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Hotbed of Fan Apathy

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If you're a fan of pro team sports, why would you want to live in Charlotte? I've been asking myself that ever since our city ended a depressing sports year. Not because we don't have interesting teams to watch, but as fans, we have about as much loyalty to our teams as Enron executives do to their employees. 2001 was depressing for several reasons:

* Many local citizens have little understanding of the dynamics of pro sports. For example, they think owners should qualify as church deacons. While that may be nice, it's naive. Owners come with the same foibles as rank-and-file citizens. Granted, the Hornets owners have been hard for the city to work with on the arena issue -- which is a public-private venture -- but many citizens have unrealistic expectations.

* Fans stayed away in droves as the Panthers endured a 1-15 season and unhappily laid claim to the longest single-season losing streak in NFL history (15 games). Until the final few games, though, the Panthers had clear shots to win. Though fans had purchased enough tickets to prevent TV blackouts of home games all season, they stayed away anyhow. Fans here who stick with a team through lean times are a lean number themselves. Lean and mean, judging by calls I've heard to call-in sports shows.

* Fan support for the Hornets is dismal, even though they're playing good basketball most of the time. The league attendance leader eight out of their first nine seasons, the Bugs now float near the bottom of the barrel in turnout. And to think this season, they've suited up so far without their star scorer from last season, Jamal Mashburn (abdominal muscle strain), but are still about .500. Not bad. They've also gotten all-star caliber play out of point guard Baron Davis. Can you imagine the Hornets when Mashburn returns, which is expected sometime in the next month? The Hornets could make a run for the Eastern Conference title but, as the ball swishes through the net, will there be anybody there to hear it?

* Fans showed paltry interest in the Charlotte Sting until they began a late-season charge toward the playoffs. Even then, it took major discounts to fill the coliseum when the Sting opened the championship series at home against Los Angeles. How embarrassing. I know most men and many women don't prefer women's sports. Fine, but there are still plenty of fans who profess to care about women's basketball. Where are they? The Sting offers the most affordable major-league sports ticket in town and has made the playoffs all but one season (2000). Yet, as with the Panthers this past season, Sting fans weren't willing to endure the tough times.

OK, enough depression. Bring out the Prozac.

Are Charlotte fans really that bad, or are we a victim of circumstances? Let me explain.

Charlotte has a short history as a home to major-league sports franchises. The Hornets, the city's first such team, began play with the 1988-89 season. The Panthers didn't start up until 1995; the Sting arrived in 1997 with the debut of the WNBA. The markets where you see fans weathering the bad years, filling the stadium even if the team has a losing record, are places that have had pro sports for many decades. Think about the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chicago Cubs and the Green Bay Packers. Even the Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the 2001 World Series, couldn't fill their stadium during the regular season. The same was true for the Florida Marlins the year they reached the World Series.

Sellouts used to be commonplace, at least early on, when a city got a new team. The Grizzlies of the NBA, new to Memphis this year from Vancouver, are averaging only 14,792 fans in their 19,000-seat arena. In the NFL this season, the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn't televise three home games locally because they didn't sell out. The Jags came along the same year as the Panthers, and they're the only major league team in Jacksonville.

Another factor is that Charlotte arrived on the pro sports scene well after players began acting like geese -- that is, migrating to the warmest (translate: richest) climate. They're around only long enough to pick up the millions they perceive as breadcrumbs. The question is: How many breadcrumbs does it take to make a loaf? Answer: As many as you can get.

Few players in any sport hang around long enough to become so deeply embedded in the soul of a place that fans come out just to see how they will play on any given night. Or, owners are so keen on restructuring their line-ups that popular players are traded. There are few Tony Gwynns anymore, players who stay in one place their entire career, as the recently retired baseball star did with the San Diego Padres.

The high price of tickets to men's pro sports also fuels fan disaffection. The Hornets still have low-priced tickets if you're willing to sit up high, but not so with the Panthers. Increasingly, season ticket holders are corporations or well-heeled individuals. Those on the lower rungs of the economic latter can attend occasionally, but even then, it's a strain when mom and dad need to ante up for a handful of kids and have to shell out a hundred or more dollars. Family entertainment?

These realities and Prozac aside, though, there are facts about us as Charlotte sports fans that aren't pretty.

We love a winner to a fault. If a pro, college or high school team in this town doesn't have a winning tradition, prying us out of our Lay-Z-Boys takes one of those cranes dotting the downtown skyline. We're fickle. The only time that wasn't true was when George Shinn landed the Hornets. For years, we repressed our baser instincts and actually supported the team because, by golly, we had one. I thought this unqualified support (translate: the team wasn't winning in those early years, yet it set league records for attendance) might signal a coming of age for local fans -- that we were devoted to the home team and could appreciate the beauty, athleticism and teamwork of games. I was wrong.

Furthermore, I've been told, some white people here have trouble supporting a team, especially if it's not a winner, if it consists of mostly African-Americans. Unfortunately, people I've talked to about this noted the racist disconnect among some of us, which includes some who are college-educated. I haven't witnessed it myself, but my sources are good, and I know this city still has a long way to go in race relations.

The lack of bonding with local pro teams is exacerbated by Charlotte's transient nature. Many people who came to town during the city's growth boom of the 1990s arrived for good job opportunities, but have no thought of staying. They live each day as if this is a way-station. Once they reach the right poundage in their careers, they'll pack up for where they really want to be. So, they don't let their energies flow to local teams; they view the Panthers, Hornets and Sting as mere diversions from their real allegiances, their alma mater or a college or pro team where they grew up.

So, what lies ahead? Tough times if the Hornets leave for New Orleans, which they might. The Sting would depart as well, but may not go to the same city as the Hornets. Charlotte's going to have to beef up the arena proposal put forward by corporate titans and, in all likelihood, assemble an attractive ownership group willing to pay big bucks for a financially floundering franchise. With the Panthers, I think fans will give the new head coach only a brief honeymoon. Our Lombardi-esque mentality ("winning is everything"), coupled with the nature of pro teams today, threatens to make fan loyalty a quaint notion from the past. *

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