By Chris Dagonas
Sunday night’s Raptors game, the final in an excruciatingly disappointing series sweep by the Washington Wizards, forced some existential questions into my mind.
And when that happens, in relation to sporting events, you know you’ve got a problem.
Which is worse: to have a season like the Toronto Maple Leafs, where they were pretty much dead from the start, and torpedoed to a bottom-five finish amid turmoil? Or, to have a season like the Toronto Raptors, which started so hopefully, maintained mostly positive vibes throughout a bleak winter, then absolutely collapsed in the face of a mediocre, strikingly similar opponent?
And what is a sports fan role with their favourite teams?
President John F. Kennedy once famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!” This quote bounced around in my head as I suffered through an expected, yet still frustrating, Leafs season, and this unexpected, or at least premature, Raptors implosion. Could I have done something about this? Could we, as fans, have a greater say in how our favourite teams are run? Should we?
You would have to travel to pretty remote parts of the world before you could find people who did not recognize the Green Bay Packers and Barcelona. Especially the latter. They are two of the most consistently successful franchises of the past century. The Packers have 13 total championships in their history, the most recent coming in 2010. Barcelona have won 22 Spanish League and four Champions League titles. Both are the standard to which all other franchises in their respective leagues aspire.
And both are owned not by corporations or billionaire owners, but by their fans. Fans who own shares, have stakeholder rights, and can even make important financial decisions. In Barcelona, the fans can even have a hand in hiring or firing coaches. Their responsibility to their teams is clear; they must work together, in the best interests of the club.
Of course, most sports franchise are not set up this way. Unless you live in rural Wisconsin, or the Catalan Capitol, you are forced to participate in your team as a consumer. We buy merchandise, tickets, and overpriced beverages. We cheer for victories, and grumble about defeats. We “support” the team.
But what does that mean? Are we doing the greater service to our team by acting as cheerleaders, or critical analysts? Spend five minutes on a sports team’s Facebook page, and you’ll bump into the two types of fans I’m describing. The diehard who may sometimes offer a critical opinion, but is most often seen cheering on the team at all times, and encouraging others to do the same. On the other hand, there are the analysts, who break everything down into terms of contracts and on-field strategy. They seem to take little joy in results (to be fair, Toronto teams haven’t had results to be proud of recently). They are always questioning front office or coaching decisions. Should we have signed David Clarkson to that seven-year deal? Should Gibbons have used the hit-and-run in that situation?
Toronto fans tend to lean towards the supportive die hard variety, and it may be to the detriment of our teams. Without a strong fan voice to question them, management is free to continue to make misguided player personnel decisions, and coaches are free to commit key strategic blunders. We need more critical, thoughtful opinions in our fan dialogue.
Take Dwane Casey for example. Many in the media were questioning his offensive playbook long before the Washington Wizards made the Raptors look like a Junior Varsity team. Casey, for his part, was usually able to deflect such questions with glib statements like, “Gotta make your shots.” And that was, often, the end of that line of questioning. But if media members are unwilling, or unable, to get an answer, then we as fans need to kick up a bigger fuss.
Fans in the 21st century have the advantage of using social media to get closer to their team than ever before. A Facebook fan page has the power to start an idea, that can pick up momentum, get investigated by a newspaper or website writer, and that idea can eventually reach the higher-ups of an organization faster than ever before. This is the benefit of being a fan, but that fan voice has to be one that is thoughtful, logical, and critical, not one that is forever glowingly positive or only bothers with a “GO TEAM GO!” We, as fans, need to do more.
New York and Boston have these kinds of fans, and they see their teams win with greater frequency than most other cities combined. Their fans are not the loyal diehards. They support their teams, but are also quick to grumble and raise a stink when they feel their beloved teams are headed in the wrong direction. When ownership has to worry about angering and disillusioning fans, ownership tends to work harder to keep those fans happy.
Again, I bring up the Raptors. Most fans in the city were high all season off the fantastic start, unable to realize that the Raptors were basically a .500 team for most of the season. Finishing fourth in the conference sounded good, but how much different would this post-season look if they had hung on to the third seed and squared off with the youthful Milwaukee Bucks. Of course, there was little talk about any of that, and the trade deadline came and went with no moves made. Masai Ujiri wanted to go to war with the team he had, and #WeTheNorth agreed with him. Without question.
Be loyal to your team. Support them. But don’t be a blind believer in the message of management. Don’t buy into flippant assessments like “Gotta make shots.” The best thing you can do for your team, is ask whether the coach and managers are doing the right things. And, the good thing about the year-round sports cycle, is we always have a chance to fix our errors. It is early yet in the Blue Jays season, but we have all summer to make sure we are asking the tough questions of Alex Anthopoulos and John Gibbons.
For I believe it was Socrates who said, “The unexamined team is not worth rooting for.” And if you believe that is a real quote, I have a David Clarkson contract you might be interested in.