Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sport is for losers

A couple weeks ago while watching my AFL team the Adelaide Crows being beaten by the Fremantle Dockers, I tweeted, “Crows getting smashed. Stupid game”. Given I often seem to be tweeting about a team I support losing, someone quickly tweeted to me: “Do any sporting teams you support ever actually win?”

Last week after watching the Adelaide Crows utterly capitulate against the Port Adelaide Power, I let fly a fair hurling of abuse towards them on Twitter. This same person then tweeted: “Don't tell me your support made another sporting team lose?”. (Good thing he’s a friend!)

This week while playing against Carlton the Crows were ahead be 11 points half way through the last quarter and upon giving up the lead I let fly even more abuse (this time at the TV rather than on Twitter). Three hard losses in a row. Three days of heartache. Three weeks of not wanting to watch footy wrap-up programs or reading about the season thus far.

Aside from highlighting that the Crows are having a bloody frustrating season, the tweets (and the losses) reinforced for me that to be a footy fan – in fact to be a fan of any sporting team – is to be someone who must confront losing. And not only confront it, must also accept it as unavoidable. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean you must like it, but perhaps we all should be a bit more mindful of the fact that losing is a part of sport.

In the Ken Burns documentary series, Baseball, columnist George Will, in his usual overly abundant sincere tone talked of baseball being “democratic” (and thus the perfect game for America) because the best teams lose a third of the games, the worst team win a third of the games, and it all comes down to the middle third. If winning is everything, then baseball, he said, is not the game for you.

In fact if winning is everything then no sport is the game for you, because you will last about one season before discovering that no matter how big and well-paid is the team you support, it won’t win them all.

In the NFL, the last team to win it all was the Miami Dolphins all the way back in 1972. But back then the season (including playoffs and Super-Bowl) lasted only 17 games. Now an NFL season takes 19 (or possibly 20) games. In 2007, the New England Patriots went 18 games undefeated, only to lose the Super Bowl (and they led 14-10 with 36 seconds left in the game).

No side has ever gone through an AFL season undefeated. Collingwood, in 1929, went through the minor round undefeated, but lost the second semi final (it got flogged by Richmond by 62 points).

In soccer, such a feat of being undefeated is less difficult, because of the draw. Arsenal went undefeated during the 2003-04 English Premier League, but it only won 26 of the 38 matches – 68 per cent. Thus pretty much the best you can hope for as a soccer fan is that two thirds of the time you will go home happy. Soccer fans know this, and thus they convince themselves that a draw can be as good as a win. But really? Nah. You play to win, and you want your side to win (ok, you’ll take a draw if that will get you through to the next round of the Cup, or will give you that one point you need to stay on top of the table).

Manchester United – that team which represents all things horrible (yes I am a Liverpool fan) – has had a great last ten years, but even they do not win enough to guarantee happiness:

Season Wins Games Played Win Percentage
2001-02 24 38 63.2
2002-03 25 38 65.8
2003-04 23 38 60.5
2004-05 22 38 57.9
2005-06 25 38 65.8
2006-07 28 38 73.7
2007-08 27 38 71.1
2008-09 28 38 73.7
2009-10 27 38 71.1
2010-11 21 34 61.8
Average 66.4

Now surely if you go back to the origin of this piece, you would suggest I merely choose a better team to follow. But the problem (aside from the fact that no true sports fan just changes support in the hope of getting more wins) is that even if you do support “winning” teams, you will still have to cope with failure. In fact you will have to cope with it much much more than you will winning.

The big reason football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey have such big followings is because each week (or almost every day in the case of baseball) your team has another chance to win. Sure the Crows have lost three in a row, but next week against St Kilda, I’ll be confident and cheering them on to a hoped for win.

But when you boil it all down, numbers of wins is not important, what is important is winning the whole thing – winning a premiership, a Super Bowl, a Stanley Cup, a World Series. If you think that is not the case, ask yourself who would you have preferred to support in 1998 – the Adelaide Crows who won 16 games and won the Grand Final, or North Melbourne, who won 18 games and lost the Grand Final? I know a few North fans who would gladly swap the Crows’ Premiership Cup for North’s 18 wins.

