Siberian Baseball

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Misery loves company

The Chicago fan's hierarchy of rooting interests is a tricky beast to tame. For starters, there are two baseball teams in town that draw from distinctly different bases (no, really?) with the Cubs cornering the market on yuppies, out-of-towners and transpalnts and the Sox relying heavily on the South Side and suburbs to fill seats at the Cell.

If there's one thing that the national baseball audience doesn't understand, it's that the Cubs tend to pull in new residents to keep Wrigley Field filled to capacity with popped collars, while the White Sox represent a truer Chicago-only fanbase. For better or worse, that's just how I've seen the demographics play out in nearly 30 years (and a day at both parks yesterday) as a fan.

Aside from the Bears, which consistently draw Chicago fans year in and year out, the city's baseball teams have to duke it out with the Bulls and Blackhawks for ticket money, with the NBA and NHL fans ebbing and flowing based on the teams they trot out and the fans' current level of loyalty based on which league screwed their fans least or more recently.

Still, if you had to lay money down on the hardest of the the hard core Chicago fan (ranked by strength of loyalty), you'd have to go: Bears, Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls, in that order. I'm not saying there aren't plenty of Cubs fans who would fit the bill, I'm just saying by numbers alone that you're most likely to find Sox fans who also pull for the rest of the city's teams before you'd find Cub fans who are a match.

I guess that's why it seems strange that the White Sox have released word that they'll be cross-promoting with the Blackhawks this season. Seems like that's just preaching to the choir.

That aside, this could be a lot of fun, depending on what types of promotions they can cook up. Right now, it's mainly shooting pucks on the top of the White Sox dugout between innings, but I think any of the following would really spice things up.

* Any six White Sox players versus the local peewee hockey team in town for the pregame exhibition game. Seeing six professional athletes who can't skate versus a pack of six year olds who can? Comedy gold.

* Manager swap night, where Denis Savard fills in while Ozzie takes the night off and vice-versa. Strangely, I think the Blackhawks would respond well to Ozzie's special brand of bilungual cursing and theatrics (thought he'd have to wear a suit) behind the bench. As for Savard's calls this season for his players to get into the corners and get some cuts on their faces, that type of atmosphere might give Sox fans something they've been missing since the 2005 season - a team full of Aaron Rowlands.

* I don't have a joke here, but can only assume Bobby Jenks would make a decent goaltender.

* Hockey players and Sox fans have similar dental patterns - anyone missing more than three from a fistfight gets half-priced beer through the first period.

* As long as we're in that fighting mood, wouldn't a steel cage match be fun for the whole family? I say we pull Bob Probert out of retirement and have him fight William Lidge. For charity of course, except for the side action amongst the fans.

That's pure profit.

(Image from



  • Tru dat on the Bears, although I know that you're not a big NBA guy, so I think that you're vastly underestimating the Bulls fan base. Even in the time since Jordan left, the Bulls have ranked first or second in NBA attendance every single season, so that's incredibly loyal considering how horrid some of those post-MJ teams have been (including this past year). You've got to remember that our generation grew up with the Bulls being the most famous sports team in the world with arguably the biggest superstar athlete in any sport in history, while the Blackhawks will just be figuring out what VHF is next season. That's a monster gulf between those franchises. If the Bulls were ever able to get a true star again (not even an MJ-type guy, but someone like, say, Gilbert Arenas), you'll see the city's interest in the team compete with the Bears just like it was in the 1990s.

    In terms of measuring passion, I've seen numerous interviews with the sports radio personnel in town about which teams generate the most interest (as in, how many callers will take the time to complain about their team). This isn't a perfect way to measure the level of passion, but it's a decent starting point. The Bears are clearly first whether they are good or bad. After that, the Cubs and Bulls are on the next level, depending upon on well they are doing in a particular season. There's a significant drop-off to the White Sox (unless Ozzie Guillen says something insane that provides easy talk show fodder). After that, you get a smattering of Illini and Notre Dame talk. Meanwhile, I've listened to sports radio in Chicago regularly for over 15 years and the only times that I have ever heard the Blackhawks mentioned on a general interest sports show (i.e. not specifically geared toward a particular sport) were in the context of how awful Bill Wirtz was and that they never showed games on TV.

    By Anonymous Frank the Tank, At Sunday, April 20, 2008 12:55:00 PM  

  • See, I still think you overestimate the pull of the NBA in general and the Bulls in particular.

    It's like being the second-biggest draw in the WNBA for the casual fans.

    Just check in at Deadspin, where people rank it just above European soccer and bitch when the Sports Guy gets too much basketball on his site.

