Don’t Treat New Fans With Disdain

A few years ago, I tackled this subject using the exact same comparison I’m going to use here. If this seems like a re-run, it’s not. It’s just that recent events have reignited this rant within. I promise I haven’t even gone back to see what I wrote. This is all coming from the heart now – not a few years ago. So if you remember the last one and see similarities, forgive me. It’s not intentional. There is a racing component to all this so stick with me.

I have found over the years that while most fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series are also fans of other sports, there is a large percentage of IndyCar fans that don’t follow any of the “stick & ball” sports at all. They are race fans through and through, and that’s fine.

I enjoy sports. While I go crazy for IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 in particular, I am still a big football fan – both college and the NFL. On fall Saturdays, I’m focused on the Tennessee Vols. On Sundays, my focus shifts to the Titans. Fortunately, I no longer have to choose between the Titans and IndyCar. With the IndyCar finale on the west coast at Sonoma, that race starts about an hour after the Titans game is over.

I used to be a big baseball fan, but my interest waned considerably after they lost the World Series to a strike. Now I’m no more than a very casual baseball fan. I start paying attention to college basketball in January and usually catch most of the NCAA Tournament, but I admittedly pay a lot more attention when Tennessee is in it. I do not follow the NBA at all and didn’t even watch a single minute of The Finals that ended this week.

Prior to this century, I never gave hockey a thought. I grew up in the south in the sixties. There were no hockey teams in the south and very few in the US in the sixties. We had four channels growing up – local affiliates for ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. That was it. There was no ESPN, no cable and certainly no internet. I knew hockey existed, but I never even saw it on television until ESPN hit the airwaves in 1979. The late Tom Mees showing NHL highlights on SportsCenter was my first introduction to the game. I’ll admit, I wasn’t interested. They were taking up valuable airtime talking hockey when they could’ve been talking football.

Fast forward to 2002. I had just moved to Nashville the previous year. My son was thirteen at the time and had a curious fascination with hockey that I had no idea where it came from. The NHL’s Nashville Predators had started play as an expansion franchise just a few years earlier. My son wanted to go see them play the Detroit Red Wings. Tickets were cheap and easy to come by, so I bought a pair and took him. Little did I know until we got there that he was cheering for the Red Wings.

I knew nothing of what I was watching. All I knew was that the puck needed to go into the other team’s net. There were two blue lines, but I had no idea what they were for. Nor did I know what all those big circles meant. While I understood strategy and game-planning for football games, hockey looked like nothing but haphazard reacting at all times. Between my lack of understanding and my son’s cheering for the wrong team, I figured this was my first and last hockey game. I was wrong.

Two years later, my son announced he wanted to play high school hockey. Being a single dad at the time, this meant a big time commitment on my part. With limited ice in Nashville, practices and games had to be juggled between the teams. Practices might start before I got off work, meaning I had to take time off; or at 5:00 am on a Saturday morning. Games might not get started until 11:00 on a Friday night. The schedule was insane, not to mention the cost of equipment and yearly fees.

But the most grueling part of it all was dealing with my fellow hockey parents. When my son decided he wanted to play at age fifteen, he had never played hockey in his life. Most of the kids on his team started playing before the age of five and many had played travel hockey for a few seasons. They all had known each other for years. My son was the most inexperienced player on the team and it showed. My ignorance of the game showed as well.

But instead of welcoming a potential new fan of the sport that was still new in Nashville, the parents shunned me. They made it clear that they had disdain for any Nashville resident that was just becoming interested in hockey simply because Nashville now had a hockey team. I was stunned that a niche sport like hockey that had not caught on in Nashville would have fans that would shun anyone. My thought was no wonder nobody here likes this sport with such an inbred mindset among its fanbase.

At the time, the Predators were struggling for fans. The owner at the time claimed he was losing millions and even struck a deal to sell the team and have them moved to Hamilton, Ontario. It wasn’t until a new ownership group emerged at the last minute that the sale and the move were averted.

As many of you now know – the Predators have caught on in Nashville. They consistently make the playoffs and this year all forty-one home games were sold out. That’s a far cry from that Red Wings game when I bought great tickets for a cheap price on the day of the game. And in case you don’t keep up with hockey, the Predators made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final this season, bowing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games this past Sunday night.

Since that Red Wings game in 2002, Susan and I try to go to a few games each season. We even got a chance to take part in this year’s magical playoff run when we attended Game Four in Round Two against the St. Louis Blues. I still don’t fully grasp the strategy or the rules, but I know a lot more than I did fifteen years ago.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the attitude amongst Predator fans. For some reason, they still have disdain for those that are what they consider latecomers to their sport. They especially despised the “bandwagon” Predator fans that suddenly emerged as the Predators went deeper into the playoffs. They all took to Facebook to let everyone know that if you weren’t an original season-ticket holder from their inaugural year in 1998, you really aren’t accepted as a true fan. While NBC Sports showed a rabid fan base that was spilling out onto Broadway for each home playoff game, the hardcore fans were gritting their teeth in anger as these new fans were infringing on their territory.

My first thought was, maybe they would prefer that only a handful of the die-hards showed up for the playoff games. How would that have looked on national television?

This whole rant ties up with a comparison to IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. While we all like to point to the year of our first race (mine was the 1965 Indianapolis 500), I think IndyCar fans are wise enough to realize that our sport needs as many new fans as we can get. If people should start following our sport, my hope is that they should be welcomed and appreciated – not told that their opinion doesn’t matter because they’ve only followed this sport for two years, while many of us have followed it for decades.

My wife, Susan, will tell you that I have many faults. But one positive thing she has always said about me is how patient I am with new fans. She said her ex-husband would never take the time to explain football to her whenever she would ask him a question. She was amazed that when she asked me anything, I would calmly explain it where she could understand it.

