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Jeff Byers: Fanning the Fans

by on April 21, 2012 6:00 AM

Fans are fanatics and that is a big part of what makes sports great.

The Big Uglies at Penn State games, Fireman Ed at New York Jets games, Evgeni Malkin’s father at Penguins games — these are characters that become part of the gameday routine, part of the show.

People-watching is always a popular activity at Beaver Stadium in the fall as it is, really, for any sports venue. Just as sports are better when we have Tim Tebow and Terrell Owens in the same league or Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick, so are sports better when we have variety in the fan base.

It is fun and adds flavor when you have the fan who bellows out his opinions for all to hear while others sit nervously, silently biting their fingernails. Some just show up to root on their team and never think about what they are wearing, even if they have the opposition’s color on. Others make sure they have on their lucky replica jersey or their face-paint or body-paint. Seeing the various get-ups and personalities is what creates the unique environments.

Fans treat their sports teams like family. They are allowed to criticize them, sometimes harshly, but let an outsider do it, and there will be hell to pay. You can tease your kid brother, but let the kid down the block try and you will stand up for him in an instant. Fans are fickle, though.

At the wrestling banquet this past weekend, Penn State senior Justin Ortega thanked the fans for alerting him when to shoot. “If it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t have known I wasn’t shooting enough,” he laughed.

It reminded of many wrestling matches where a friend of mine and me would chuckle after the meet about fans’ comments. You’d hear, “pin him, come on pin him” as if the wrestler was out there, trying to figure out what he should do and then suddenly, thanks to the fan’s sage advice, he’d decide “Oh, OK, I guess I’ll pin him here.”

Of course, coaches must chuckle as the 300-pound-plus fan expresses concern that his or her team “looks a little out of shape to me.”

Really?

The message boards only enhance the fans’ boldness. Fans write of their expertise - seeing their team as an embarrassment or failure because of a bad round in a tournament or a bad half of play. Then, when the team comes back to win, the fan grudgingly acknowledges the team got some breaks and was lucky to pull it out.      

I loved those Peyton Manning commercials that turned the table on the situation and had the then-Colts QB rooting fans on in their daily jobs. I’ve also thought it would be great to have the team turn around and pick some fans out.

“Come on, man - you were seconds late on that wave. If you’re going to do the wave, be on time with it.”

Or, “You’ve got to be kidding me? You paid how much for that ticket and you had to go the bathroom right then? Dude, you’re a joke. You missed the biggest play of the game because your bladder couldn’t hold it for another minute?!?”

Fans love to tell you about their team when they’re doing well. I will brag about my Penguins when they are winning Game 4, 10-3. Those are my boys, gettin’ er done. But, those guys didn’t look good and they needed to get to their act together through the first three games of the series. But, man, did we look good in Game 4?

Some sportscasters get bent out of shape about fans who say “we” and “us.” And yes, it is true the fans haven’t put in a minute of practice time and are not the ones out there competing in the venue. But, truthfully, it is that connection that brings sports alive. That passion that makes it exciting for the coaches and athletes to compete.

Yes, they’d compete anyway and the results would be recorded and they would take satisfaction in winning and would be disappointed in losses. But the emotion is amped up when you are competing in front of an audience and more so when it is a passionate, enthusiastic crowd.

Fans feel like they are part of the event and are told by the home team that they can and do make a difference, so they believe they are a part of the team if only by extension. I think that’s OK. All of us with the Pittsburgh Steelers organization feel that way.

I’m also amused at what people consider to be a good fan base. The Chicago Cubs, we are told, have a great fan base. And it is true it comes out in droves to support its team. It is also true the Cubs have not won a World Series championship since 1908 and have had very limited success over the decades. So, we have customers supporting a failing enterprise and being praised for doing so.

Do you ever hear about how good the fan base or customer base is in other failing businesses? Do you ever hear, “Man, State College doesn’t have good diners because that restaurant that served lousy grub and had bad service, the patrons never went there. They only come out when the food is good and reasonably priced. What a bunch of fair-weather diners. They are just a bunch of bandwagon jumpers"?

Why is it not OK for “fans” to not show up if the product on the field is less than satisfactory? Might the Cubs fans be seen as allowing, even promoting, lousy play by showing up game in and game out, year after year, while the product doesn’t measure up to what other cities are receiving?

Fans are excited to see what Bill O’Brien and his staff will bring to the table and how this team will respond. And I suspect it won’t take long for the fans to figure out what they like and don’t like and to voice those opinions. They certainly had no trouble doing that for over four-and-a-half decades with Joe Paterno at the helm.

Here’s hoping the fans continue to enjoy their sports with their teams. And my advice for Matt McGloin is simple — “throw a touchdown not an interception.”

And, seriously, Penguins — “shoot the puck.” Oh, yeah, “and score.”

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Jeff Byers has been the wrestling team’s traveling announcer since 1990.
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