    By Blogger Minneapolis Red Sox, At Sunday, April 20, 2008 3:47:00 PM  

  • I know that there are a lot of very vocal NBA haters out there (even for myself, I'm more of a college basketball fan), but the Bulls sold out every game this season even when they were horrible and didn't have a marquee star - the only other team in town that could say that was the Bears, who only have 8 games per year as opposed to 41. That's pretty indicative of a solid base of support for the Bulls in the city. At the same time, the TV ratings for the World Series are only slightly higher on average than the NBA Finals in any given year (and there were several seasons when MJ's Bulls and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers were involved when the NBA Finals had higher ratings than the World Series). Obviously, nothing compares to the NFL, but at the very least, the NBA is about on the same tier as Major League Baseball in terms of overall popularity. Most non-sports fans (and even a lot of sports fans) couldn't pick 99% of football and baseball players out of a lineup outside of Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter, but most of them can instantly recognize the top 10 or 20 NBA players. The NBA isn't perfect, but it's way more popular than you're giving it credit for.

    By Anonymous Frank the Tank, At Monday, April 21, 2008 3:32:00 PM  

  • Not according to the most recent Harris Poll which has it at fifth and falling.

    Don't confuse the sport's popularity with its aggressive marketing - Nike, NBC, etc. - which has been a fight waiting to happen for years.

    When Jordan was playing, there were debates about how it was easier to market him because basketball players are literally more visible (no helmets, hats, etc.) which I think has a degree of truth to it.

    Still, you have smaller arenas than football, fewer games than baseball and fewer players to actually know than any other sport, so I'm not seeing it.

    Find me a survey that can prove that the players are better known than LDT, Peyton Manning or any of the superstars in baseball and maybe.

    I'm just saying it's misleading when three times an hour NBC plasters Kobe Bryant's head on my screen and assaults me with "KOBE!!!"

    People would know Jimmy Rollins if NBC did that with him, too.

    (As an aside, scroll to the bottom of the link and laugh - College Football is most popular with college grads, maybe from those colleges they watch? Motor sports are most popular with high school educations or less. Ouch. Thanks, Harris.)

    By Blogger Minneapolis Red Sox, At Monday, April 21, 2008 4:08:00 PM  

  • Look, I haven't been arguing that the NBA is the most popular sport - all that I'm saying is that (a) the NFL is on the top tier and then baseball and the NBA occupy the next tier and (b) in Chicago, the Bulls vie with the Cubs for second place behind the Bears in terms of popularity depending upon how well they are doing. The Cubs are on an upswing so they're dominating coverage, but it would be the same if the Bulls were legitimate contenders (partly because the city's fan base isn't split for basketball the way that it is for baseball). I'm a monster Sox fan, but the Bulls were outdrawing the Sox up until the 2005 season (the Sox were drawing about 17,000 a game while the Bulls were selling out the UC at 22,000 per game with some absolutely wretched teams - believe me, I watched a lot of them). There are a lot of fairweather fan bases in sports, but I think it's perfectly legit to say that the Bulls have as strong and passionate of a fan base as anyone when they still sell out every night even if they're bad (and those numbers aren't inflated by a "drinking beer in Wrigley Field" crowd - those people who drive out to the UC in the middle of February are there to strictly watch basketball). Regardless of any of this, the NBA and the Bulls should absolutely not be anywhere near the NHL and the Blackhawks in terms of comparisons of passion or popularity.

    Anyway, in the latest Harris poll of America's top 10 favorite athletes (, there were 4 current or former NBA players (MJ, LeBron, Tim Duncan and Kobe), 1 baseball player (Jeter), 1 NASCAR driver (Junior), 3 football players (Favre, Manning and Brady) and Tiger Woods was at the top. It's funny that you mentioned LDT, since I think he's probably unrecognizable to even a lot of sports fans - they know that he's a #1 fantasy football pick, but they probably wouldn't recognize his face. I think there's something to the fact that basketball players are more recognizable since the don't have helmets or gear. That being said, when MTV Cribs goes to an athlete's house, 9 times out of 10 it's the home of a basketball player (and they aren't always superstars - I remember them going to my Illini/Bulls man Kendall Gill's phat crib) - that is at least indicative that the athletes that young people are most interested in are basketball players (for better or worse).

    I'm not surprised that the Harris Poll that you pointed out shows college grads like college football the most. I think at the end of the day, college football would be my favorite sport, as well - not only do I watch the Illini religiously, but it's the sport I watch the most in terms of games that don't involve my favorite team. There's a certain bond at the college level that isn't replicated at the pro level - anybody can wake up and decide to become a Bears/Bulls/Cubs/Sox fan, but there are only a finite number of University of Illinois grads in the world, so there's an extra layer to the passion of the fan base. Characterizing the Cubs fan base as a bunch of frat boy yuppies or the Sox fan base as a white trash is usually laughed off on both sides of town, but an Indiana fan ripping on Illinois (or vice versa) is going to be a whole lot more personal since ripping on your team is also ripping on your school, which is basically attacking what for most people was the most fun and memorable 4 years (7 years if you went to SIU) of their lives. Needless to say, that gets people riled up.

