This is part 2 of an interview with Eric Simons, author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans. In part 1 we talked about how the Sharks are like an experiment in how to lose painfully, how our brains invest in the success and failure of teams, and why "puck don't lie" is bullshit.
The fallout of the collapse, and the losing casual fans to the Warriors
Me: So going back to your thing about the psychology of losing all the time...I feel that there's been a sea-change since the reverse sweep among Sharks fans because it was so painful and both unprecedented except it also fit perfectly with every bad thing that everybody that hates the Sharks would joke about...and then it happened. And that started the period of...I like to call it "organizational insanity", another guy [Sam Fels] describes it as, "there's a gas leak in Doug Wilson's office and it's not been found." Which led to last season's missing the playoffs and it was a miserable slog last year, of injuries and Todd McLellan being really, really disinterested in coaching and the whole roster just being done with everything.
And this year they've changed some things up, and they've definitely made some good moves, but I don't know if the fan base, and you can see this in attendance and everything else, they're not ready to accept the Sharks back. And I wonder if you think that the Warriors success has been....
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Me: I mean, here you've got this other sad-sack franchise that suddenly puts it all together with a talented roster and then just fucking does the deed.
Eric: And makes the clutch shot. I mean, they've got all these classic Sharks traits. The great regular season that fades down the stretch [referring to last year] where they started out, the first 40 games they're saying, "oh my god, these guys are creative and they're zippy and they're unbeatable and they're beating everyone by 25." And then it gets closer and closer...and they're still winning, but unless you're really paying attention you don't notice they're getting worse. The Sharks lose in 6 games to Anaheim in the 1-8 matchup, and you're like, "What the fuck just happened?" But if you're watching the game all along, they're losing momentum. The Warriors had that same pattern last year where they started out hot and then got worse, the games got closer and closer, they were clearly getting tired, and you thought, "Oh shit, I've seen this before." And then they won! And it's like, "Wait a minute. This could work the other way?" It's so revelatory. And then you go back and look at the Sharks, and it's like, "Oh."
Me: And it's so satisfying, too.
Me: Yeah, with Bay Area sports fans...I think there's a crossover between Giants fans and Sharks fans but I think the Giants fans, when they think about the Sharks, I get the feeling they're not quite as invested in the success of the Sharks. Particularly after their second and third championship. "Well, the Sharks are messing up, but...oh well." The fan base in the Bay Area that follows the Sharks and started paying attention to the Warriors...I don't know how you're going to get those fans back.
Me: It's like, we're the old boyfriend or girlfriend that's looking a little bit better than when they broke up with us, but not as hot as whoever they're with now.
Cleveland and the problem with regional identity
Eric: I've tried to think about this a little bit, and I haven't done as much research as I should, but I'm curious if there's ever been a team that has had this sustained an assault on its fans before as the Sharks. I can't think of any example where it's been this many back-to-back-to-back catastrophic season-ending collapses and losses. When you think of all the horrible...when they lost the series to Anaheim as the 1 seed, they lost in the [Western Conference Finals] to Chicago (and they got swept), they lost in the [Western Conference Finals] to Vancouver in a series they really probably should have won, and were really competitive, and you know, they were better than that team I think. And then the reverse sweep to LA, after LA had won it all. Everyone thought they had solved it, and they're beating Quick, and just a triumphant 3-0 up, and then to blow that one.... I mean, I can't think of any...maybe something in Cleveland, but Cleveland never achieved that level of success to pair with their losing.
Me: I was going to ask you about this. I mean, if you're a Cleveland sports fan, there's never been a lot of hope. There hasn't been any sort of toying with goodness even for any real extended stretch. There will be a year or two here or there.
Eric: The Indians were good twice and made it to the World Series and lost in the World Series, and the Browns have had some playoff losses, but it's like more dull mediocrity. I mean, Buffalo is the example, losing the Super Bowl four years in a row, that's sort of the parallel. You kill a generation of fans doing that. With the Sharks, that's 10 years of just asinine performance.
Me: A Cubs fan or a Red Sox fan before they punched through in 2004, you had this sort of sad-sack narrative, but that in itself became a sort of point of pride. A lot of what your book talks about is the way that it can be turned into something like an identity.
Eric: Right, and the identity there is loyalty. This is true in Cleveland too, if you're proclaiming yourself as a Cleveland team, or Boston before they won, or any of those teams, you're saying you're a loyal person. I'm a tried and true person, I'm faithful to my group, win or lose. It's like the Raider people I profile in [The Secret Lives of Sports Fans], the game becomes secondary because the source of your identity becomes the existence of the group. And the Sharks don't have that. There's no Sharks fanbase that you're a part of that is a proud, separate thing, where you get some benefit by being a member of the Sharks fans.
