x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lockouts or strikes regardless; play it, and they will come

The NBA has ended its lockout and hopes to get the regular season started by Christmas Day. Will fans turn out for the games? Past history says 'yes'.

With painted faces, bodies and a cheesehead hat or two, Green Bay Packer fans always get dressed up for a game, regardless of the weather.
With painted faces, bodies and a cheesehead hat or two, Green Bay Packer fans always get dressed up for a game, regardless of the weather.

They will be back, nearly all of them.

Yes, during lockouts and strikes that scuttle their games, they belt out the chorus of a rock and roll standard We're Not Gonna Take it Anymore and vow to forever swear off the impacted sport.

A few follow through, shifting to leisure activities - movies, concerts, yoga classes - unaffected by labour squabbles between members of the One Per Cent, as the Occupy Movement would categorise the super-rich athletes and super-duper-rich owners.

Others play hard to get, drifting away for awhile before circling back.

The rest, with one hand, might shake their fist in anger after a settlement.

With the other, they start channel surfing for windmill dunks and shake-and-bake moves on television, or swiping their debit cards to buy tickets.

That is why they are called fans - short for fanatics, defined as "a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal".

The NBA, which decided late last week to stop biting the bloodied hands that feed them, ambitiously aims for a Christmas Day tip-off, which would salvage 80 per cent of the schedule.

If the pattern found in an examination of attendance in the aftermath of labour-related freezes holds true, the bulk of fans will forgive and forget.

Of the previous seven work stoppages across the football, baseball, basketball and hockey spectrum, only one suffered from lingering resentment, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper - baseball required several seasons to fully heal from the late-summer cessation of games that wiped out the 1994 World Series.

The previous NBA interruption offers a clue. Opening day for the 1998/99 season was delayed until February 5, and teams were limited to 50 games apiece.

Average attendance dipped by less than three per cent.

The following year, it bounced by nearly one per cent and mostly has inched higher since.

Fans return because the magnetic appeal of sports transcends the repugnancy of outrageous athlete salaries, absurd ticket and concession prices, owners whining as if they are heading to the poorhouse, and a prevailing sense among customers that we serve as their automatic teller machines.

Many fans return because the games hold deeper meaning than a final score or a championship.

The attachment is not easily explained, and can sometimes seem irrational.

Cutting Kevlar comes more easily than cutting ties with a sport, or a team, or even a single game.

When Samuel Chandler was 10 years old, growing up a tiny coal-mining town in Kentucky, his father took him to see their beloved University of Kentucky play their adversary, the University of Tennessee, in football. The area was absent of professional sports, so this was a really big deal.

Fifty years later, Chandler vividly remembers cruising through the mountains to the game in the family's 1960 Ford Galaxy, listening to Ricky Nelson sing Travelin' Man on the radio.

And, at the hotel, rowdy fans brawled enough to be hauled away on stretchers.

Two years later, back for his third game, Chandler was a confused pre-teen looking around the store where they were shopping, seeking comfort and clarity when the radio burst with news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

That weekend, it was business as usual for college and pro football.

In hindsight, the decision not to postpone games was insensitive.

But, in the moment, it was a sincere attempt to preserve a part of life that carried such importance to Americans, and still does.

The father-son outing to Kentucky versus Tennessee turned into an annual ritual.

In the mid-1970s, his father stopped attending, but Chandler carried on, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

He never considered not going, even in snow and bitter cold, or in driving rainstorms.

"A tribute to my father, I guess," he says.

For the first 25 years, he cheered six Kentucky wins.

For the next 25, Kentucky won not once in what became the nation's most lopsided rivalry.

Each Saturday, for half a century in late November, he had driven to Lexington, Kentucky, or Knoxville, Tennessee, flush with optimism.

Forty-four times, he had left disappointed.

Soon after the kick-off of his 51st game last weekend, Chandler's confidence flatlined when he noticed a career wide receiver for Kentucky line up at quarterback, a position ravaged by injuries.

"I had absolutely no hope," he says.

Somehow, some way, Kentucky Tebow-ed Tennessee 10-7, with the novice quarterback completing four passes and rushing for 124 yards.

As it ended, Chandler, a 60-year-old lawyer, and his companion found themselves inexorably swept on to the field by the maddening crowd - adding to the indelible memories he has accumulated from childhood, especially from the time his father died in 1995.

"I will keep going," he says, "as long as I can."

That is what fans do.

No matter the disincentive - and there is none greater than a strike or lockout - they keep going to games.

As long as they can.

 

sports@thenational.ae