It was the same with racing. She knew nothing of racing before we reconnected long after college. Because I’ve taken the time and helped her to not only understand the strategy and history of racing, but also the passion I feel for the sport – she has come to understand and appreciate it herself.

Hockey fans seem to hate the idea that their sport has gone mainstream. I hate to tell them, but it’s the only way their sport will ever grow from a niche sport. Auto racing is considered by some to be a niche sport and certainly IndyCar would be considered that as well. That’s why we currently accept a .35 rating at Texas last Saturday night. That’s not bad considering where IndyCar has come from, but to sustain and grow the sport it needs to be much higher.

Almost every year, including this year – we usually have a young IndyCar neophyte sitting in one of my four seats at the Indianapolis 500. Some like it and want to come back, others pass when given the chance the next year. But I always encourage them to ask questions and do my best to make them feel welcome to this sport. Most IndyCar fans I know and those that comment here seem to take the same approach. Does that mean there aren’t some that are territorial and try to intimidate new fans? Probably not.

IndyCar fans can disagree on a lot of topics – sometimes way too often. But I think we can all agree that the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to grow new fans in order to sustain itself over the long haul. So if you do come across a new IndyCar fan either online or in person, resist the urge to pull rank on them and show them that you are a bigger fan than they are simply because you’ve got thirty years invested in this sport. Instead, compliment them on what they do know and encourage them to learn even more about the sport.

Most importantly, make them feel welcome and embrace them. Because without them, this sport could eventually die away as we older fans eventually die off as well.

George Phillips

Please Note:  Being a father of two grown children (ages 27 & 29), I plan to rest and relax over the upcoming Father’s Day weekend. Therefore, there will be no post here on Monday June 19. I will return here on Wednesday June 21. Here’s hoping all of the fathers out there have a relaxing weekend, as well. – GP

11 Responses to “Don’t Treat New Fans With Disdain”

  1. Bob Butler Says:

    I hate hockey. Why? Because in the mid 70s on Saturday afternoons in late May ABC would always cut away from Indy qualifying to show some dumb hockey game. I’ve never gotten over it.

  2. I am very much on the side of new fans unless they become arrogant and act like they know more than anyone else. I enjoy the new Cub fans, but when you start acting like a big shot and can’t tell me who Bill Hands, Donnie Kessinger or Rob Dernier is then I’ll call you out.

  3. Happy father’s day to you enjoy the weekend. Next week would like your thoughts on article in Tennessean about Indycar race around Nissan stadium. Someone who bought tickets to failed Boston race and only got nice vacation trip don’t want a failure in Nashville.

  4. Lynn LaRue Says:

    As a female, I am constantly amazed at the people who ask where my husband is when my daughter and I attend a race. This acceptance view should include fans who don’t appear traditional or expected.

    • I agree with you, Lynn. There are lots of women race fans who don’t necessarily have a male escort to races or to other sports for that matter.

      George, don’t know what to say about hockey fans in Nashville. People just sometimes stink. My father loved hockey and we used to watch NBC starting in January on Sundays each winter for our fill of hockey. My dad came to Southern California before he was 5. I think some people thought we might be Canadian transplants, but Boston was my team.

      Happy Father’s Day to all you racing dads.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I’ve typically found Indycar fans (and racing fans in general) to be very accommodating to newcomers to sport. However, I have encountered more fans than I would like to admit who seek to build their favorite types of racing up by belittling other types. This is surely bizarre to folks new to racing in general, and it is downright irritating for fans of other types of racing who are new to the type being built up. This attitude is not unique to Indycar fans, of course, and it does nothing positive for the sport wherever it appears.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    Having grown up on a Wisconsin lake I leaned to play hockey at an early age and now at the age of 76 I still play a little pond hockey. So I would like to congratulate the Nashville Predators on making the Stanley Cup finals. The Predators have a big following here in the Milwaukee area because our Milwaukee hockey team is a farm team of the Predators. When I was younger, the idea of a Stanley Cup finalist being from a non-traditional, non-Canadian market would have been viewed as some kind of alternative fact about as likely to happen as a hockey team having a duck for a mascot.

    Ok, back to racing stuff. I went up to Elkhart Lake for the open test. It was quite wonderful as you might imagine to hear and see the bright shiny cars roaring through the forest and meadows of Road America. The Road to Indy drivers who were testing acquitted themselves well IMHO. The crew members and haulers who pack up stuff also acquitted themselves well as the tornado warning siren went off at 5 PM. Lots of rain and strong winds came, but thankfully no tornado. Hopefully George and Susan and all the other RA fans will enjoy some Wisconsin sunshine next weekend with a cool breeze off the lake.

    I agree with Billy that IndyCar fans in general are very accommodating to newcomers to the sport. It remains curious to me, however, that within that there still remains the oval vs road course debate that can be divisive and off-putting to new fans. The first motor car race occurred when the second car was built. It was much later when the oval fans began to view the twisty fans with disdain. IMHO it is time to put that argument to rest in the interest of acquiring and keeping new fans. Can we not simply enjoy the type we prefer without running down the other?

  7. S0CSeven Says:

    We from The Great White North believe we are entirely accomodating to newcomers to hockey … immigration being what it is. But NHL in Vegas? Yeah, I can see the very few who know what’s going on being irritated by the new unwashed hordes who don’t care to learn the rules and just want to see a fight.

    Much like new Indycar race fans who,just want to see a major crash.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      For me, a “major crash” is a defenseman getting slammed to the boards, but I try to keep my stick on the ice.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    Hopefully the vintage invitational at IMS this weekend will entertain old and new fans alike. It is one of my favorite events at IMS.

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