When the Super Bowl ended, so did the sports calendar that was 2012. All the champions that will go down in the history books as winning in ’12 are complete. That means it’s time for an evaluation of the year that was. There a lot of ways to open a window into American culture, but my favorite way is to assess which cities & fan bases had the best year. Therefore, TheSportsNotebook’s Annual Fan Market Report will walk through each major market, a lot of the minor ones and assess how the fan base is feeling.
Normally I’d first go through the markets and then pick an overall champion, but in this case I’m going to spare the drama and get right to the obvious. The city of San Francisco owned 2012. They won the World Series with the Giants, and came within one play of winning the Super Bowl with the 49ers. That parlay has only been pulled off four other times in history. That San Francisco came within one play of doing it is enough to put them atop the 2012 Fan Market Report.
But there’s still more San Francisco did, and here’s a good opportunity to dig into some of the nuance that makes this project fun. If you’re a part of the Bay Area that pulls for Stanford sports, you tacked on a Rose Bowl win. Of course we can’t give Cal fans the same kind of credit, so the Stanford alum (or subway alum) within San Francisco now higher up on the list. I’m also going to tie in the city of San Francisco to the northern California hockey option, the San Jose Sharks, who made the playoffs. And while we can’t officially give credit to the Sharks’ fast start to this season, or the strong play of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA because those will be a part of the 2013 run, it’s at least something else for Frisco fans to look forward to.
So we’ll begin by congratulating all sports fans who pull for San Francisco teams generally, with a special emphasis on those tied to the Stanford sports community. You were #1 in 2012. Now let’s run through the rest of America. We’ll go by region and give some consolation prizes to each part of the country.
Let me briefly explain that I split New York into halves—sorry, but I’m not giving fan bases a chance to double up in a sport. The New York market will have the Aristocracy on the one side—the Yankees, Giants and Rangers, and the Populist Rebels on the other, who buck the establishment and pull for the Jets, Mets and Islanders. I realize in practice there’s probably a lot of New Yorkers who mix and match. But frankly, there’s a lot of fans that mix and match cities to some extent (myself included), so I have to simplify this somehow. In the NBA, 2012 is the last year I can just assign the Knicks to everyone—for 2013, we’ll have to figure out how Brooklyn fits into the mix. In the same light, Chicago splits to the North Side & South Side—while the Windy City shares the Bulls, Blackhawks and Bears, baseball creates the need for a divide.
New York Aristocracy: Look, you can’t call it a bad year—the Yankees and Rangers each got #1 seeds in their respective postseasons. The Knicks gave everyone the Lin-Sanity craze. But the Yanks & Rangers each ended one round short of the World Series & Cup Finals respectively. The Knicks flamed out early, and the Giants were a huge disappointment in missing the playoffs entirely. One little wrinkle here might come in college football. When I lived on the East Coast, colleagues with ties to New York told me Notre Dame football was the favored team of the Big Apple, which gives NYC a run to the BCS National Championship Game. Regardless, in a city that thrives on reveling in their superiority, there were no championships to be had and a massive NFL disappointment. I wouldn’t call it a bad year, but I suspect the locals might.
New York’s Populist Rebels: The rebellion here ended the same way the old rebellions of Irish peasants against the British Crown ended—in disaster. The Jets, Mets and Islanders were all lousy. There’s some hope in that the Mets did a credible job with their rebuilding process. But the Jets’ season-long soap opera was a national joke. The only good news this fan base had was the stuff they shared with their aristocratic friends—the brief run of Jeremy Lin with the Knicks and for some, a little Notre Dame football. We might further add that St. John’s basketball missed the NCAA Tournament and its best player, Moe Harkless, declared early for the NBA draft.
Boston: The ten years of 2001-2011 has gotten the city accustomed to winning championships, and by that standard 2012 was lacking. And the city’s first love, the Red Sox, went toe-to-toe with the Jets for the honor of best reality TV soap opera. But beyond that, the Bruins had a good year before losing a tough playoff series. The Celtics made a run to the seventh game of the conference finals, and the Patriots made the AFC Championship Game. There’s some gnawing disappointment—the Bruins and Patriots were eliminated at home, while the Celtics missed a Game 6 chance in the Garden to close an upset of the Heat, but there’s a lot more good than bad here in Beantown.