    It's interesting to note that college football was the most popular with the wealthiest and lower middle class tiers that they examined while least popular with the middle class and poorest tiers. You can presumably make the connection that college grads are more likely to earn more, so that would explain the popularity of college football with the highest tier. However, why would it be popular with the lower middle class, yet not popular with the income tiers immediately above it and below it? While college football is the #1 team sport in the South by far, regardless of income levels and whether you went to college or not, that doesn't explain that quirk in the income distribution. (In terms of college sports in the South in general, I remember a Sports Guy column where he said that Billy Donovan wouldn't be able to walk in Orlando again when he reneged on the Magic coaching job after one day to go back to Florida, which showed his complete lack of understanding of the sports culture down there - people in Orlando care WAY WAY WAY more about the Florida Gators in both basketball and football than any of the state's pro teams and it's like that in a lot of the major cities outside of the northeast corridor). Someone needs to research this further.

    Meanwhile, finding out that NASCAR was the most popular sport among people with less than a high school education was about as shocking as finding out that Liberace was gay.

    By Anonymous Frank the Tank, At Tuesday, April 22, 2008 12:13:00 AM  

  • See, I'm still a bit skeptical because I think it's easier to fill the UC (unless you're the Blackhawks circa two or three years ago) for basketball games versus Wrigley or the Cell for an 81-game season.

    Day games, weather issues, etc. all play into the crowds - I wish they kept numbers on fans turned away. Given omnipotence, I'd bet that the Bulls would sell out 25,000 seats in an infinite stadium, while the Cubs or Sox would blow those numbers out of the water.

    Keep in mind that that those numbers aren't always the most reliable, either. From the Vikings and Twins giving away tickets to allow their home openers to be televised to simply wanting people in the stands so the fan base isn't scared off, sometimes there are other things going on.

    Remember, I was part of a group of Cub Scouts in the early 80s which went to a Bulls game and when we asked for 40 tickets, the Bulls sent 80 and told us to find some friends.

    No one wanted the extras.

    By Blogger Minneapolis Red Sox, At Tuesday, April 22, 2008 8:03:00 AM  

  • Last point on this debate - you might be right on the Cubs, but I definitely believe the Bulls are more popular than the Sox on a year-by-year basis (and I'm a Sox fan). The Boy Scout scenario might have been the case in the pre-MJ days for the Bulls. I'm pretty sure the MJ-era Bulls would have sold out Soldier Field and then some every evening (that team played ROAD games in football stadiums like the Georgia Dome and sold them out, much less in front of the home crowd). Obviously, the Bulls don't have a mega-mega-superstar anymore, but I think it's even more impressive how they continue to draw well considering that they have a complete lack of star power. That's the biggest indicator to me as to how strong a fan base is - do they show up even when the team is bad? I think we can safely say that applies to the Bears, Cubs and Bulls in town, but not for the Sox and Blackhawks. I go online as soon as Bulls tickets go on sale every season and it's every bit as maddening as the first day that Cubs tickets go on sale. If you're able to get through, there are only 300-level seats left for midweek games against teams like the Grizzlies if you're lucky. The Bulls certainly aren't selling out today because they are giving tickets away - the very cheapest seats cost around $70 a piece (with standing room tickets going for around $30 a piece). It's also been a decade since MJ has left, so those ticket sales aren't just a residual of that bygone era, either.

    Also, remember that the population of Chicago doesn't just consist of young professionals that live on the North Side or near the Loop. Most of Chicago's population reside in either the South and West Sides and if you go into a whole lot of those neighborhoods, many people have never picked up a baseball but they all know all of the NBA rosters (not just the Bulls) down to a tee. Interestingly, I think the demographics of the NBA fan base has some similarities with what that Harris Poll found with college football - really wealthy people seem to love the NBA on the high end (because the pound-for-pound, the tickets are the most expensive in sports considering that the supply of NFL tickets is inherently low which skews the price data) and the true urbanites on the lower end of the income spectrum.

    At my old law firm, we had a daily email that included a section where people were looking or selling tickets to events around town. People were consistently looking to buy Bears, Bulls and Cubs tickets on daily basis when they were in-season. I never saw a single request to buy Sox or Blackhawks tickets in all of the time that I was there. This is just one example, but it did consist of a sample size of around 500 people who all had discretionary income to purchase tickets they wanted no matter what the cost. Anyway, that's about all I've got on that.

    By Anonymous Frank the Tank, At Tuesday, April 22, 2008 1:23:00 PM  

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