by Chris Foss
Why do I go to games? The answer is usually to watch my team play, and to talk with friends or my wife, either about (or not about) the game. A lot of people don’t share my agenda, though, and that number seems to be increasing. So, what is the experience like for the serious fan? It depends on the context. In 2017, I’ve been to three different sporting events so far, each of which gave me a different perspective: an NBA playoff game, a single-A baseball game, and a women’s major league soccer match. At these events, on the surface, it might have seemed as though most people were there for the same reasons I was. But what was really going on was a lot more complex, and, I think, speaks to the multiplicity of appeals for fans’ attention that goes on in most American sports stadiums.
At the outset of Game 3 of the Portland Trail Blazers’ first-round matchup against Golden State, I felt at one with the herd. We were intensely and emotionally involved in the game because of the emotional return of Jusuf Nurkic to the starting lineup after having missed time with a fractured leg. The Blazers raced off to an early lead, and the upper deck of the Moda Center was focused on the star center’s every move. One fan even waved the flag of Nurkic’s native Bosnia to rally the team. But as the Warriors gained momentum, the crowd got nervous, and then, oddly, disinterested in the fourth quarter, even as my buddy and I clung to hope. I wondered, perhaps, if it was because the alcohol sales stopped after the third quarter. Or maybe fans sensed the inevitable in a postseason in which Golden State would ultimately go an all-time best 16-1 en route to the NBA championship. It surprised me that the attention span of the fans could not be sustained for the entire game, even a playoff game, even among the rowdy die-hards in the 300-level.
In July, I headed over to Hillsboro, one of Portland’s fast-growing tech suburbs, to watch the Class A Hops take on the Spokane Chiefs. The Hops play in Ron Tonkin Field, a nearly brand-new, but very small (capacity between 3,500-4,500 seats) baseball stadium. The game took place on a hot Sunday afternoon, and the stadium was perhaps ¾ full, a good crowd. Remarkably, the fans’ attention held throughout the contest. There were a few marketing gimmicks to entertain the crowd in between innings, but not as many as at some baseball games I’ve attended in the past. The powers that be at Ron Tonkin Field allowed fans to enjoy the great outdoors, and I noted a number of people actually keeping score, old-school style. Very few people left before the conclusion of the nearly four-hour contest, and as the Hops kept it close, the fans were on edge until the Chiefs put away a tight win in the bottom of the ninth inning.
It’s a much different experience if you go to a soccer game, though. Portland was nicknamed “Soccer City U.S.A.” during its 1970s embrace of the first iteration of the Portland Timbers. Currently the Portland Thorns, a women’s professional team lavishly supported and owned by current Timbers’ owner Merritt Paulson, is also a big draw to the city’s soccer-only downtown stadium. On a warm summer night, my wife and some friends decided to go see what all the fuss was about. Very little of it seemed to hinge on the on-field product. I unwittingly purchased general admission tickets and thus ended up stuck among the Rose City Riveters, nominally the Thorns’ cheerleading section. Without a doubt, the Riveters’ ear-splitting drums and horns are expertly played, but seem out of tune with the on-field events. Fans who are lucky enough—or unlucky enough, in our case—to get embedded with the Riveters are handed out a sheet of the lyrics to the songs they sing at every home match. Led by three semi-enthusiastic cheerleaders who have their backs to the pitch, the Riveters go through their shtick at every game, apparently impervious to what the Thorns are doing. Not a lot of people seemed to be into the singing. One guy even got into a confrontation with the trombone player, who really wanted the guy to stand up and get into the spirit of things, and they exchanged profane words before cooler heads prevailed.
When the Thorns scored an early goal, the Riveter cheerleaders paused long enough to open up a big pot that looked like a witch’s brew, revealing—I kid you not—a smoke bomb, which blew a ghastly cloud of red smoke across the general admission section. One cheerleader fanned the smoke by blowing a gigantic pirate flag to celebrate the goal, blocking the pitch from view as the game continued, while some fans sought shelter from the smoke by donning bandannas and kerchiefs around their faces. I’m all for fans who want to revel in their own way, but at this point, the four of us made our way up into the upper deck, where we could watch the game relatively unobstructed and unmolested. The Thorns won a fantastic game, and the rest of the stadium generally seemed to be into the match, but I wondered, why were most of the people there? Perhaps not to watch the game. If so, how does the trend catering toward the distracted spectator affect the experience of the fan trying to take the game at least semi-seriously?
It all comes down to this: what do the purveyors of sporting events think will motivate fans to get into the building? In recent decades, the answer seems, increasingly, to be diversionary entertainment. Now, it’s true that the Thorns game was devoid, for the most part, of the crass “lucky section 101 wins a free McDonald’s Egg McMuffin if the team scores before halftime” sort of entertainment-cum-commercialism that dominates most professional sports games. But the Rose City Riveters were not my cup of tea, either. It was hard to watch the game when I couldn’t see around the pirate flag, or when I felt like my body had been run over by a truck as a drum was pounding my skull. Whether through a semi-organic “cheer” section, a JumboTron, or a blitzkrieg of in-game prizes, the point of putting on a game seems to be less to get people to watch the game, but to enjoy a “live event”, to lure people into having an experience.
If a Riveter were to read this column, I would fully expect them to say, “If you don’t like us, go sit somewhere else.” Fair point. Whatever experience a particular spectator wants to have, they can find, if they can pay the correct price and find the right section in which to have that experience. That was the mistake I made when I bought my Thorns tickets. If you’re a serious fan of watching the game, you need to be willing to pay a higher price to enjoy the game, especially, it seems, if you’re a fan of pro football or soccer, where general admission and cheap seats can quickly devolve into unpleasant rowdy-ism. Even sometimes in baseball that’s true: years ago I had one bad experience in the Colorado Rockies’ Rockpile section watching one Philadelphia Phillies fan drunkenly taunt a family for several innings before finally getting booted. In pitching games as more of an entertainment experience, sports leagues and owners have to juggle a variety of constituencies that sometimes clash.
In the end, I was more comfortable in the smaller setting of the Hops game. It was good for me to step out of my comfort zone for a bit at the Thorns game and experience the cheer section, for example, but I know that my bread-and-butter is taking in the competition on the field. The Riveters would probably disagree for the most part, and that’s fine. For many of them, going to the game is about reuniting with friends, drinking, singing, and if the team scores a goal or wins, great. Hardcore sports fans, it seems, might get more out of attending minor-league or amateur games than pro contests. True, fans today can have it all at games in big stadiums, if they want to, and if they are willing to pay the price for the experience they want to have. But today sports in America is less a mass communal experience than it is one where different groups of people can get different things out of the game. It’s hard to say whether that’s a good or bad thing. I want people to be happy, but I also want to enjoy the game. The debate will heighten as in-game entertainment continues to evolve and expand, but it seems likely that sports fans are getting pushed out—and sometimes priced out—of the game.