“This is a basketball crowd that has a lot of fun at games. They come expecting upsets, knowing that their team can play to their high expectations on their home floor. They’ve rewarded their fans with a lot of great games. I don’t think they expect a whole lot more from their team at times, but they do support them very well.”

-Phil Jackson

This isn’t just Phil Jackson’s criticism because I’ve heard it elsewhere and heard it for years. Most local writers would agree, plus they build on that premise: The Warriors have less incentive to win because fans don’t punish this team for losing.

Phil’s quote floated above an evening of stupefyingly great Warriors basketball, as the Dubs improbably crushed the Lakers. A national TV spotlight galvanized an oddly rabid East Bay crowd. “Beat LA” chants dented ear drums as though this was the playoffs, as though this game actually mattered. It didn’t, it doesn’t, GSW games stopped mattering back when winter was happening. But the arena is committed to honoring slivers of Dubs prominence like they’ve been dominant since fall. As an Oakland resident I’m a little bit proud, a little disgusted.

When the chant crescendo was peaking, my Twitter feed was swelling–because grizzled Warriors fans were lamenting the crowd’s bizarre enthusiasm. A vocal, intelligent, faction believes that this kind of crowd support perpetuates basketball mediocrity.

Obviously: It reminds me of the tensions within the Democratic party. Progressives want America’s current president to sign their policies into law (to “win”), but are divided on how to countenance a party leader when he either fails or ignores their wishes (“losing”).

If you’re in favor of passing gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, ending foreign wars, and funding expanded social programs, there’s only one game in town. But, Democratic politicians don’t seem particularly eager to fight on behalf of such positions, in part, because there’s only one game in town. Since the Dem base will always support Obama against Republican opponents, Barack doesn’t have much incentive for catering to that base.

As Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald put it in a recent piece, titled “The impotence of the loyal partisan voter:”

“Ask yourself this: if you were a Democratic Party official, wouldn’t you also ignore — and, when desirable, step on — the people who you know will support you no matter what you do to them?”

Greenwald favors an approach where progressives make their support contingent on Obama’s accomplishments. Glenn is like those basketball observers who think an unthinkingly loyal, loud, Warriors fan enables a losing product.

(Note: I’m fully aware that basketball is trivial and politics is important)

If Oracle attendees are supportive regardless of outcome, it’s possible GSW management would simply ignore winning. It’s possible they’d lazily eschew our wants, assured of an easy revenue stream. It’s good to be the only game in town.

And this is where my analogy falls apart. When the Democrats abide their base, there are consequences, risks. A law loved by progressive voters could offend independents. Also, moneyed lobbyists often rail against favored liberal reforms. Even if a law is popular, our legalized bribery system works against it. For a Democratic politician, “winning” is a fraught proposition.

For Warriors HQ, winning brings almost nothing but upside. We’ve already seen how fan interest ratchets up when Golden State actually makes the playoffs. Moreover, it’s not as though this current team is drawing great TV ratings. Oracle might be rocking, but a recent television survey puts the Dubs barely ahead of the San Jose Sharks–in a region that’s never seen an ice pond. There’s plenty of room for boosted revenue here–which is probably why Lacob bought the team. When ex-owner Cohan lost continuously, I think it spoke more to his incompetence and insanity than to unique fan-imposed incentives. Ask yourself: Would Cohan have started winning if Oracle went empty?

I’m just not sure increased local fan apathy would accomplish anything more than it accomplishes in Charlotte or Minnesota. Owners generally want to win, Donald Sterling excluded. Fans generally shell out more bucks to winning teams, Bay Area included. And while it might be ridiculous to chant “M-V-P!” when Monta’s shooting free throws, it’s dumber than it is impactful.

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7 Responses

  1. RipCityBaby

    I don’t subscribe to the cynical theory that the fans are aiding and abetting mediocrity by showing up and cheering for their team. There are enough cynical fans out there who only jump on the bandwaggon of winning. Most of us go to games to enjoy the show and the unpredictability of sports, not just to see wins. Absolutely winning is more fun than losing, but in my mind, you are not a real fan if you don’t care enough to cheer for the team when the chips are down (which happens to all teams at some point).

    Golden State, like 70% of the rest of the NBA is a small market team. The chances of them winning another championship is very low even if they do start meeting with more success (i.e. become a playoff team) because no A list free agents want to go there and any stars they produce will move elsewhere as soon as they become a free agent. When you are a fan of a team like this (Portland, Golden State, Phoenix, Denver, Minny, Sacto, Utah, New Orleans, OKC, Memphis, someday again soon San Antonio, and probably even Houston … and that is just the Western Conference) you have to just enjoy the moment, hope you can be entertained by winning some big games and big moments, hope the team continues to build and maximizes its potential, and quite honestly if you are in it only for the glory of winning championships you are cheering for the wrong team (the Laker, Bulls, Heat and Celtics bandwagons are more than big enough to for you to jump onto).

  2. Jimbo

    There is a case study for this across the bay. You can’t deny that 49ers fans loudly booing in unison at the mediocre performance of a certain QB on national TV affected coaching and ownership decisions going forward. When the fan voice shows it’s fed up, ownership and front offices that don’t listen end up losing too. Even in Oakland, there is a limit to how much losing we can tolerate.

  3. The J

    Winning means the playoffs. The playoffs mean more games, and more money. No team does not want that. Not to mention that true success brings in more fans. And not just locally. Teams like the Mavs, Spurs, Magic etc. (not to mention the obvious Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, etc.)have fans all around who support them because they like good teams. Again, more money. So there really is no reason for ownership to not want to win.

    In a non-salary cap sport, you can see teams holding back. The kind of “why spend more money on the team, when the fans are at the game” type mentality. But in this sport the financial playing field is somewhat even, so it’s not as much about buying a winner (ie, Yankees/Red Sox) as it is having smart management of that money. The exception being the Luxury Tax. At some point you will have to ask this team to really go for it and pay into the tax to bring in a winner. But I don’t think this team is ready for that push just yet (maybe start with the playoffs first) and that option might be gone in the new CBA anyways.

  4. Daniel

    I see where you’re going with this, and while the premise is there, I’d have to think there would be a ripple effect that the ownership would still be interested in — you mentioned TV ratings, for one, which also would affect merchandise sales and affect advertising, for instance.

    I’m assuming any smart businesspersons would be interested in bringing in as much as he could, and those things are affected by the losing.

  5. Twizz

    The biggest difference is that Obama is going to win in 2012. Every Warriors season ends the same way. “Let’s take this good momentum into next year!” I’ve been waiting for a long time now… Hopefully we’ll finally get a repeat of ’07 sometime in the relatively near future.

    • Mizzle


      You missed the point of the article. Obama getting elected in 2012 wouldn’t be the equivalent of the Warriors winning, it would the be equivalent of them staying on the court. Winning, on the political side, would be having progressive policies enacted. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be that kind of party.