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Original Issue


The hometown fans are a most discerning lot

I don't know St. Louis Well, but the fact that the Cardinals got into the National League playoffs made me think how exemplary are the sports fans there. In that metropolis of 1,808,621, paid attendance for the Cards' games was better than three million during the 1987 regular season; it is every bit as impressive that these same discerning spectators refuse to come out and pay homage to their city's historically mediocre football franchise. In fact for 78 home dates, the baseball Cardinals averaged 39,386 fans, 3,838 more than the football Fraudinals averaged for eight home games in '86.

The good people of St. Louis have for two decades also followed major league hockey, making St. Louis a singular ice oasis in an area about the size of the Gobi Desert—bounded by Washington, D.C., to the east; Chicago to the north; L.A. and Vancouver to the west. Fans in St. Louis make up their own minds. They were the first to take to indoor soccer, which shows they're truly independent, not to mention unbeholden to television to instruct them in what is correct sports fare.

And in the face of the usual blackmail practiced these days by sports owners, there are no roundheels in St. Loo-ey, Mizzoora. When the Blues threatened a few years back to trundle off to Saskatoon or Yellow-knife or Vladivostok, there was never any talk of St. Louis coughing up billions in tax money to build a new Taj Mahal of sweat so the city could remain "big league" in hockey. Maybe St. Louisans took that threat in stride because the basketball Hawks left 19 years ago, and 1) at least until very recently nobody knew—or cared—where they went, and 2) St. Louis didn't slide into the Father of Waters because it wasn't "big league" in basketball any longer.

Moreover, there are no big-ticket college sports in town to compromise higher education, and the record shows that St. Louisans (and anyone else, for that matter) who have attended the state university at Columbia have not felt it necessary to pay graft to athletes to advance the cause of lower education. The people of St. Louis are secure enough not to be troubled that their Show Me State is shown up in silly undergraduate games by the likes of Oklahoma and Nebraska.

As sports fans we are a nation of dupes, and I recommend that we look to St. Louis as our model of proportion, discrimination and forbearance. Somewhere along the way, owners of sports franchises, in league with chambers of commerce and (I regret to say) cheerleaders in my profession, have advanced the concept that there is such a thing as a Good Sports Town—and, worse, that the way a community ascends to this holy estate is to abandon good sense and taste and dedicate itself to the support of all its teams. The most unfortunate word in sport is "support."

While the blathering about support is sports sophistry at its worst, it has convinced the well-meaning citizens of many cities that, along with anteing up property taxes, they're obliged to attend games played by transient professionals who suit up in the local colors. Many fans feel guilty if they don't put out good money to see a poor product, and owners have milked this guilt by threatening to move their franchises to other cities—as, for example, Bill Bidwill periodically thunders he will do with his Fraudinals—if gracelessness, ineptitude and defeat are not properly supported by the local ingrates.

The citizens in some places are so cowed by the fear that their city may be labeled as something other than a Good Sports Town that owners like the feckless Bidwill have been able to take metropolitan support-guilt up a notch. Now fans are not only expected to support bad teams with their corporeal presence, but, as taxpayers, they're also required to erect those palatine luxury suites—or, even better, whole new stadiums, to give the luxury suites something to go with.

Poor fans. As the football strike has revealed again, you have no easy recourse. Every time there's a sports strike, you vow you'll never watch another game. But you're back a week from Tuesday, scared to death some .240 hitter or some potbellied gizmo-manufacturer who bought your team for an ego injection will call your city a Bad Sports Town.

All right, out there, study the wise folk of St. Louis and learn a few things: First, there's no such thing as a Good Sports Town. There are only good sports teams and good sports owners, and it is their task to entertain you, not yours to support them. If you're really into support-guilt, go be panty hose.

As a sports fan, you have three equal choices: 1) go to the ballpark, cheer and be happy; 2) go to the ballpark, boo and be proud of yourself for your sagacity; 3) stay home and be guilt-free. Don't worry about your city being big league; the biggest league of them all is the United Nations, and it doesn't work worth a damn. Don't be big league. Like St. Louis, just be grown-up.