On Arizona fandom

Congratulations to the Arizona Cardinals, who crushed Carolina 33-13 yesterday, to advance to the NFC Championship game. They've won two playoff contests in a season, for the first time in franchise history - see our sister blog, Revenge of the Birds, for more coverage of this stunning achievement. But what it brings home to me are some very telling points about the apparent nature of sports-fandom in Arizona: basically, we are a state of front-runners and bandwagon jumpers. Even as the regular season ended, and the Cardinals were crowned division champions, the team were booed off the field at half-time, and these were some of the comments posted on AZ Central:

  • Cardinals are a bunch of losers... They have always been losers and always will be!!
  • I hate to say the season will end next weekend
  • The team has gone from losers to mediocre. If they weren't in the worst division in football their season would be over, and next weekend it will be anyways.
  • They didn't show me anything other than what they have all year... The Cards have talent, but they lack discipline, focus, and have shown an inability to beat good teams.
  • Haven't the Cardinals been down this road before? Beat some weak sister like the Rams or Seahawks and suddenly the team is reborn... If they'd checked in rather than out for one, just one, of the three good teams they played of late...then one might hope for more in the playoffs.

I could go on with these, but I trust the point is clear. Opinion in the valley was so bad before the team's first playoff game, that the team required multiple extensions from the NFL to sell out their ticket allocation and avoid a TV blackout. But now? I've seen more red shirts in the past week than, probably, in the eight years since I moved out here. All of a sudden, everyone is a Cardinals fan; a thousand people even turned up at the airport to cheer the team as they left for Carolina, something probably unprecedented over the team's two decades in the valley. The last time there was such a resurrection, a cross was involved.

The main reason for this astonishingly fickle nature is probably the one which has been well-discussed: many people in Arizona are born somewhere else and bring their loyalties with them when they move here. While they may feel some fondness for their new home town, it's a casual attraction, one which is a result of geography and nothing more. But what I didn't realize is the scale of that. In 2004, only 41% of those people who lived in the state of Arizona, was actually born here, and I suspect that's a figure which would drop significantly, if it were limited to adults.

It compares to a national average of 63.5%, and ranks us 50th out of the 51 states + DC - ahead only of Nevada, which doesn't have any major pro sports teams. For many of the states usually regarded as being sports powerhouse - New York, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania - the same figure is above 75%. This unquestionably helps to breed die-hards. Without a subscription to expensive cable or satellite packages, you don't get to see any non-local teams, and if you haven't lived in any other states, the odds of you deciding to support one of their franchises have to be slim.

The Cardinals do, at least, have age on their side, having been here twice as long as the Diamondbacks. Ten years is just not sufficient time to build a fan-base: that kind of thing takes a generation or more, until you get people who were born [or, at least, very young] at or after the point the team was established, and have grown up knowing no other franchise. At the moment, such people for the Diamondbacks are in high-school at best, and so not likely to have much disposable income of their own. In a Sep. 2007 poll on the 'Pit, 68% of the 155 respondents said they were under the age of 30. Now, that may well skew low, based on the Internet medium, etc. but anecdotal evidence also suggests that young people are more likely to be devoted fans of the Diamondbacks.

If you compare Arizona to similar states, the Diamondbacks are not doing at all badly, in raw attendance. Florida would be the most obvious yardstick, with an in-state born rate of 41.2%, only fractionally different from Arizona. Their population, at sixteen million, is more than twice Arizona's six million - then again, they also have two baseball teams, both started in the past couple of decades. The Rays were established the same year as Arizona and also play in a domed stadium. But, even with their stellar season, their average attendance in 2008 was 22,259, far less than the Diamondbacks (30,986). The Marlins, meanwhile, were dead last at 16,688, over three thousand less than the next-best team. This isn't new or related to Arizona's division title: we've beaten the Rays by at least 2,500/game, and the Marlins by more than eight thousand, ever year since the Diamondbacks started.

[I'd like to compare TV ratings, too, but that just proved impossible to do. It seems like the Rays did better this year, with a top figure in the regular season of 9.1 when they faced the Red Sox, compared to Arizona's 6.2 for the Cubs on July 23. But there are just too many variables in that equation to draw any conclusions. While both teams showed their games on the local Fox Sports affiliate, I've got no information on, for example, the degree of penetration each has in the local sports market.]

I do have to wonder if the 2001 World Series victory perhaps "spoiled" local fans, by making them expect success too easily and quickly. Having seen the team go from 97 losses to winning it all in just three years, it may have set unrealistic expectations, especially for a team with this budget. While you can argue revenue should be larger in the Phoenix market, the reality appears to be that the current payroll appears to be close to all we can sustain, with the Forbes' survey giving the team an operating income of only about $6m this year and last, before interest, taxes, etc. Here are the payrolls of the 11 World Series winners since the franchise started, their ranking and percentage of the Diamondbacks' salary bill [Figures from the USA Today salary database]

Salary (m) Rank % of AZ
2008 - Phillies $98.3 12th 148.5%
2007 - Red Sox $143.0 2nd 274.7%
2006 - Cardinals $88.9 11th 148.9%
2005 - White Sox $75.2 13th 120.6%
2004 - Red Sox $127.3 2nd 182.4%
2003 - Marlins $48.8 25th 60.4%
2002 - Angels $61.7 15th 60.0%
2001 - D'backs $85.2 8th 100.0%
2000 - Yankees $92.9 1st 117.3%
1999 - Yankees $88.1 1st 125.2%
1998 - Yankees $63.2 2nd 218.2%

Over the past eleven years, that's an average rank of just below eighth - last year, that would be about $115m - outspending the Diamondbacks by 41.5%. We may remember the Marlins, but without a payroll in the top half of the league, it's difficult to win the World Series. Ten of the 11 above were so ranked; last season, even this would mean $81m or more, so Arizona's budget for the coming years only just qualifies. In 2008, our payroll put us between the Orioles and the Royals - neither of which franchises, have even reached the post-season since before Arizona came into existence. Realistically, and with our resources, we probably should not be expecting to compete regularly.

The 2001 World Series win imprinted itself on fans, in a way that has proven difficult to shake off, especially with regard to veterans from that team. Witness the furore when Luis Gonzalez was allowed to depart. Similarly, while there were many good reasons to want to retain Randy Johnson, I sense a sizable number of those condemning his release were doing so for nostalgic reasons, related to 2001 and his prime, more than anything. I certainly doubt we'd have seen the same fuss over any other 45-year old pitcher with a doubtful back and an 11-10 record. There are probably some out there, wondering why we didn't sign that nice Craig Counsell to play second.

Painful though it is to admit it, the World Series was 'bought' for Arizona, in almost exactly the same way for which we condemn the Yankees - juicy free agent contracts to most of our infield [Grace, Bell, Counsell and Williams], as well as Finlay, Sanders, and Johnson, Indeed, our behavior was arguably worse, because at least the Yankees have the revenue stream to support their spending. We could only do it by living beyond our means, a flock of chickens which came home to roost over the following years. While I wouldn't trade that season for anything, I suspect it was like an ugly guy getting to sleep with the Prom Queen. Even if she was drunk, it still causes unfounded optimism for years to come...

You won't hear much from me over the next couple of nights, not with 24 finally starting up properly, with two hours this evening and two more tomorrow. How I have missed Jack Bauer...

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