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July 25, 2002

Breaking Balls

Fan Building

by Derek Zumsteg

Last week in this space, I talked about how baseball teams should knock it off with the Obey-o-Tron and build their fan base with the kind of cheer clubs you see in soccer. Here's the cool part: it's already happening. I got e-mail from readers all week long.

In Oakland, I knew there were the drummers, but I didn't know the A's were spotting them tickets:

The A's have something pretty close to a "cheer club" right now. This group of about five college guys started coming to the games two years ago with drums and leading chants ("Let's go, Oakland!", "Let's go A's!", "Tejada!", "M-V-P!" and so on). The drummers would lead and then the scoreboard would follow. To encourage this behavior, the A's gave the guys tickets throughout the 2000 playoffs down in the BBQ Terrace section. Then, to further promote it, the A's made the drummers a key part of their TV advertising campaign in 2001 and, as payment, gave the guys season tickets for 2001 in the bleachers (where they usually sit).

You're definitely right about the impact they have. A "Let's go Oakland!" led by the drummers has such a bigger impact than a "Make Some Noise" or (God forbid) "Day-O." The drummers don't come every game any more (usually only weekends and big weekday games), but when they show up their presence is noted. Once again, the A's lead the way.

-- Mark Halling

Indeed, watching A's playoff games you could hear them (and the trumpeter). My lovely and talented wife kept turning to me and saying "That is so annoying." I just grinned.

On the other side of the country, in large-market, low-success Philadelphia, where the team has spent the last decade or so alienating their fans when not attacking their own players, something entirely different is going on:

I'm wondering if you've ever been to the Vet, where, a few years ago, some looneys started a fan club for Randy Wolf, wearing wolf masks, the "Wolf Pack." Eventually the team seized on this, honored the Wolf Pack before a game, and gave out free Wolf masks to all fans.

By that time, there were already fan clubs for every Phillies starter--you could go through the years: the Schill-O-Meter, Person's People, Ogea's Juice, the Daal House, the Adams Family, the Padilla Flotilla, the Byrd Cage.... I was at Brandon Duckworth's major-league debut, when there were at least a dozen Duck Ponds and Quack Packs in the upper deck. The last two games I've gone to (a Phils-Twins affair at the Vet, and a Phils-Mets matchup at Shea), Mesa's Faces were there, saluting my favorite Phillie, Jose himself.

These are spontaneous things that the Phillies highlight and encourage, which is one thing they do very well. (It's also about the only thing, but you take what you can get.)

Of course, this isn't something that has anything to do with Bud Selig, or even team owners. It's about the unheralded guys who work in the teams' marketing and PR offices, whose names few of us know. Which is good, because it doesn't have to rely on the commissioner to get done.

-- Chaim Bloom

I understand there are Giambi Zombies in Philly, too, which is one of the funniest things I've ever heard of occurring at a ballpark. Chaim's right; that this is the kind of good work that starts to get done with only a couple people in the front office, some encouragement, and then it can take off on its own.

Many people wrote to me with great stories of how rabid fandom turned them into lifelong fans of a college team, like Duke basketball or Texas A&M football or even Japanese baseball, to which I understand fans can bring all kinds of noisemakers into the stadiums, making it as loud as the annoying dog ("Popper") across the street that starts yapping irregularly at 7 a.m. every morning. I got a ton of great feedback from people who'd had some experience with football in the U.K., and were changed for it. I've read Fever Pitch; I know what's up.

I think the Jays, and likely many other teams around the league, should heed your advice and use the idle time within a game to their best advantage by trying to breed long-term fan interest, one tiny step at a time. Educate fans. Challenge them. Involve them. Make it interesting for them. The first challenge is to get the fan into the park. The next challenge is to get them to come back. The solution is not insulting them with cheap, repetitive sound bites for the sake of a fleeting moment of tepid hand-clapping. That doesn't build loyalty, it doesn't stimulate interest, it just alienates. Most importantly, it doesn't get them interested in the team or in the game. And if they're not interested, then why are they ever going to come back?

-- Darryl Rose

I don't know that Joe and Jane Casual Attendee are alienated by Obey-o-Tron-led clapping, but that sort of thing does certainly get more annoying the more you go to games.

Many people believe that fan-led cheering can't work, that baseball fans aren't (or can't) get themselves excited. There's an idea that football gets better cheering because it's the premier sport in other countries, people obsess about it, and over here baseball is not nearly as important.

This is backwards, though; football is so huge in the U.K., say, because there are tons of local teams fans grow up cheering, and towns are closely involved in the fortunes of the team. If baseball teams started taking cues from the A's and Phillies, we wouldn't see a nation of baseball fanatics in ten years. These things take time, and seeing the long term has never been a strength of Selig and his idiot band. But teams like the A's and Phillies are going to see the benefits of building their fan base now, and eventually, their success will be imitated.

Build the fans, build the game.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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Transaction Analysis: ... (07/24)
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Breaking Balls: Cheer ... (07/18)
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The Daily Prospectus: ... (07/26)

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