In the Future of Sports Fandom, State Lines Mean Nothing

Offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf blocks for running back Jim Otis of the St. Louis Cardinals in a October 1976 game Dan Dierdorf - St. Louis Cardinals - File Photos (AP Photo/NFL Photos)
Dan Dierdorf, right, of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1976. Photo: NFL Photos/AP Photo

I was 12 years old when my beloved St. Louis football Cardinals, of Jim Hart and Dan Dierdorf and Roy Green and Big Red training camp in Charleston, Illinois, moved West to Arizona and left me and a gaggle of other crying Midwesterners in their wake. That team was everything to me, as much as anything can be everything to a 12-year-old. It was impossible for me to understand owner Bill Bidwill’s penny-pinching, or his demand for a new stadium downtown, or the promise of a new start in the American desert: As far as I was concerned, Arizona was in China. I just knew my team was gone. 

And by gone, I mean gone. In 1988, when your team left town, it vanished. Television showed only five games a week, and basically never featured the dismal Phoenix Cardinals. Local newspapers had no need to cover a team 1,500 miles away. ESPN was still known more for Australian-rules football than for the NFL. I still cared about my team and wanted to cheer for them, but it was nearly impossible. I remember writing the team’s headquarters in Tempe, asking if they could send me some box scores or maybe just a sticker. (I never heard back.) The Cardinals abandoned St. Louis and left a crater in their wake with nothing to fill it. I was too young to have much fury or civic pride about the abandonment, and I was 100 miles away anyway. I was just sad.

Nearly 30 years later, St. Louis has lost a team again. On January 12, NFL owners voted to allow Rams owner Stan Kroenke, a native Missourian named after Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial, to move his team to Los Angeles, the city the team came to St. Louis from in the first place in 1995. St. Louis fought for its team, trying to scrape together about $400 million in public funds to help build a new stadium along the Mississippi River waterfront (an investment, it’s worth noting, that would likely be a financial disaster for the already embattled city). But Kroenke not only went ahead and left, he soiled all the furniture on the way out the door. “Compared to all other U.S. cities, St. Louis is struggling,” the Rams declared in their relocation pitch, essentially discouraging the league from ever moving a team there again and saying that any franchise that did accept the city’s proposal “would be well on the road to financial ruin.” It has been a stake to the heart of a city that, sure, loves baseball more but has been going through the same difficulties as other midwestern industrial cities and is just now pulling itself up from the muck. The reaction to the move was rage. One podcast host said she mailed 30 pounds of poop to Kroenke’s offices.

Now, I can’t speak to the personal affront the city of St. Louis is feeling; after all, I don’t live there anymore, either. But 2016 is a far different year to be a sports fan than 1988 was. You can get upset about this as a citizen; that is your right. But for fans, where your team plays has never been less relevant.

In the past decade, the world of sports has changed dramatically thanks to television, arguably in more profound ways than it changed when television came on the scene in the first place. The difference this time wasn’t television itself: It was how we used it. In the past, sports was just another morsel of appointment viewing, like Cheers and Seinfeld and All in the Family. But the rise of streaming services and DVR and everything else that has upended TV has vaporized the idea of appointment viewing: If you’re a cord-cutter, you can drop just about everything and not miss it … except for sports.

This has made sports incredibly powerful: The highest-rated programs at the end of every year are almost always NFL games, and the vast majority of sports teams make their money not from gate receipts but from the deals they’ve signed with various television networks — and the NFL has the biggest television contract of them all. Television runs every­thing now, which has turned the physical stadium in which the games take place, and the fans who pay to scream and cheer and drink inside them, into essentially a glorified soundstage. We are all there exclusively for atmosphere. This has devalued the experience of attending a game — most of which is spent sitting around waiting for the refs to signal we’re back from a commercial break — and incentivized just sitting and watching at home. After all: You’re the target audience, not the dopes in the stands.

Of course, things look a little different from the perspective of the teams. Since the league shares TV revenue, a single owner won’t stand to gain much on that front from moving markets, even if the new market is Los Angeles, which will add a lot of eyeballs. But there are many reasons beyond TV revenue to move: things like branding opportunities and apparel sales, for starters, but sometimes you can also persuade a new city to build you a new stadium, if you feel like your current one isn’t up to snuff. Or persuade the old city to do it just by threatening to leave.

In a world like this, should you worry if your team isn’t nearby? In NFL Sunday Ticket–MLB Extra Innings––NBA League Pass–NHL Center Ice world, you never have to miss a single game even if you live on the other side of the country. No longer do readers have to rely on one newspaper columnist’s coverage of a team; there are dozens of blogs and reporters and resources available for every team imaginable. You can buy merchandise, chat with other fans, attend (or organize) fan meet-ups, and even address questions directly to players from anywhere in the world. Where you are in relation to your favorite team means almost nothing anymore, if you don’t want it to. My eldest son is 4 years old and a die-hard fan of the Knicks, like his father. We live in Athens, Georgia, but thanks to NBA League Pass, the Posting and Toasting Knicks blog, and some generous aunts, he’s decked out in Porzingis garb for every game. As far as he’s concerned, we live next to the Garden. This is his formative time, too, when these bonds with teams are set for life, and all his classmates have the same options, which means I’m less concerned about him being the only Knicks fan among Hawks fans at our Georgia school and more concerned about him being the only one who isn’t a Warriors fan, considering how many kids are falling in love with Stephen Curry right now. If you want to be a Stephen Curry fan as a 4-year-old — and who wouldn’t? — you can watch all of his games, at home, from anywhere. A whole generation of fans is going to be wearing those THE CITY jerseys in 20 years, you watch.

In this world, you must cater to the whims of mercurial owners no longer. You can cheer for whomever you want, at your own leisure and pleasure. If you’re a Rams fan and you hate what Stan Kroenke did to your city, well, what does that have to do with your actual fandom? The owners don’t care about you, the players would never want to hang out with you, and the beers are insanely expensive at the stadium, anyway. Your connection to the team is only what you want it to be. You do not work for the team: You can be as bonded to it as necessary, a transactional relationship founded solely on its ability or lack thereof to win games. Everything else in our world is à la carte. Why would our fandom not be the same way?

This year, the Arizona Cardinals have been one of the best teams in the NFL. I stuck with those old Cardinals back in the day, even though I couldn’t watch their games, and now that I can, I feel more bonded to them than I ever was when they played in ​St. Louis. They could be playing in Los Angeles, or London, or Idaho, or Jakku, for all I care. Six years ago, I went to watch the Cardinals, my beloved football Cardinals, play in Arizona for the first time. I enjoyed the stadium, and the game, and even the state. But I was ready to get back home afterward and experience them the way I am accustomed to. They don’t play in Glendale, Arizona. They play in my living room, and on my laptop, and they don’t require a personal seat license or a county-tax increase or a new facilities upgrade. They’re mine, and only mine. Beer’s a lot cheaper, too.        

*This article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

The Future of Sports Fandom Is Here