If however you are new to sport, and you want to follow a few sports, and you figure that your best chance of enjoying the joys of victory is to follow the biggest, richest and most well-supported teams around, then you might figure that you will likely have a fine old time as a supporter. And yes it may be true that if you decide to follow Manchester United, or the Yankees, or Real Madrid, or any of the other teams who stay on top through the spending of obscene amounts of money (full confession, I am a Yankees fan), you will see some good level of joy, but it will not be as often as you would like.

If we pick the biggest, richest, most well-supported team in the English Premier League, the Spanish “La Liga”, the Italian “Serie A”, the German “Bundesliga”, the Major League Baseball, the NFL, the AFL, the NRL and the Ice Hockey NHL, you find that even taking the supposed easy route of supporting the biggest and most hated does not remove the pain of defeat – the pain of going all the way through the season only to finish minus the ultimate glory:

Sport / League Team Premierships in last 10 years Win Percentage
AFL Collingwood 1 10
EPL Manchester United 5 50
La Liga Real Madrid 4 40
Serie A AC Milan 1 10
Bundesliga Bayern Munchen 6 60
NBA LA Lakers 4 40
MLB NY Yankees 1 10
NFL Pittsburgh Steelers 2 20
NRL Brisbane Broncos 1 10
NHL Detroit Red Wings 2 20
  TOTAL 27 27

Now yes you could argue that perhaps there are other teams that are bigger – Juventus in Serie A perhaps, the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, maybe (but Pittsburgh has won the most Super Bowls – and the Cowboys have zero wins in the last 10 years, and I’m trying to find happiness!). Detroit in the NHL is a tricky one, but it is one of the “original six” of the NHL, and has won the most Stanley Cups of any team from the USA. The Broncos? Well I’d argue that they are the most hated (maybe Manly – either way it is still only 1 win in the last 10 years).

But as you can see, if (like me) you follow a lot of sport, and thus in effect cover your bets, you still are looking at only 27 per cent joy at the end of the year. Now maybe you are someone who only supports Manchester United and don’t care about any other sport, in which case well done you are getting 50 per cent joy. However, such a level is more a statistical quirk, and is based on only 10 Premierships. This list has 100 premierships and so does establish a bit more statistical reliability. Essentially, if you decide to follow the big elephants in your league – you’re looking at 27 per cent joy… on average.

But unfortunately sport never works out on average.

Now obviously if you are the type of unfortunate type who was born under a bad sign, or whose father was born under a bad sign, and you find yourself the supporter of some small, poor, never to win team – St Kilda, Baltimore, Cincinnati Bengals (my team) – you will not see any joy at all. You will live from week to week, taking joy in the small victories – perhaps the ones in front of a “finals type atmosphere”  - but Premiership joy? Ha! Good luck (of course this won’t matter, you will still keeping supporting, keep hoping, keep thinking, maybe this year…).

But it is surprising just how lacking in joy and overflowing with losing  are supporters of teams that you would think would not have to worry about such pain.

Take the English Premier League and Liverpool. Between 18 season from 1972-73 to 1989-90 Liverpool either won the First Division (11 times) or came runner-up (6 times) every season except one (but they won the European Cup that year, so don’t give them too much sympathy). In the rather wonderful film based on the Nick Hornby novel, Fever Pitch, the main character Paul Ashworth is an Arsenal fan who bemoans it has been 17 years since Arsenal won the Premiership. Arsenal beat Liverpool for the Premiership in 1988-89, then Liverpool won the next season.

And since then, nothing.

If at that point you had told anyone who watched football in England that Liverpool would not win the Premiership in the next 21 years, you would have been gently taken off to the nearest nuthouse. Equally if in 1991-92, you were to suggest Manchester United would dominate for the next 20 years, you would have been given a smirk of bemusement. When Manchester United won the EPL in 1992-93, they hadn’t won for 25 years. A quarter of a century. So if you are about to start supporting a side in the EPL, don’t think that picking Man U will guarantee anything. Every Man U fan would look at Liverpool and say, please, not us.

When I was growing up in South Australia, I used to watch quite religiously Wide World of Sports every Saturday afternoon. They used to show bits of the old NSW Rugby League comp, and the team to beat was Parramatta. They won in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1986.

And since then, nothing.

In the NFL during the same period of the 1980s the San Francisco 49ers were the team to beat. They had the great Quarterback (Joe Montana), the great wide receiver (Jerry Rise), then they got another great quarterback (Steve Young) and they won the Super Bowl in 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1995.

And since then nothing.

