Yesterday, I wrote about how fans of the Washington Nationals and the Brooklyn Nets, in a macro sense, had a ways to go before they became a mature, fully developed fanbase. It's not that they're bad fans to any extent; it's just that as a new franchise, it takes time to build and evolve into a collective with history and pain and redemption and breakthrough and all the things that make fandom so wonderful and horrible. Some fanbases never make it, but the Nationals and Nets surely will; they have too much going for them not to. Nationals fans reacted far more strongly to the column than Nets fans, which sorta makes me think they're gonna get there faster.
But it all got me thinking: Where would we rank all MLB fanbases on that spectrum? Which fanbases are at the fully mature, loyal, devoted, reliable point in their lifecycle? Which ones have the most bandwagon-ers? Which ones are sleeping giants, waiting for a stretch of winning to bring them back to prominence? Which ones are lost causes?
So I thought I'd try to sort it a bit. A few ground rules/caveats:
1. This sorting is highly unscientific and subjective, and open to much discussion and many readjustments. I am not claiming this is exactly right; I'm doing the best I can.
2. Even lost cause fanbases still have considerable value. From this view, the "worst" fanbase is still light years better than the best ownership group.
3. Here's the most important one. Obviously, every fanbase has devoted and crazed fans who live and die with the team. Those people exist everywhere, and are among my favorite people in sports. Some have fewer than others, but they are there. If your fanbase doesn't reach the top levels here, it doesn't mean that you personally are a bad fan, or that there's something wrong with your city. It's just an evaluation of where the fanbase, as a collective, stands. Everyone's personal fandom is obviously just as important to them and relevant as everyone else's. And it's just my view anyway, and the biggest ground rule of all is that I'm far from right about everything.
I love the idea of doing this so much that I'm probably gonna do this later with all sports, and maybe even regularly update the list, based on your feedback. But for now, let's get down to it. (Note that the teams within each tier are listed in alphabetical order; I'm not going to get into micro-rankings -- my inbox can't handle it.)
Top tier, slam-dunk, loyalist fans who follow and support their team no matter what, and have done so consistently for years:
Boston Red Sox
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Yankees
St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants
Since we're including the Phillies here, the word "support" should probably be used somewhat loosely, but you get the point: These are the gold standard, the ones you can count on coming out for their team every year. These teams have the history, they have the gravitas, they have the Hall of Famers and they are in the middle of the baseball conversation every year. These are the Glengarry leads.
Historically important franchises with grand histories and solid fanbases that are still getting back on their feet, with the potential to reach the top tier with a run of success:
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
New York Mets
Texas and Detroit are awfully close to the top-tier right now, actually; the Rangers were third in average attendance last season (behind only Philadelphia and the Yankees), and Tigers fans are among the best in the game. Brewers fans come out to the ballpark in droves, helping somewhat offset a smaller television deal, and are as hungry for a championship as any team this side of the Cubs (and maybe the Tigers). Anaheim might seem like an odd fit here, but they're perpetually among the highest average attendance teams. Twins fans still head out to that gorgeous and freezing park even as the team collapses. And the Mets might have, by their very nature, the most resilient fans in sports.
Sleeping giants -- fanbases that have been down for so long but are waiting, desperate to stir again;
Kansas City Royals
San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays
Someday we're going to see a playoff game at PNC Park, and it's going to be fantastic. All five of these teams have struggled for quite a few years, but they've supported their teams in the past and have tons of history, joy and pain. When these teams get good again, we'll be reminded of just how powerful their fanbases are.
I'm pretty sure the 'Stros stand in their own category right now, because no franchise has ever quite done what management is doing here. If they can muddle through what are going to be some absolutely brutal seasons, there could be a reward at the end, but no one would blame them for mentally checking out for a while.
Disappointments, or "C'mon, guys, let's get it together":
Three contending teams that just can't seem to get the fanbases out. I don't mean to turn this into solely an attendance issue -- certainly longtime fans of these teams have gone through their ups and downs -- but these were three playoff teams last season, and they finished 15th, 16th and 27th in attendance. Oakland's stadium has always been an issue, and all Atlanta sports teams sort of have this problem. But hey, Cincinnati, what's going on with you guys? You might have the best team in baseball this year, you have as rich a history as any team in the sport … and you're currently 20th in average attendance, just two spots ahead of Tampa Bay. The Reds are trying to give you nice things here.
Western transient fanbases I can't put a finger on:
I've been to Coors Field and loved it -- what a nearly perfect city Denver is -- but there were about as many Cardinals fans there as Colorado fans. (To be fair, it was August and the Rockies were long out of the playoffs.) Meanwhile, I've been told stories of more Cubs fans than Arizona fans at D-Backs games, though having the stadium right downtown, right by the airport, makes a big difference. Still, I don't know as much about these fanbases as I should and will plead both slight ignorance and also beg for a bit of assistance.
Little brother syndrome:
Chicago White Sox
They'll never be the Cubs, and they're not going to try. They haven't quite broken free of the second-team-in-town problem like the Angels, but they're not mostly forgotten like the Athletics either. Maybe think of them as a smaller Mets? I dunno. Winning that title a few years ago made a big difference, but it was also worth noting that the historical breakthrough was muted, coming just a year after the Red Sox's title.
On the way up, with all the pieces in place:
Tampa Bay Rays
Yeah, this should probably just be called "Florida." The Marlins have been ruined by nightmarish ownership, and the Rays either don't have a natural fanbase or are in a part of town where they can't reach them. Maybe there's a way to get these teams turned around … but they've each had plenty of years to do it.