Cleveland when they lose, it's still like, "yeah, but we're all Cleveland and we're all in it together." It's sort of confirmational. And with the Sharks when you lose, it's just confirmational that you suck. It doesn't feel as good.
Me: Right, and the way that I'd see my Red Sox fan friends talk about those losses, it's very dramatic, a bonding to trauma kind of thing.
Me: Whereas with the Sharks fans, it ends up being a sort of joking denial. Like, they'll pretend, "oh, we didn't meet LA in the playoffs. The playoffs were canceled that year." They make it a farce. It ends up not being a narrative that you and the fanbase had this terrible emotional event and have now turned it into a bonding, pride thing.
Eric: Right, because I don't think that identity is achievable for Sharks fans. I mean, I think that might be true for Toronto right now. Part of the point of the pride there is, "we're fans of Toronto through thick and thin." The sort of city identity and regional identity. I'm not sure where the Sharks geographic fan base is, but because it's San Jose maybe it's less affiliated with the city and more with the Bay Area. I mean, I know the city is pretty proud to have the Sharks there, so maybe this is different for civic leaders in San Jose, or different for Randy Hahn. For you and me, it's more of a diaspora of fans, so like that "we're proud to Toronto fans and this is our team and we project our Toronto pride wherever we go...." I mean, I like San Jose and I like living in San Jose, but I don't really care to wear the banner on my head that says I love San Jose wherever I go.
Me: If you do meet someone who is really proud of being from San Jose, I don't know if you're like me, and this sounds awful, but I'm just like, "Wow."
Eric: [laughing] I mean, I say that about anybody who is proud of where they're from from pretty much anywhere when they're interested in that as a lifestyle.
Me: It's a silly thing to be proud of just living somewhere. But this is just a comparison sort of thing, if you're looking at, as a city, the kinds of things that other people can identity with for reasons to like a city. Is it beautiful? Well, San Jose is not really that beautiful. It doesn't have any real architecture or other things that would really draw anyone to it compared to San Francisco or Oakland.
Eric: It's unfortunately situated at the bottom of a triangle with San Francisco and Oakland which...overshadow it, maybe.
Me: Exactly. There's a friend of a friend that was living in downtown San Jose and he was always trying to get some of my other friends to go down and go hang out with him and go out to bars and stuff in San Jose. And he'd always come up to San Francisco and say, "yeah, you guys should totally come down, there's this cool bar" and no one would want to take him up on it. Ever.
Eric: Yeah, this is all just like the jokes about the Santa Clara 49ers. It's just different.
Me: Not that it's not a fine place to live, and there's a lot of things to like about San Jose, but there's not a compelling story behind being from San Jose.
Eric: I just don't think it has as much of an identity. Like Cleveland, I actually liked Cleveland, and I thought it was a cool place, it's got some nice architecture, it's a neat sort of city, it's got some cool stuff going on. Given the choice, I'd rather live in San Jose than Cleveland, but that's not necessarily a bad reflection on Cleveland. But it has such an identity that is tied to itself. It's something to be from Cleveland. It's just important to you if you are from Cleveland. If you're from San Jose, you're really from the Bay Area. I don't think San Jose's identity is tied to the Sharks, for one thing, but I'm not sure what its identity is. I mean, it's the tech capital. Like, you're proud to be from San Jose if you work in the tech industry. Or at least, that's what people associate with it. It doesn't have the success or failure of its sports teams as part of the common culture.
Me: There's not very much history in San Jose, and it hasn't really defined itself in a way that is exciting.
Eric: I mean, as a history person, there's cool history there, but it's been so seismically upended by the development of Silicon Valley that it's so different from its early roots that it's not recognizable. That's not a source of its identity.
Me: It's like if LA was not a cultural hub. Everything in LA is from the last 80 years pretty much, but it became a cultural hub because of all these other things. So if you're from LA, you're proud of that. And the tech industry is just not sexy like the entertainment industry.
Oakland has this sort of oppositional thing to San Francisco, where San Francisco is a very snobbish, sophisticated place, and Oakland is a lot more blue collar and hardscrabble and there's a pride in that. They're defined in opposition to San Francisco's uppityness. And those are the two poles that San Jose is just not in conversation with.
Eric: I've never looked into this, but I'd be fascinated to find out just where Sharks fans live. My guess is a lot of them live along the Peninsula, not in San Jose proper. And they're sort of diluted througout the area. So people who aren't so interested in claiming San Jose anyway. I mean, I grew up in the East Bay, and loving the Sharks because they're the Bay Area team. They moved here when I was 10, and my dad played hockey, so it was sort of natural, so the Sharks were my favorite thing, because all my interests came together. But one of the things that was not one of my interests growing up was San Jose. That was the place you had to go to watch the games.
