By E. Martin Nolan
A professional sports team may have a genuine public aspect to it, but it looks a lot less like a public institution when it’s failing. Witness this year’s sad Toronto Maple Leafs. You’d be hard-pressed to design a more depressing narrative for Leafs fans in 2012. In November, top of the league. They were the up-and-comers, flying through the neutral zone and winning with their speed game. Then began the slow and steady crumbling. The goaltending fell apart, weaknesses were exposed, the coach was fired. For the fans, this slow march down the standings must have been like watching a bluff that had been slowly eroding suddenly begin shedding chunks of earth at a time. It wasn’t surprising, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.
That last point is crucial. As a fan in that situation, there’s nothing you can do, yet the connection you feel to a local team is such that some part of you feels partly responsible for the team. This is the part of you that can feel genuine pride when a team representing you wins. At the same time, when the team is failing, the fan base is far more likely to point out that the team is not their responsibility, and that the ownership is failing the fans. So you get Leafs fans chanting “Go Blue Jays” during an embarrassing blowout loss, or “Fire Burke;” both chants are aimed at management, and both serve as declarations that the fans are separate from the decision-making process (in the latter chant), and may even be unattached to the team itself (in the former).
On the other hand, when the team is doing well, fans do not feel the need to point out the separation between themselves and the management. They do not chant “Give the GM a Contract Extension” or “Thanks for Picking Up That Crafty Winger, Really Filled a Gap There.” No, they chant, or would chant, “GO LEAFS.” In this admittedly hard to imagine situation, Leafs fans would be embracing the team as if it were a public institution, as if Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment and Leafs Nation were joined in a common struggle, raindrops on a common leaf, if you will. But in times like these, the fans’ only hope for relief is to reject the emotional and psychological connection they have to the team, and to embrace the cold concept that they are nothing but the disgruntled customers of MLSE. It’s easier, and more practical, to criticize management on these terms than to wallow in the indignity of a battered public pride. Conveniently, when times get tough fans tend to become consumers.
Whenever the Leafs are back at the top, though, fans will start remembering the great Leafs Tradition, and how their grandparents were fans in the Original Six years, etc., etc. When I last touched on this subject, the conclusion I came to was that the Leafs are a simultaneously public and private institution. That still makes sense to me, and now it also seems that that two-sidedness allows the fans to adjust to the team’s fortunes. When times are good, Leafs Nation will proudly claim ownership over the Leafs. When the team is embarrassing, well, you knew all along it was just a business, right?