Skip to main content
Original Issue

Losing Power

Are fans of bad teams masochists, or are they investing for an emotional windfall when victory finally comes?



FOR REASONS never quite articulated to his father's satisfaction, my son, Ben, gravitated to the Mets at an early age. This has afforded him membership in a tribe that provides dubious perks. A justification for wearing the otherwise indefensible combo of orange and blue. A spike of adrenaline when a large plastic apple emerges from a top hat behind centerfield. Reason to stay up late on summer nights. An intimate relationship with failure.

Loyalty to the Mets lays bare the great undercarriage of sports, a blight more widespread than PEDs, Thunderstix or opt-out clauses. We speak, of course, of losing. Much as we tend to ignore this, sports is a zero-sum game. Every time one baseball team records the final out—the players converging near the mound to slap palms and butts—there is another team marching forlornly to the clubhouse, spikes clacking almost mournfully on the concrete. For every fighter whose fatigued arm is raised triumphantly by the referee, there is another fighter looking down at the ground. (Or worse, up at the arena lighting fixtures.)

Scandinavian proverb: The winner takes it all. We don't hoist the losers on our shoulders or fete them with parades or enrich them with signature brands of shoes. But they not only exist, they exist in equal measure to the winners. When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "I am defeated all the time; yet to victory, I am born," at least he realized the inevitable math. If there weren't losers, it wouldn't be competition.

Losing, like winning, takes on its own set of properties. In the case of the Mets, there's a numbing predictability both in the micro and the macro. The season begins with promise and hope in spring training only to be weighed down like Isaac Newton's apple—or that all-too-inactive one that celebrates homers at Citi Field. By late summer, ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER here might as well adorn the threshold of Citi.

Writ small, these same rhythms play out 100 or so times a year. Games begin with anticipation and possibility. There's often an early rally that—stoked by a T-shirt giveaway, the offerings on the Kiss-Cam and the aforementioned Thunderstix—generates excitement. Then, the inevitable letdown. As with seeing your favorite band in concert, you may not know the precise order, but you come quickly to memorize the set list: mental lapse in the field, squandered opportunity at the plate, shaky relief pitching. Unlike the Wall Street disclaimer, in this case past performance is indicative of future results.

But here is something else that's predictable and worth bearing in mind in these days after the NBA and NHL finals and amid the World Cup: Fans will be drawn to this team and others like it. Maybe not as many fans as there'd be if the team were contending, but there will be thousands of return customers, my son among them.

It's not as if there aren't alternatives. Equidistant from our Manhattan apartment there is an American League franchise that wins reliably and regards sub-.500 seasons much the way English Premier League teams regard relegation. But the Mets' relentless losing hasn't diminished Ben's loyalty. "I don't know," he says, shrugging. "It makes it more fun when they win."

Here, he may have a point. Social psychology has given us the concept of "effort justification," the notion that when people make sacrifices to pursue a goal, the effort is often rationalized by elevating the attractiveness of the goal. In other words people sometimes come to love what they suffer to achieve. Researchers studying fraternity and sorority hazing, for instance, found that the more brutal the hazing, the more loyalty members show.

Beyond that, there can be something ennobling about losing. As a prominent athlete once put it, "When you win, you don't examine it very much, except to congratulate yourself. You easily, and wrongly, assume it has something to do with your rare qualities as a person. Losing, on the other hand, really does say something about who you are.... If you're willing to examine failure, and to look not just at your outward physical performance, but your internal workings, too, losing can be valuable."

He was talking about athletes, but it pertains to fans as well. And that it was Lance Armstrong who said this doesn't make it less so.


A New Bracket


Extra Mustard



Gary Player


Faces in the Crowd


Dan Patrick

John Stockton


The Case for

Francis Tiafoe




Game Score—which measures the totality of a pitcher's performance— for Clayton Kershaw's June 18 no-hitter against the Rockies. Only Kerry Wood's 105 for a 20-K game in 1998 ranks higher for a nine-inning game in the last 100 years.


The number of no-hitters in which the only base runner reached on an error. The only Rockie that Kershaw failed to retire reached on a throwing miscue by shortstop Hanley Ramirez.


Days between no-hitters for the Dodgers, the only team to throw one this season. Righthander Josh Beckett no-hit the Phillies on May 25.


Estimated number of TV viewers in the L.A. area for Kershaw's gem, roughly 6,000 more than the attendance at Dodger Stadium. Because of a dispute between cable TV carriers, local Dodgers broadcasts reach less than 40% of L.A. homes.


No-hitters called by Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, 7% of all no-nos in baseball history. His first came in 1950, when the Braves' Vern Bickford no-hit the Brooklyn Dodgers in Boston.