The Charlotte Hornets are leaving. Maybe not immediately, but there can be little doubt. Ticket sales are dismal, and a referendum for a new stadium was just defeated. Local critics say the Hornets are victims of fan apathy, that Charlotteans are a bunch of fair-weather fans who won’t turn out unless their team is winning. But by staying home, the Hornets faithful—er, unfaithful—are showing that they’re among the savviest fans in professional sports. Long-suffering fans who stick with dismal teams are saps.
The Chicago Cubs have produced just four great players since 1920: Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, and Sammy Sosa. And they haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Why? Because the Cubs faithful turn out in droves to watch bad teams. The Boston Red Sox last won the Series in 1918, but it’s next to impossible to find a good seat in Fenway Park. Ditto Cleveland, where Browns fans haven’t seen their team win a Super Bowl since 1964 (when it was still called the NFL Championship). Having fans who stay home during hard times doesn’t deliver championships—just look at the Los Angeles Clippers—but it does provide teams with an incentive to win.
Hornets fans gave George Shinn, the team’s owner, every possible chance to contend for an NBA title. In the early ‘90s, the franchise had 20,000 season-ticket holders, enough to fill most NBA stadiums. They sold out 364 consecutive games—nearly nine seasons’ worth—in an arena that seats more than 24,000.
What did that buy ‘em? A team with a chronic case of mediocrity. In 13 seasons, the Hornets won just 17 playoff games—and six of those wins came this year. Meanwhile, the team traded away superstar after superstar—Alonzo Mourning, Glen Rice, and Eddie Jones—as soon as they demanded lucrative long-term contracts. (Never mind that fans had fronted the team enough money to pay their signing bonuses six times over.) When Shinn trotted out a team that included Derrick Coleman—a featureless blob that in no way resembles a professional athlete—fans finally wised up. Even a late-season playoff run couldn’t earn the Hornets a reprieve.
Sportswriters like to glorify fans for their selfless suffering. (George Will once wrote that “early and prolonged exposure” to the Chicago Cubs forged his own conservatism.) Moreover, there’s a certain badge of honor that comes with membership in Cleveland’s Dawg Pound or Chicago’s Bleacher Bums. But don’t these fans realize that their loyalty—and the bloated and lethargic owners they underwrite—may be the reason these teams never make waves in the postseason?
Baseball isn’t about sunning oneself in the bleachers at Fenway and Wrigley. Football isn’t about wearing dog masks and throwing snowballs in Cleveland. Sports are about great players making great plays for winning teams. Real fans won’t settle for anything less.