by Keith Aksel
Sports writers like their provocative headlines, a reality made ever-more obvious by the media’s response to the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA Championship. After the Cavs rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit to end the city’s five decade-long title drought, every news outlet produced some version of this article: “What fan base will take Cleveland’s spot as the most ‘miserable’ in the country?” The findings of those articles ran the gamut. Some made grand proclamations using ‘analytics’ (a term that so easily replaced “numbers” in our popular vocabulary that I wonder if people noticed). Others argued that cities like Buffalo were now the most miserable because that city hadn’t seen a title since the days of the old AFL.
In all, what was really accomplished in all these analyses? There is something to be gained by talking about misery, but how do we understand fan misery, and how closely are we looking? When we look holistically, few fan bases actually suffer droughts long enough to be considered “miserable” in any sense of the word. The truth is that fan bases overlap, and that fact makes true misery very hard to find across the American sports fan map. For fans of Cleveland, Buffalo, and whatever other “miserable” town people identify, release valves have allowed those fan bases to experience championship euphoria despite the popular stories told in the media.
Release valves are championships won by teams supported by a given fan base in another sport which keep that fan base from truly living in a title desert. Let’s use Cleveland as an example. Cleveland was doubtless the most title-starved city in the US before that fateful Sunday night in June. The Cavs, Indians, and Browns had all had their near-misses over the decades, compounding the angst felt by Clevelanders. There’s no question that fans of The Land knew disappointment better than anyone…but does that mean they were actually that miserable?
I argue no. The reason is that the Cleveland fan base overlaps directly with the fan base of the Ohio State Buckeyes, winners of two national football championships since 2000. Cleveland fans are known for a number of distinguishing features, not the least of which is a very strong attachment to the Buckeyes. Like many state universities, most of the state of Ohio identifies with the scarlet and gray, even segments of the state that lie hours away from campus. Cleveland and northeast Ohio are bastions of Ohio State fandom, likely as fervent a regional fan base as Columbus itself. Cleveland has sent a number of star players from its high schools to the Horseshoe over the years, most notably 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. The Cleveland area also sends a significant segment of the OSU undergraduate student body to Columbus every fall, which further melds Cleveland fandom with Buckeye fandom.
Just as fans of the Browns felt deep relief after watching the Cavs win the title, those same fans rejoiced when Ohio State won national championships in 2002 and 2014. In other words, Ohio State was a Cleveland fan’s release valve over the past five decades, a truth that both should comfort fans in the region, and put their status as the most “miserable” fan base under scrutiny. The Buckeyes’ success was Cleveland’s success- a reality reciprocated when the Cavaliers beat their demons against Golden State. Despite the setbacks Cleveland professional sports experienced since the 1960s, Clevelanders knew victory more than most are willing to acknowledge.
Some would say that Ohio State championships did not exactly “belong” to Cleveland; Cleveland doesn’t appear on the record books anywhere for national football titles, and the championships were not won by a professional team. But, why should that matter? Fandom is about broader identification, and Cleveland had as much right to claim Ohio State titles as those living in Columbus or Toledo did (Columbus, incidentally, doesn’t appear on the record books, either). The professional distinction shouldn’t matter either; a rooting interest is a rooting interest, regardless of the fact that some players are paid and some aren’t.
We need to take the record of fan bases holistically rather than picking and choosing what titles matter. Fans need one championship from any corner of their rooting interests to experience the release, which can immediately wash away or reduce the pain felt by their other teams’ failures. After all, who could really complain about the Boston Red Sox failures to win a World Series in the 20th century while the Celtics were experiencing their golden age in the 1960s? Could we really feel sorry for title-less Atlanta Falcons fans who also celebrated the Braves heyday in the 1990s? Are Buffalo fans actually that miserable, given that plenty of Syracuse Orange fans live all across upstate New York, including the Buffalo area? For San Diego Chargers and Padres supporters, it isn’t a stretch to believe that many of their fans also rooted for the LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks, or the USC Trojans in their rather recent championship winning days.
The point is that fan bases don’t need all of their teams to win to escape misery, just one to serve as a release valve for pent up frustrations and heartbreak. The release valve keeps anyone from actually experiencing real misery as fans, but rarely appears as a topic for sports debates. The nature of fandom is that we rarely, if ever, support just one team in one sport. We rejoice in the success of one of our rooting interests as we would another, and it is time to treat our fandom as a whole instead of playing the misery card when convenient.