This story is repeated in every sport, in every league.

The LA Dodgers? They have won the World Series 6 times, and yet their last win was in 1988 and now they find their owner is broke and the MLB has to take them over.

Sport / League Team Premierships in last 10 years Last Flag Years
AFL Carlton 0 1995 16
EPL Liverpool 0 1990 21
La Liga Athletico Madrid 0 1996 15
Serie A Lazio 0 2000 11
Bundesliga Borussia Dortmund 0 1996 15
NBA Chicago Bulls 0 1998 13
MLB LA Dodgers 0 1988 23
NFL San Francisco 49ers 0 1995 16
NRL Parramatta 0 1986 25
NHL New York Rangers 0 1994 17
  AVERAGE 0 1994 17

Carlton in 1995 were one of the most dominant teams ever, and yet even with some fiddling of the salary cap, they still haven’t been able to win another flag. Essendon as well in 2000 seemed to be more dominant than any team ever had been. And yet since then? Zilch.

The Crows in 2006 looked to be the team to beat halfway through the season. They ended up not even making the Grand Final. That result was painful not just because of the loss, but because as any of the supporters of the above teams (and so many, many others) will tell you, you need to win the Premiership when you get the chance, because that chance may not come around for a while.

So you’re feeling down about your team losing? Don’t worry you are not alone. Keep the faith, and try not to think that even if things go really well, at best the next 10 years will only see you ending the season happy about 3 times…

But logic of course does not mater with sports: here, 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin and The Office’s, John Krasinski indulge in a bit of Yankees v Red Sox trash talk

(the Yankees lost today 2-0, but no matter, this season they’re 12-7 – a winning percentage of 63.2. Life is good!)


@WallaseKatt said...

You've got to be in it to win it.... eventually.

Dr Yobbo said...

I'm a South Sydney fan. We're still just happy to have a team at all. Eventually this will wear off and we'll start getting disappointed at playing like a collection of busted arses.

Sonia said...

Your weekend sounds like mine. Roosters lost , Waratahs lost, Drew Mitchell probably out of the World Cup , at least the Swans had a bye so I didnt have to worry about them losing. The lows are crappy but the wins make it all worthwhile. Who needs those overseas sprots when we have such variety her in Oz.

Temijin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Temijin said...

Can you please stop supporting Liverpool so they can get back to the top of the premier league? Cheers!

Amanda said...

Too true, Grog's - as a Canberra Raiders supporter, I've accepted that weekends are far more often character building, than celebratory!

Sonia said...

The part about not being able to watch the wrap up shows is so true. I cant watch the news when my team loses especially if it was paticularly close. However if they win I can watch and rewatch. The other reason why I guess I try to stick to Aussie sports is I can afford to stay up all night

David Barry said...

numbers of wins is not important, what is important is winning the whole thing
While I personally agree with this, I have come across the opposite sentiment from some baseball fans (I don't know if it's common), the really keen ones who'll tune in to almost all 162 of their team's regular season games. It's such a large chunk of the year that enjoying all those wins outweighs the heartbreak of losing in the playoffs.

I can't find the blog comments thread where I saw this discussion, but as I recall the Cubs fan just wanted a World Series win.

db said...

'not wanting to watch footy wrap-up programs or reading about the season thus far' - so true! I can't get enough of reading about footy when my team's winning, when they lose I block it all out.

Moneypenny said...

Dude - try being a Melbourne Demons supporter! Haven't got close to a premiership during my life time (now closer to 40 years than 30...). At one point, club members voted to merge with Hawthorn (but Hawthorn resisted).

Only Footscray and, at a stretch, the Saints are more tragic in the AFL (no disrespect intended).

Given my father barracks for Collingwood, footy season can be rough when you are not winning... like, ever.

Michelle said...

I can still feel the pain and remember the tears when your team stole my team's chance at Grand Final glory in 1997.... yes, try being a Doggies fan... Disappointment is our middle name :(
(and the Crows theme song still haunts me)

The Night Stalker said...

The Cincinnati Bengals??? Wha-why??? You need to explain why the Bengals are your team.

As for the LA Dodgers, Frank McCourt isn't just broke, he allegedly stole from the team. That's the reason Bud Selig finally took control of the team. Too bad he didn't step in earlier. Damn shame.

Yowie9644 said...