Me: Right. When the franchise was created it was during the era when sports teams were not necessarily located in the center of cities, you'd build a suburban stadium for your team. And in this case, San Jose jumped in and sort of provided that, to try to make their own name as a city.
Eric: "Move them back to the Cow Palace and charge $15 a ticket and I'll adopt them as my regional team again."
Me: Well, there's an interesting thought experiment, which is, "What if the Sharks stayed in San Francisco? Built an arena in San Francisco?" Would they have more regional cachet?
Eric: I think so.
Me: Because if you're a hockey fan in Santa Rosa, say, San Jose is a pretty long drive, right?
Eric: I don't think they have any real fans north of the Golden Gate. Or very, very few.
Me: But on the other hand, there's a lot of people who are fans of the Warriors that aren't necessarily fans of Oakland. But they are much more part of the core of the Bay Area sports culture than the Sharks are.
Eric: Well, the other thing about Oakland is that it is in the middle. San Jose is basically at the far end of the Bay Area.
Me: Just geographically they're never going to be central to the Bay Area as long as they're in San Jose. It's funny, because the pro-San Jose people do not like it when I point that out. If the Sharks were smart, they'd maybe look to locate north to either San Francisco or Oakland.
Eric: But then what would Mark Purdy do?
Me: God. [laughs] I've come around a lot on Ray Ratto as a sports opinion guy, but Mark Purdy, no way.
How to enjoy these playoffs
Me: Is there any real take-away for the Sharks? I feel like a lot of people want to talk with you when some horrible event happens. Or if some previously sad-sack franchise is on the cusp of something. The novel thing about talking to you here before the playoffs, before the Sharks face their demons in the Kings...what do you think is the best psychological mechanism for preparing for this playoff series for Sharks fans?
Eric: Well, there's two things. One is, face the evidence. This is an objectively worse team than LA. They're a lower seed than LA. They are not expected to win. Therefore, they should not win. If they do not win it is not a disappointment. If you can actually get yourself to believe that...which nobody can, this is why we're all fans, because we're all morons. But if you can actually get yourself to believe that, and the more you can get yourself to believe that, the easier it will be to take the loss. Because, well, that was what was supposed to happen.
And the other thing is, appreciate it. Think about how it would feel if you were Edmonton doing this. You'd be elated. You'd be excited. It'd be, "Cool! We're underdogs, the plucky underdogs, and we made it!" If you can dissassociate this team from previous teams, which is the hardest thing to do, but if you take last year as a reset, and say, "These guys are no longer the same group that choked off all those horrible games, it's not the same guys...." I mean, that's the problem, it's kind of the same group. But if you can make yourself believe that this is a different team, that every year is a different team. And then say to yourself, "you know what, this was a team that outperformed expectations, and making it this year is pretty cool." And this time enjoy the fact that they're in the playoffs, because they weren't last year. And enjoy the fact that Joe Thornton is a great player and he's fun to watch, and Brent Burns is crazy. And I'll just enjoy the fact that I can watch playoff hockey and that's cool. You can appreciate the fact that you're there, which is kind of what you should do. And then try to forget that there were these 20 years where you were the higher seed and that's still part of your identity. That, "when we're in the playoffs we're a winner." Because that's not who we are anymore. We're sort of the lovable losers now, and as much as we can sort of embrace the lovable losers that'll make it feel better when they lose. Because they're going to.
Me: Right, right. [laughing] Just to make this point, it could sort of explain the reaction of the Sharks players because I feel like they never really embraced the idea that they were not as good as the teams that beat them. Whether that's Dan Boyle sort of being pissed about losing and sort of saying, "We were better than those guys." But it's like, no, you guys lost that series, and you guys weren't close to winning that series.
So you kind of hope that the Sharks believe that they're a good, scrappy underdog, and play like that.
Eric: I mean, they pulled playoff upsets before. It's not a franchise impossibility. It might be for this group of players, but this would be a cool upset to pull off. Go into it just recognizing that we're really going to play this as the underdog. It's so novel, but it's refreshingly novel, and it could be enjoyable if you can just get your head in that space.
Me: The gameplan going in is to just disrupt the fun of LA. And then see where the chips lay, instead of claiming your rightful place as the better team.
Eric: That's the strategy. Don't get irritated. Laugh at Jonathan Quick when he dives, don't get mad at him. His diving is not an impediment of your pre-ordained success this year, it's just a funny thing some weirdo is doing on the ice.
So there you have it. All you have to do is accept that we're not as good as the Kings and disassociate yourself from everything you've experienced as a Sharks fan. Easy.