This past May, Jesse Hassenger and Devin Faraci wrote a pair of essays on the curdling of fan culture. Hassenger’s piece was a measured examination of two phenomenons: the eggplant-faced boy-rage inspired by the all-female Ghostbusters reboot and the hectoring push to give Frozen’s Anna a girlfriend. One movement was regressive and the other was vaguely enlightened but, troublingly, they both spoke to a feeling of fan ownership over other people’s creations, as if those who enjoyed the original Ghostbusters and Disney’s latest princess musical were owed something simply for having liked the movies. “Fans don’t need to get what they want, and much of the time, they probably shouldn’t,” Hassenger concluded. Faraci, riffing on Hassenger’s observations and a then-recent spate of death threats levelled at the folks who write Captain America comics, was more forceful, likening the modern fan to Annie Wilkes, the ghoulish antagonist in Stephen King’s Misery, who takes popular author Paul Sheldon as a prisoner and demands he write a new novel that pleases her.
It’s a bit surprising, considering the lunkheaded rabidity of a vocal sliver of sports fans, that the people in charge of constructing our teams don’t catch nearly the fury, righteous and otherwise, that other purveyors of mass culture do. They are, after all, the figureheads of widely beloved franchises, in charge of their quality and direction. Joss Whedon got so much flak around the time of Avengers: Age of Ultron’s release that he went on an extended Twitter hiatus. Our summer blockbusters are workshopped and audience-tested to within an inch of their lives and still end up inspiring great crashing waves of Tumblr screeds and webcam rants. Not everyone is happy with their general manager or president—there are always a handful of overmatched suits kicking around, flubbing draft picks and spending cap space like it’s water—but sports fans mostly grumble into their beers about it rather than flooding inboxes and mentions with intimidation and venom.
Let’s be clear: this is a good thing. The fan culture described in Hassenger and Faraci’s essay is toxic, a window into a world run by adolescents and adolescent-minded adults with unchecked ids and outsize senses of entitlement. Sportsworld is unpleasant enough without fans shouting about how they’re going to track down and slaughter their favorite team’s personnel people if they trade away a lottery pick.
But the comparative restraint is curious. Sports franchises are more like consumer products than books or movies are. It certainly costs more to follow them. Cable and tickets and stadium parking are considerably pricier than admission to your local AMC theater, a paperback off Amazon, or a Netflix subscription. And though athletes and coaches are similar to artists in that they’re rich figures who create stuff we obsess about, in the end, they’re evaluated by objective metrics. Art fails or succeeds depending on who you talk to. There’s a subjective aesthetic dimension to sports, but we measure them in records and stats. Broadly speaking, teams and their fans want the same thing, which is to win lots of games. You and the director of a movie you’re excited to see might have completely different ideas about what the film should be. That discrepancy in intention doesn’t exist between you and your city’s various franchises.
Where fans and executives diverge is in approach. When the guy charting your team’s future veers off in a direction you don’t expect, that’s when the mishegoss starts. For instance, what in the bloody electric blue hell are the Orlando Magic doing? Rob Hennigan’s post-Dwight Howard rebuild strategy was never coherent, because he never articulated one in public. (Growth is not a plan; it’s buzzwordy obfuscation.) Whatever the original vision was, it’s been scrapped in favor of an ill-fated win-now scheme that’s selling out everyone who stuck with the team as they stumbled like foundlings through the past few seasons.
The Magic are set to be more talented in 2016 than they’ve been in years, but they won’t be able to do much with it. There’s a logjam in the frontcourt, to the point that they can’t possibly play all their best players at the same time. The presence of Nik Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka all but ensure Aaron Gordon won’t get many minutes at power forward or center, which are the most suitable positions for a devastating six-foot-nine athlete who’s not particularly skilled. Gordon has the makeup to develop into a more versatile version of Tristan Thompson, but the Magic are apparently set on making him a wing despite his limited passing ability and hideous jumper.
It’s not clear why Jeff Green, who signed a one-year deal worth $15 million, is on the team, given that the squad already has plenty of guys who can play power forward and Frank Vogel should be grooming Mario Hezonja at the three rather than giving minutes to a 30-year-old who’s probably going to leave next summer. And speaking of quick exits, Ibaka is in the final year of his contract. The Magic can either massively overpay him at the end of this season or watch a player for whom they traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis walk away for nothing.
In short, Hennigan has given Orlando fans something to fume over. He has done this while speaking in the expectation-concealing patter people at his pay grade use, emphasizing patience and long-term thinking. GMs in the midst of a rebuild are careful not to trap themselves by setting goals, but if you listen to them for closely enough, you get their basic meaning: we’re going to be quite bad for a while in order to assemble a young core that will help us compete for titles down the road. A pact forms between fans and management that stipulates the fans will put up with some suffering so that management can take the necessary steps to build a well-stocked, sustainable squad.
This plan almost never works out not just because drafting and coaching up 20-year-olds is difficult, but because management tends to have less of a stomach for the pains of protracted rebuilds than fans do. Teams often tank for a while, don’t get the talent they need, and try to will phase two of their process into existence anyway, or they nab one young star and don’t wait for a second. What results is the sort of mediocre roster that nearly any franchise with cap space can build in the span of a summer. This understandably bums fans out. If their team was never headed to the mountaintop in the first place, why did they have to put up with all that lousy basketball? A 45-win team isn’t such a bad thing, but on the back of a string of truly putrid ones, it’s deeply dissatisfying.
This is just how things go—mistakes happen and nerve dissipates—but it’s insulting to be lied to by executives and aggravating not to have your faith repaid. The vast majority of fans put up with this pretty gracefully. The odd hashtag campaign meant to get someone fired pops up on social media, and ad-hominem attacks are lobbed, but beyond that, season ticket holders and League Pass subscribers, folks with jerseys of draft picks who get traded away and team logo stickers on their laptops accept incompetence and crummy luck and the powers that be selling you a dream one year then myopically scrambling to save their jobs the next. It’s awful, but sometimes fandom is more like a chronic condition than a fun hobby.
This is what the overheated dweebs who take umbrage over art that upsets them don’t understand. They don’t grasp that your love of something does not mean its creators are accountable to you, nor does your antipathy for it mean it needs to change. The people whose work we consume have an audience in mind and would obviously prefer their creations be well-received, but they’re making it for themselves more than anyone else. The only reason anyone does anything—screenwriting, lawyering, cooking, or managing a basketball team—is because something inside them compels them to do so. The fan, no matter how committed or thoughtful, is incidental to the work, and due to this powerlessness, they are sometimes saddled with an end-product that they hate, that angers them, that makes them feel disdained or betrayed or ignored. This is part of fandom, in the same way delight and joy and fascination are. Some people deal with this reality better than others, and some choose not to deal with it at all.
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