Geography and Demography

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Last night, posted an article by Patrick Rishe in which Rishe examines three factors which have made Super Bowl contestants Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh* Steelers two of the most popular (as in top 5) teams in the NFL. Their popularity has many predicting record ratings for this year's Super Bowl. Rishe examines three factors which have led them to their level of popularity, which both have sustained for a long while:

  1. History, as explained by the "first-mover advantage." Both were early entrants in the league, both had near total access to the entire market share of NFL fans, and both won championships early (the Packers were the Team of the 60s in NFL lore, while the Steelers were the Team of the 70s). This access allowed them to conquer a new frontier, so to speak. Most importantly, "though both franchises had their struggles and extended bouts away from postseason play during the 80s, the market share and branding that took place years ago made it possible to rekindle those allegiances as both franchises slowly returned to glory in the 90s and beyond."
  2. Geography. Pittsburgh and Green Bay are mid-level economic markets (Pittsburgh is the 22nd largest metropolitan area, Green Bay the 42nd). Smaller markets with successful teams "tend to breed more loyal and rabid fanbases," invoking the St. Louis Cardinals to bolster his argument. 
  3. Financial structure. Due to the NFL's very equitable revenue sharing and hard salary cap, both franchises (Green Bay an anachronistic publicly-owned football team, Pittsburgh's controlling partners only control 30%) have the same financial resources as large-market teams in the NFL, allowing them equal access to the top players in the league. 
What does this have to do with the Florida Marlins? The Marlins' historic, geographic, and financial system are far from those of the Steelers and Packers. And the first two factors compound the third for the Marlins. As such, Marlins fans the world over are greeted with puzzled stares when they assert their fandom, and the team is saddled with the "terrible fanbase" tag, playing for bandwagon fans or no fans, with no exceptions or gray areas. But if you can credit structural factors to the growth of two fanbases, you can certainly point to them when explaining why your favorite team routinely plays in half empty stadiums.

The Marlins, as we all know, were a 1993 expansion team, beginning play nearly 90 years after the first World Series. By the time the Marlins had entered MLB, virtually everyone in America outside the home market (and many inside) already had a favorite baseball team. Ted and I had the Orioles (this was long enough ago for that to not be a bummer). I think people of my generation (born in the 1980s) all know one peer in Miami who could have become a Marlins fan as a kid but instead retained his or her prior allegiances. In short, the Marlins entered a saturated market.

On top of that, the Marlins are in the 7th largest metropolitan area, a market with ample entertainment options. And as a subset of the geographic factor, I would add that phsyical migration has improved the Packers' and Steelers' national brand while hindering the Marlins' profile. When Green Bay and Pittsburgh first joined the NFL in the 1920s, the term "rust belt" was decades from inception. The industrialized northeast and Great Lakes regions were among the most populous regions in America. But as the postindustrial decline set in after the 1960s, these areas saw huge numbers of residents leave the region (this migration continues today). Many of these rust belt residents have moved to the south, west, and sun belt states. They have taken their sports allegiences with them. This is why, as Kissing Suzy Kolber noted last week, you can find Steelers bars all over the country.

The Marlins, as you can no doubt infer from the previous paragraph, play in a destination city, where rust belters and immigrants from all over the hemisphere and world relocate daily. If you're a born and bred Indians fan from Ohio, you'll hold a grudge against the Marlins, not root for them. And every Marlins fan knows the indignity of going to a Mets (or Yankees or Red Sox) game and being outnumbered by the visiting fans.

To top it off, the Marlins play in a league which forces low-revenue teams to be ruthlessly smart and efficient to succeed, since they cannot afford the top players in the league unless they sign them to contract extensions below market value early in their career (as the Marlins have done with Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson and the Tampa Bay Rays did with Evan Longoria, among others). This is not to say that the Marlins or any other small market team cannot win a World Series, as we all know that is a fallacy. But these teams historically have had difficulty producing winning teams year-in and year-out, the very pattern of success which is almost required to build a fanbase in the modern era. The Marlins and Miami Heat have both seen their home attendance numbers plummet when either team struggled in the years following a championship season. Miami fans do not stick around for losers.

Of course, nothing is inevitable, and in a few decades, when the first wave of fans who grew up with the Marlins start raising their own broods of Marlins fans, or if the Marlins have a remarkable wave of success that hooks a bunch of people for life, the Marlins fanbase may not be a laughingstock. But it will take a confluence of significant events and trends to reverse the effect of the above factors, and frankly I'm not sure what that would look like. But at least I have some data to spout at a cocktail party. It's better than looking sheepish and saying nothing when asked to defend my fellow fans.

    *By the way, my favorite thing about Pittsburgh? It is one of the few "-burgh" cities in America, because during World War I it resisted the urge to drop the h during a period of anti-German resentment. Indeed, the citizens had to campaign to restore the h in 1911.


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