Rob Oller | Maybe sports now know how important fans are

Rob Oller
An aerial view of an empty Ohio Stadium

My old man loved sports. He just wasn’t sure sports loved him back, which is why he would have enjoyed this Father’s Day, when thanks to the coronavirus pandemic fans like him finally are getting their due.

That’s right, even as this insidious COVID-19 kills, quarantines and quashes, it also leaves in its wake a few winners. Among them are home-gym equipment suppliers, mask manufacturers and followers of sports who feel like afterthoughts and pawns that pay the freight so millionaire athletes, universities and billionaire owners can kick back in their house in the Hamptons. And Aruba. And Paris.

Without spectators, deep pockets run shallow, which leads to an admission that sports need fans as much as fans need sports.

Making money for mansion dwellers never bothered my dad. What rankled him was padding their wallets without receiving so much as a thank-you in return. For him, for many, what wounds is the lack of heartfelt acknowledgment that “You matter.”

Jocks and general managers say how much they need you. Teams even hold fan appreciation days to show how much they value your money … um, importance.

But my dad never truly felt appreciated. He was a man of action, and words ring hollow when player strikes, owner lockouts, overinflated beer prices and outrageous parking costs curb much of the enthusiasm.

Pop’s resentment never deepened into a root of bitterness, but I still wish he would have lived to see this day, when guys like him are about to become stadium stars by not being allowed in the stadium.

Think about it: What is Ohio State football without a packed Horseshoe singing along to “Hang On Sloopy?” What are the Cleveland Browns without the Dawg Pound? What is Great American Ball Park without kids racing after foul balls? What is Nationwide Arena without the Fifth Line booing Jeff Carter?

But … but … but all those sports will still be on TV (maybe), so what’s the problem? Just this: Without in-person crowds, matches and tournaments lack energy. Live sports become video games, offering action but no soul. Gifted athletes will still make amazing plays, but without fans to celebrate the achievement it will feel like a glorified practice or scrimmage.

Former Ohio State kicker Bob Atha, nearly 40 years removed from playing in front of what at that time was a capacity of about 85,000 in the Horseshoe, told me that not having fans would turn Saturday game days into Monday morning work commutes.

“Over time you find that the excitement, thrill and energy the crowd brings is unlike anything I have witnessed in my life,” Atha said of what the Buckeyes would miss without fans.

If college football is played this year, it will be in half-filled stadiums at best, which beats the empty edifices facing the NBA, NHL, MLB and possibly the NFL. But it’s still not ideal.

My father would have been especially pleased, in a heh-heh sort of way, that baseball is bracing for no games, much less no fans. He would have found a certain satisfaction in a “forced fan boycott,” and in the possibility of MLB canceling its season, which would mean players don’t get paid and owners don’t make money. The man was adamant about not taking paychecks for granted and warned never to bite the hand that feeds you.

I recall him muttering more than once: “Only monopolies are allowed to ignore the customer.”

Baseball fits that bill, but those who play it also are culpable. I cringe when hearing superstar athletes complain that fans only care about “what I do” and not “who I am.” Look in the mirror.

Do you, multimillionaire NBA point guard, care who that fan in the upper deck really is? Or do you look into arena seats and see row upon row of George Washingtons, Abraham Lincolns and other faces that adorn our currency? Are fans simply facades that front discretionary income, or are they the foundation of your sport?

The pandemic is revealing the true feelings of athletes and front offices toward the fans whose in-person presence distinguishes games from practices.

During the first round of the PGA Tour event at Colonial last week, which was played without spectators, Phil Mickelson made a birdie and, according to the Associated Press, instinctively pinched the brim of his cap to acknowledge a crowd that wasn’t there.

Genuine fan-friendly gesture or ho-hum habit? I’m not sure what my old man, the forgotten fan, would have thought. But he would have chuckled over it either way; an early Father’s Day present to enjoy.



Rob Oller

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