Your blog suggests that if you follow the big, rich, hated teams you'll get a premiership win *on average* 27% of the time.

What is the percentage of premiership wins you'd get following the poorest teams?

And, if all things were equal, what *should* the average be?

27% seems like a huge advantage to me if there's more than 4 teams in each league.

Anonymous said...

Yep, too true. Try being a Geelong supporter in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1995 and 2008. Very tough

Mind you, things changed a bit for us. You never know what can happen in the world of sport, and that's the attraction of it. The Gold Coast win on the weekend is the perfect example of the unpredictability and beauty of sport

Doug said...

I was born in '53, was too young in '58, in hospital in '64, at the game in '66, '70, '77 (both times), overseas in '78 and '79, at the game in '80 and overseas in '90. I was in Canberra in '02, '03 and '10 (first time) and in Sydney international departure lounge for the second game in '10.
Just back in Canberra from the Anzac Day game at the MCG and smiling.
In 58 years, the rewards for being a long-distance but die-hard Magpie have been pretty slim but if you wait long enough eventually the wheel turns.

Greg Jericho said...

The Night Stalker - why the Bengals? Simple - back in 1982 my sister and I watched the Super Bowl on TV. My sister picked the 49ers, and so of course, I picked the Bengals.

We nearly got there in 89, the 49ers again, alas.

My post on the teams I support is here

Big Cuz said...

OK the crows lost but boy oh boy did the power's choke give me a huge laugh on the weekend, next best thing to the crows winning is port losing.

Bellistner said...

This explains why The Brisbane Lions have been so crap for a few years. It's not the Management style or the arseing of top-line players. Although I wish I could blame Grog for supporting them. ;)

Anonymous said...

In the NHL this year...

The Vancouver Canucks dominated the regular season, won the President's Trophy (minor Premiership), and in their first play off series they raced to a 3-0 lead over the defending champions and bitter rivals Chicago Blackhawks....

Now they've lost the last 3 games very badly, it's 3-3 and in a few hours they start game 7. Four teams have blown a 3-0 lead in a playoff series in NHL history, and when it happened to Boston last year, it was the first time in decades. Now Vancouver look like choking on an epic, South African cricket scale, having never won the Stanley Cup in their 40 years.

Anonymous said...

There is one sporting series that is in conflict with your theory: The Scottish Premier League. Composed of 18 clubs, only two have ever won the title; Rangers and Celtic, and they have each one it six times.

So if you don't want to be much of a loser that is the series to follow. And if you're a masochist, just go for one of the other 16 clubs.

Michael Dart said...

@keepitcivil Prior to 2007, if I met a fellow Cats supporter, we'd immediately know we shared a back-story of sporting anguish. It was disappointing certainly, but also humbling. I probably read too much into it, but you could almost sense it in the person's psyche when you started talking about football. It helped shape their character.

Which is why the family day after the 2007 premiership was one of the most joyous events I've ever been a part of. Many thousands of supporters who'd been scared all season to dream that we might finally follow through, and shrug off the past failures. Some who had emotionally invested 44 years since their last taste of success. No longer did they have to doubt their team, and no one could take it away from them.

Even if I could choose teams who'd take the bikkies 27% of the time, it would hardly be the point, would it? Following sport is all about losing. It makes victory all the sweeter.

- @mjdart

Meg Thornton said...

As a long-time Freo Dockers supporter, I sympathise with your pain, Grog.

I started supporting the Dockers back when they first showed up, since they were an alternative to supporting the Eagles. Given I'd never been fond of the Eagles to begin with (and it used to annoy me that as a West Australian I was expected to support the smug bastards) the arrival of the Dockers was a nice change. While the sensation of having someone else to barrack for was nice, it would have been nicer if they hadn't spent quite so long sitting at the bottom of the league table. But then, there's also a certain amount of shared identity in barracking for the underdogs to be gained as well.

scotty dog said...

I guess cycling doesn't count. You're talking about sports that operate on the binary system (not truly binary 'cos there's a null state as well)

Try following a sport where there's between 90 and 180 players and up to 20 teams.

Add to that the fluid nature of the teams and their members.... Its chaos. Each win is its own individual poetry - Stu OGrady in Paris Roubaix or Matt Goss in Milan San Remo. The heart break of Cadel standing on a mountain waiting a minute and a half for a spare & losing the Vuelta... Winning the worlds in Mendriso.