Gallo Goes There: What Makes A Great Sports Town?
By DJ Gallo
Quick. Think of a great sports town. Got one?
What makes it great?
Is it because every team in the city is equally loved and supported, with sellouts stretching back decades, through good seasons and bad?
Is it because the fans in town are knowledgeable and passionate, without being overly reactionary? Everyone knows the names of every player on the roster in this town! And you’ll never hear anyone call for mass firings after a bad loss! No, sir. Not here!
Is it because the entire populace is clad in authentic team apparel? There are no shirseys, counterfeit items or people sporting dated jerseys of players who haven’t been on the team for five years. Nope. Just wouldn’t happen in this town. They love sports too much to be caught dead in any of that!
All of those would indeed make a city a great sports town. Unfortunately, no city meets any of those criteria.
The question about what is a great sports town is like the question about which quarterbacks are “elite.” There are a handful all reasonable people can agree on without even having to hash out a set definition. They meet Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” parameters. But then some idiot comes along and mentions Joe Flacco because he won a Super Bowl – or, in the case of sports towns, Miami because people go to Heat games -- and the whole thing dissolves into madness.
So I thought I’d ask some sports radio hosts in a few major sports towns to help shed light on what makes a great sports town. Sports radio hosts talk to athletes and fans every day and, if there are any experts on this topic, it would have to be them.
Pat Imig, host of “The People’s Show” on CBS Sports Radio 920 in St. Louis:
“There are good and bad sports towns. There are also apathetic sports towns. A good sports town starts with loyalty between fans and organizations. It's a two-way street. If it's not a two-way street, you have good sports fans and a bad organization (Detroit Lions) or bad sports fans and a good organization, which I don't think exists. Bad sports towns don't appreciate success. The fans don't show up and generate a buzz even when the team is one of the best in the business. The buzz is key. If there is buzz in town about the team, it's likely a good sports town.”
Spike Eskin of 94 WIP in Philadelphia:
“What makes a good sports town is that they’ve got to care. People pick all sorts of different measurements, whether it's TV ratings or ticket sales, but I think it's just something you feel. When there's a big win, do you feel it in the city the next day? When there's a big loss, do you feel that?”
Chris Mueller, co-host of “Starkey & Mueller” on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh:
“I think there are good and bad sports towns, but it's usually a conditional thing. Pretty much any town fluctuates from good to bad depending on which local team is being discussed. Except Miami. Miami is an awful sports town. Which, you know, is actually as it should be.”
All good opinions on what makes a great sports town. But there’s still no set definition of the term.
St. Louis is a good sports town. No intelligent person would say otherwise. But it’s a town dominated by the love of one team: the Cardinals. There’s the sense that the average St. Louis resident would shove Chris Long or David Backes in front of a bus if it meant they might have the opportunity to meet a Cardinals’ middle reliever.
Philadelphia is as passionate a sports town as you’ll find. But it’s no coincidence that the Phillies’ National League record sellout streak started when the team was good and promptly ended in 2012 as soon as the Phillies were not. And the only buzz you’ll find at a Sixers game is hum of the arena’s electricity drowning out the sparse, lifeless crowd.
Pittsburgh makes every list of great sports towns, but the same applies there: the Penguins sell out every game now, but seats were much easier to come by in the gap of years between having the greatest hockey players in the world in town in Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. It wasn’t hard to spot empty seats from no-shows at Heinz Field this year, even though the Steelers went 8-8 and were in playoff contention until late into Week 17. Many cities dream of a season like that. The Pirates? Pittsburgh superstar Andrew McCutchen puts it best when he says that it’s only been until the last few years that he wasn’t regularly mistaken in town for former Pitt receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
The fact is, “great” sports towns often aren’t nearly as great as their inhabitants might think and the “greatness” of a sports town has a lot more to do with the success of the local teams than most fans would like to admit. We’ve all got some bandwagon fan in us. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
No one rips a city’s music fans for packing a local club when a good band comes through. “Oh, sure. Come now for Bruce Springsteen. Where were you a few weeks ago when the Creed cover band played here? NOT A TRUE MUSIC FAN!”
But if a stadium starts filling up when a sports team gets good? “Look at all of these horrible bandwagon fans! BURN THEM!”
Most sports towns exist somewhere on a sliding scale between “great sports town” and “a town with some sports teams.”
Except for a few. There are a few cities that will never make any list of great sports towns. Los Angeles. San Diego. Miami. Beautiful, warm weather cities. And as Mueller says, that’s “actually as it should be.”
Why don’t people in those cities pack the seats for every game? Because they often have better options than paying lots of money to sit inside and watch people do stuff. If you could go to the beach or take in a Florida Panthers game, which would you choose? How about eating some fresh fish tacos while listening to a live band play outside or watching the Padres?
If you picked Panthers and Padres, congratulations: you’re a great sports fan and your city is lucky to have you. But you might also be insane.
Those of us who live in great sports towns can continue to debate what makes a great sports town and which is the greatest sports town of all. Because it’s freezing outside and we don’t have many other options right now. We can mock the “sports fans” of Miami, San Diego and Los Angeles while we do it, too. But know that they can’t hear us. They’re out surfing.
DJ Gallo is the founder of SportsPickle.com and has written for ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, The Onion and Comedy Central. He has appeared on SportsCenter, ESPNews, and G4 and is a frequent radio guest and published author. Follow him on Twitter at @DJGalloEtc, @sportspickle and @thatdjgallo.
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