If you've had the good fortune of attending one of the playoff games at Kauffman Stadium these past two years, surely you've noticed something special. There's a palpable glimmer of energy radiating throughout the park, and that translates into an amazing volume of sound generated by the 40,000 Royals faithful.
It wasn't that way all that long ago--back a few years, the Royals 'faithful' were just that: faithful. This year the Royals averaged 33,438 fans per game at 88.2% capacity, good for 10th in overall in raw attendance and fifth overall in capacity. In 2011, when the first wave headlined by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Danny Duffy made its debut, Kansas City pulled just over 21,000 fans per game at 56.2% capacity. Though hope was on the horizon, the faithful were the only ones that had really remained through the bad years.
Across the state of Missouri, the St. Louis Cardinals were enjoying sustained, extreme success. The town developed a reputation as a baseball town as fans routinely filled the stadium. Kansas City watched with no small degree of jealousy as the favorite sibling gathered all the accolades and showers of praise. That is, until these Royals achieved their own success in the last two years; the rivalry remains, but it is tonally very different.
It is into this dynamic that Washington Post reporter Adam Kilgore interjected a fascinating observation:
Observed from time there during the ALCS and watching last night: Kansas City is the baseball town St. Louis thinks it is.— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) October 28, 2015
That Kansas City is so fervently supporting the Royals is flatly unsurprising. This is the city with the Guiness Book of World Records verified loudest stadium in the world, the city whose soccer team has sold out almost 70 consecutive matches in its home stadium, and the city that has hosted the Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament for seven consecutive years despite no Big 12 teams in the state. The Royals' success has allowed Kansas City to show to a national audience the exemplary support of its sports fans.
This is not an article about comparing Kansas City to St. Louis. This is partly because that is not the issue, and partly because that article already exists. It seems defending their status as the Best Fans in Baseball is one of Cardinals fans' favorite pasttimes.
However, that article and the Kilgore's tweet help to highlight something that is quite bizarre. Here are a smattering of quotes culled from social media reaction to these pieces:
Kansas is not the baseball city I know St. Louis is. We have showed up every year not just the last two.
KC fans are rowdier for sure. New fans, younger crowd. STL fans aren't fickle. Fill park every year and very knowledgable.
Let's be honest: If the Royals spend a couple years in the cellar, KC fans aren't showing up like they are now.
I assume you never attended before 2013 to see? It's okay, neither did their fan base. Get outta here
So where was this baseball crazy town for the last 29 years?? Oh that's right so crazy they stayed home. Your clueless!!!
The Washington Compost is jealous of St. Louis, just like most of the National League. KC is a notorious fairweather town and everyone knows it. Two years ago the Royals couldn't get Kauffman Stadium half-full on dollar hot dog night.
True story. Empty stadium for the longest time.
Dig past Cardinals fans being unhappy at a perceived slight towards St. Louis and their team, because that's a natural reaction. What's most important is the underlying theme:
Bandwagon and fairweather fans are unwelcome.
This isn't limited to Cardinals fans making snide comments about the Royals. Look into message boards and social media and you'll easily find disgruntled fans hurling insults at the Royals for being full of bandwagon fans as often as Ben Carson makes ill-judged comments about anything other than neurosurgery.
Bandwagon and fairweather fans are unwelcome.
That idea is baked into the concept of American sports. If you root for a team, root for them. Don't be wishy-washy, don't change your mind, and certainly don't become fans of other teams with any hint of flippancy. You get one team, and that team should only be decided geographically or through family ties. The performance of that team is irrelevant, because unwavering devotion to that team is expected.
The flaw here is that this idea runs counter to both the reality of sports economics and the reality of disposable income, in addition to creating a toxic culture within fandoms.
Let's address sports economics first: good teams have higher attendance and community interest, and sustained success masks the amount of bandwagon fans that exists. Period. End. Full stop. That's just how it works, and criticizing more casual fans is impressive doublethink.
This is especially true in baseball, where higher fan engagement directly contributes to a higher payroll. Since payroll is significantly correlated with success, more fans means a greater probability of success. As I noted last year, it has been 12 years since a team with a below-average payroll won a World Series. Every brand new baseball fan helps. A team will always have its core supporters. But the true backbone of every successful team is its bandwagon fans, the ones that fill up the stadium, purchase merchandise, drive advertising revenues up, and consume the TV and radio products.
Beyond that, being a hardcore fan of a team is at best extraordinarily difficult and at worst illogical. It demands time, patience, effort, and commitment to be one, even when the team is good and especially when the team is bad. Time, patience, effort, and commitment are words that are often referred to when speaking about relationships, and some fans don't want or need that kind of connection. Some fans just want to watch obscenely talented men do unbelievable things with little balls in a game. That we assign what amounts to an almost religious devotion to that act is the crazy thing, not the other way around.
A devotion to a sport is an expensive proposition, and not just in dollars and cents. Going to a game costs money, yes, as does a cable or MLB.tv subscription and merchandise. But it is also supremely expensive in terms of time. There are 162 games a year, plus another 31 spring training games and up to 20 additional games should the team make the playoffs. That's about 600 hours per year of baseball, not including discussing the game, driving and tailgating time surrounding an in-person visit, or time spent reading or discussing.
It's sane to be a bandwagon fan. Sport is entertainment, not an obligation. The 1995-2012 Royals weren't worth watching. The only sane ones were the people who stopped doing so.
Finally, and most importantly, putting down casual fans creates a schism within the fandom. This is supremely important, as it fosters arrogance and discourages new fans to hop on board. There are no situations in which a community split between a group of elites and the have-nots is helpful. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Criticizing fair-weather fans to serve your own purposes of feeling better about yourself is incredibly narcissistic, and somehow that culture is acceptable in sports.
Do the Royals have a lot of casual, new, bandwagon, or fair-weather fans? Absolutely. This is not something of which to be ashamed. Every group of fans is powered by casual fans, from Tampa Bay to St. Louis and Houston to Seattle. Next time you think about criticizing another fanbase for their 'new' fans, don't. There's nothing wrong with bandwagon fans.