what that means. The Los Angeles Lakers might be the most fair weather fanbase on the planet, and I for one am proud to be one of them. I don't suffer bad food, bad dish soap, or bad movies, so why in the hell would I suffer bad basketball?