I was arguing with a friend the other day about the perpetually beleaguered D.C. NFL franchise. His contention is that they’re in a really bad place. Specifically, he believes that the fanbase is shrinking, that the hatred for Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen’s stewardship is outweighing lifelong loyalties, and that the outcome of the ongoing Kirk Cousins drama will probably shear off another chunk of the “greatest fans in the NFL.”
None of that sounds wrong to me. What does seem wrong is his contention that this is unchangeable. The solution is incredibly simple, and, at the same time, impossibly difficult: The team just needs to win. Win more than 10 games in a season. Win a playoff game or two. Then do that again, for another few seasons, and suddenly the buzz will be back.
My friend thinks that even if the team starts winning, the fans are gone for good. I think this is preposterous, and amounts to a sports-fan variation on what I think of as the Facebook Effect.
I’m sure the Facebook Effect has an official name and sociological description that people have actually studied. It’s tied to the concepts of BIRG and FOMO, but more intuitively, it’s the idea that everyone else on your social media feed has a better life than you.
The reasons you feel this way are simple: People are more inclined to share positive moments, partly because they’re the moments that feel share-worthy and partly because we as a culture are notoriously shy about publicly airing our failures and shortcomings. (Unless you happen to see my Facebook feed, an unending record of me being a subpar parent to my children.)
Facebook is the Red Zone Channel of life: all highlights, no goddamned “Dilly dilly!” commercials.
Being a D.C. sports fan means embracing and/or wallowing in the idea that our sports pain is awful in a unique, special way. Everyone else’s teams may be bad, but our team is a special kind of toxic sundae. It’s the Reverse Facebook Effect.
(This extends to local sports media—try telling someone who covered the Jim Zorn-era team that the current situation is a neverending tire fire and they will “Well in my day” you about bingo callers and Albert Haynesworth until you want to die.)
And yet the last week in the NFL has shown us this isn’t true.
For example, the Kansas City Chiefs lost in the wild card round of the playoffs, blowing an 18-point halftime lead to the underdog Tennessee Titans. They’ve lost six straight home playoff games, dating back to January 1994, in a stadium that’s considered one of the great home venues in football.
Cleveland Browns fans held a literal parade to celebrate (or protest?) the team going 0-16, leading a few Browns players to openly criticize the parade-goers.
On the productive side, Buffalo Bills fans, thirsty to end a 17-year postseason drought, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton’s charity to thank him for throwing a game-winning touchdown that knocked Baltimore out of playoff contention and slotted the Bills in. The Bills responded by losing a genuinely unwatchable first-round game against the Jaguars 10-3.
Most notably, ESPN published a lengthy report detailing the cracks in the New England Patriots’ dynasty, with confidential sources talking about the very specific ways QB Tom Brady, owner Robert Kraft, and head coach Bill Belichick disagree. The Patriots put out a bland statement assuring the public that everything was fine, and gave similarly bland interviews to friendly reporters like Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. (This, it should be remembered, is the same franchise involved in Spygate, Deflategate, and Tuckgate.)
If any one of the above things had happened in D.C., it would’ve been the sports apocalypse. Scorn and mockery would’ve rained down from blogs and social media and podcasts and local sports radio and TV and alternative weeklies. We would’ve talked about how it made D.C. look stupid in the eyes of the world, subsuming it into our ever-expanding identity as a cursed sports town.
That would be wrong. These things can happen to any team (and, clearly, actually have). None of it establishes their identity. After the initial newscycle, no one really cares that much.
Extended losing streaks are the same way. Many teams have hemorrhaged fans during futile years, only to see those fans return when things improve. The Patriots were terrible when I was a kid. The Seahawks were irrelevant through most of the 1990s. But they got better. Heck, even the Jacksonville Jaguars finally uncovered a bunch of tarped-over seats in their stadium.
So don’t worry! Once the folks in Ashburn figure out how to win, all of this will turn around and things will be exciting again.
Thinking about that sentence again, it’s probably okay to worry, even if this is totally normal.