On fandom

It’s tough to be a fan of my beloved Ottawa Senators these days.

The team and its fans have taken a public beating over the last few seasons – over ticket sales, poor management decisions, executive departures (not to mention constant coaching changes), threats of relocation, and attempts to trade superstar players, and, most recently, a billboard campaign against the owner.

How did we get here?

With captain and star defenseman Erik Karlsson injured at the tail end of last year’s remarkable season, goaltender Craig Anderson having an off year, and a few key departures in the offseason, the team isn’t quite the same on the ice as the one which came within one goal of making the Stanley Cup finals last season. The team was recently mathematically eliminated from the 2017-18 playoffs and look to be much closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

Making matters worse for the Sens, they have been suffering from internal management conflicts, and obvious attempts to tighten up payroll and cut costs in every way possible. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has publicly stated how proud he is of cutting payroll to the bone, and that he does not want to spend his own fortunes to keep the team viable.

Of course, between his attitude and the poor performance of the team, fewer and fewer fans want to come out to games – further harming the team’s finances. The fact the Sens are not playoff bound is also going to put the team further into the red this fiscal year as they miss the chance to sell tickets to playoff home games.

So what?

I do not want to recap every challenge the Sens, or their fans, face, nor do I want to make excuses – many others have done that already. There are many reasons the team isn’t doing well financially or on the ice – many of them legitimate, some of them not. Plus, I am a firm believer of the saying, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing”. Non-Sens fans will believe what they want about Ottawa as a hockey market.

What I do want to explore is this idea that Sens fans who helped pay for a series of anti-Melnyk billboards recently are ‘bad fans’, and this idea of hockey commentator Don Cherry that the team should be relocated to a market like Quebec City.

I want to explore this through the lens of what being a fan is, and what it is not.

What is a fan?

One definition of a fan suggests they are, “[people] who [have] a strong interest in or admiration for a particular person or thing”. So, sports fans are obviously only one type of fan – though they are perhaps the kind we think of most readily.

I would suggest this definition does not quite go far enough. I believe true fans have passion, not just an interest. They are invested in the success of whoever or whatever they are fans of. Most fans would have strong opinions about their favourite sports team, or music artist, or whatever, and they are likely to act on them – this pushes them beyond mere ‘interest’ or ‘admiration’.

No two fans are equal. Though I identify as a Sens fan, I only attend a couple of games a season (since moving to Kingston, I have attended zero). I own a jersey, a sweater, and a hat – some fans own a dozen jerseys or more. I occasionally watch a game on television – some watch every minute. Among Sens fans, and indeed most sports teams, I would suggest the average is probably closer to my consumption habits than the rabid addict. Yet I don’t judge those who show up in full gladiator gear, or red wigs and facepaint, or “Senatron” power armor simply because their fandom is not my fandom.

While many fans are angered by the anti-Melnyk billboard campaign, many others supported the billboard campaign. These two sets of fans may have similar hopes for their favourite sports team, but they have different ideas regarding ‘how we get there’. I am sure there is a split of both ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ fans on both sides.

The fans backing the billboards believe Melnyk’s tight control of the organization’s operations and finances have held the team back from greatness, and they want Melnyk to sell the team to an owner who will invest in a winning organization. The fans opposing the billboards believe they might drive Melnyk to rash action and would embarrass the organization and its fans. They believe the city owes a debt to Melnyk for rescuing the team out of bankruptcy. Both arguments have their merits.

What’s my point?

Fans have passion, their passion leads to opinions, and their opinions lead them to act. Sometimes their actions will support the organization’s priorities, and sometimes they will find themselves offside. This does not make them bad fans – this makes them fans, period. If they were not invested, they would not be fans.

Every organization should be proud to have fans and never take that for granted. They should do everything in their power to cultivate them. With fans, organizations have a relationship – it’s not just a transactional exchange of goods or services for money. That should never be taken for granted, especially when you are a for-profit business with no particularly noble cause to your name (Sens Foundation excluded).

Some fans have suggested those who back the Sens should exercise blind faith – trusting Melnyk no matter what, and standing by the team even as it tries to pawn off major assets for pennies on the dollar. I would say that is not what a fan is. Fans should root for the crest on the front, not the shareholder (or holders). If a team does not treat them well, that team does not deserve their fandom. (see: season ticket holders who received renewal emails addressed to, “Dear %%Name%%”)

There is plenty of precedent for this. New York Islanders fans are turning on General Manager Garth Snow. Past Leafs GM Harold Ballard is not fondly remembered in Toronto for the team’s woeful record in the 70’s and 80’s. As we speak, there is a standoff taking place between the NHL and fans against Calgary’s mayor and city council centred on the ‘need’ for a new arena.

There is nothing wrong with fans voting with their dollars and making their voices heard – whether that’s to say the team does or does not deserve corporate welfare, or that they like or dislike the team’s overall direction. That’s just business.

Eugene Melnyk could sell the Senators tomorrow, and would most certainly recoup his investment and then some. He has said he does not want to do that. Why? Because he, too, is a fan. He is also passionate about his Ottawa Senators – even if his passion manifests in a different way than mine or somebody else’s, and even if that means he does not want to spend the money others believe he must to have a successful team. The difference is: we can play armchair GM all we want, whereas he just rings up his buddy Pierre.

These conflicts always involve shades of grey, even though it is tempting to lump people into “them and us” buckets. Sens fans are not bad fans – they are excellent fans, whether they are critical or not. Ottawa is a hockey market, and a city of its size is also lucky to have an NHL team. If the Senators want to continue filling their arena, they will need to show a commitment to winning (or at least producing an entertaining product) while also not blaming the fans for failing to show up or getting mad when the team threatens+ to leave town.

Some advice

As to the solution over the current furor? Sens GM Pierre Dorion recently held a conference call, and owner Eugene Melnyk is hosting town halls to hear from fans. These area good, basic steps which will allow people to vent their frustrations.

However, they need to be thinking a couple of steps ahead. If I were advising the Sens, I would instead suggest publicly presenting a plan for the future – something inspiring that fans could rally around – and continually reinforcing the owner’s commitment to the Ottawa market and key players like Erik Karlsson.

Oh, and try to avoid any media opportunities for Mr. Melnyk.

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