What Do Teams Owe Fans?

Photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region via Flickr

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The weather is starting to warm up. March Madness is just around the corner. And the NBA playoffs are just a couple months away. Naturally, with the playoffs on horizon for 16 teams in the league, only two months separates 14 others from the end of the year. Those 14 teams are currently at a crossroads, and it puts fans in an interesting position.

There are generally two types of teams at this point in the season: teams that are clearly awful who could realistically finish as one of the five worst teams in the league (e.g. Bobcats, Hornets, Wizards, Kings) and those that must make the choice to either push for a playoff appearance or position themselves for a high pick in the lottery (e.g. Bucks, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, Jazz) as no one wants to end up at the bottom end of the lottery. If the Internet is any indication, you will find fans arguing vociferously on both sides. Some make the argument that making the playoffs, even if it results in a first round drubbing, is good as it builds a winning culture. Others argue that a true winning culture is built through acquiring good players, and the top of the draft is one of the best places to do accomplish this. This leads to the question: How much do teams “owe” their fans?

Consider this: Per Team Marketing Report, the Fan Cost Index for attending a game this year is $301.06. Fan Cost Index is comprised of “four average-priced tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four regular size hot dogs, parking for one car, two game programs and two least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps.” In a down economy, dropping $300 for a night of entertainment for a family is not a cheap night out; heck, it’s not really a cheap night out in a booming economy, but I digress.  If mom, dad, and their two kids have saved up their money and head to the arena, they wish to be entertained and get at least close to their money’s worth. While expecting a win isn’t always realistic, there is a reasonable expectation that both teams will compete as hard as they can from the opening tip to the final buzzer.

A hectic, compressed schedule this year has managed to add a slight twist to the usual question marks surrounding just how much effort a team is going to give on a particular night especially late in the season. There is now a premium on keeping stars healthy, limiting minutes for key contributors as much as possible, and embracing the philosophy that simply getting to the playoffs, not seeding, is considered a success this year. As a result, occasionally there will be games like the Spurs played two weeks ago. The Spurs were red hot having won 11 games in a row prior to rolling into Portland to take on the Trail Blazers. Rather than going for a dozen wins in a row, Gregg Popovich looked at his veteran team  playing its third game in four nights and elected to sit Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for the duration of the game. To no one’s surprise, the Spurs were blown out from the opening tip, found themselves down 18 points after the first, 23 at halftime, and lost 137-97. The home team got the win and went home happy, but how many of those fans truly felt like they got the full experience of a real NBA game? What percentage of people walked out of the Rose Garden feeling good that their money was well spent?

Teams that are perceived to be tanking are in the same boat. Whether it’s resting their best players due to mysterious injuries that just happen to come up at the end of the year or flat out not playing those players under the guise of “letting the young kids get experience,” there are multiple ways to boost the odds of losing a game without simply laying down on the court. In a way, this is even more frustrating from the fan perspective because the team has gone from being poor all year to being completely unwatchable. Only the most devoted fans at this point would watch the game on TV at home for free, let alone pay money to watch it in person.

Back to the original question at hand: how much do teams owe their fans? I would argue that a team is responsible for the five guys on the floor at any given time to give their best effort. Walking up and down the court, having your centers take three pointers like it’s the All-Star Game, trying to recreate an And-1 mix tape, etc. out on the floor should not be tolerated as it makes a mockery of the game of basketball. Short of that, however, I am largely on the side of teams not particularly owing the fans much.

Basketball is entertainment for fans, but a business to those within it. Front offices and coaches are going to make decisions which they feel put their team in the best position going forward. Whether that means playing its same lineups and rotations from games 1-82 or throwing five minimum salary players out on the floor for the final 10 games of the year will differ from team to team, but the fact remains that no team consciously makes decisions to make themselves weaker in the long term. While top picks are far from a sure thing, teams are going to vie for a higher pick if the opportunity presents itself. It is the fan’s responsibility to educate himself and make himself aware of the situation that his team currently faces. For example, there is no excuse for being blindsided when a team, who can secure itself more ping pong balls in the lottery, opts to play its second unit an obscene amount of minutes in one of the final games of the year. It may not be what you want, but it’s to be expected as long as the current lottery system remains in place. So the next time that you log on to buy tickets to see your team play the final week of the season, all I ask is that you keep the phrase “caveat emptor” in mind, for you should beware the effects tanking can have on your experience.

Eric Maroun

Eric is a born and bred Cleveland sports fan who is convinced that if given the gift of immortality, he still would not see a Cavs title in his lifetime. He currently resides in Indianapolis where he gets to see the Pacers exist in basketball purgatory.