Washington: After a long pro sports drought, the nation’s capital finally got their thirst at least quenched a little bit. The Redskins, who have first claim on the heart of D.C. won the NFC East in stunning fashion. The Nationals won the NL East and made the playoffs for the first time since relocating from Montreal in 2004. The Capitals moved past their reputation as playoff chokers with a clutch series win over Boston. Only the Wizards continued to be an embarrassment. All of this marks 2012 a good year, but there were some downers. Washington ended up as the heart of arguments over the merits of playing or not playing an injured player. The Nats shut down Stephen Strasburg—probably needlessly and lost a heartbreaking playoff series to the Cardinals. The Redskins went the other way, played Robert Griffin III when he was clearly hurt and saw him tear an ACL in the playoffs.
Philadelphia: It wasn’t all bad for the City of Brotherly Love, with the 76ers and Flyers each winning a playoff series. But that’s not much consolation when you consider the Phillies and Eagles were arguably the biggest disappointments in their respective sports and the Sixers only advanced in the playoffs because Chicago’s Derrick Rose blew out his knee in the first round. Then let’s add in that none of the city’s five college basketball teams did anything, and the favored college football team here is Penn State. Enough said on that point.
These five markets, covering four cities would usually define sports on the East Coast. None had a truly outstanding year though—The New York Aristocrats and Boston were solid B-grade type of performances. Washington was there too, but lost points because of their health care issues. Philadelphia and the New York Populist Rebellion had big problems. It leaves the door open for someone else to rule the East Coast.
And that brings us to our first interruption in the run of Four-Sport Cities. That’s to pay tribute to Baltimore. Charm City spent its summer and fall cheering on the Orioles, one of the big surprise stories in all of sports, who ended up making the playoffs, ending the Texas Rangers’ reign atop the American League and pushing the Yankees to a decisive fifth game. Then Baltimore ended the sports year by celebrating a Super Bowl title. On the college level, the favored team in Maryland secured its future by going to the Big Ten. You can argue that the fact Baltimore has only two teams insulates them from some of the disappointment endured by other markets. That’ s fair enough—but the fact that with these two teams they still won a championship in one sport and made the final eight in the other, is enough to crown Baltimore as King of the East Coast in 2012.
Chicago South Side: It was this-close to being a great year for the Southsiders. The Bulls were the #1 seed in the playoffs and might have gone the distance had Rose not blown out his knee. The Bears were rolling at 7-1 and talking Super Bowl, before another late-season fade cost them the playoffs and Lovie Smith his job. The Blackhawks were one of the most talented teams in hockey, but the lack of goaltending knocked them out in the first round. And the White Sox seemed to have the AL Central under control in mid-September, but the Tigers rallied, took the division and went on to the World Series. There are also a lot of Notre Dame football fans in the Windy City, which offered the same phenomena of a fun season and a tough ending.
So you can’t complain too much—you got to watch a contender in every sport, but the Southsiders can’t be blamed for feeling a little letdown by the way everything shook out. As to their North Side brethren, they may as well stick to watching the Cubs’ farm system for a while as GM Theo Epstein rebuilds from within.
Minneapolis: This has been a pretty tortured market over the years and 2012 was no exception for most of the way. The Timberwolves seemed to have something going until Ricky Rubio blew out his knee and Kevin Love started whining about his contract. The Twins stayed in rebuilding mode and the Wild never got anything going. Then the Wild got aggressive in free agency and gave the team hope for the future. And after that the Vikings shocked the NFL, by going 10-6, making the playoffs and watching Adrian Peterson run his way to the MVP award. The latter was a big lift, and we can also mix in that the Golden Gopher football program made a bowl game. On balance it was far from a good year, but it’s safe to say the Twin Cities have seen worse.
Detroit: Jim Leyland’s Tigers gave Motown a lot to cheer about as they caught the White Sox for the AL Central title, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown and then watched Justin Verlander pitch them to the American League pennant. Meanwhile, the Red Wings produced another good team and were a genuine contender for the Cup. But there was disappointment mixed in—the Tigers’ regular season was fairly pedestrian with 86 wins and it took a mediocre AL Central to give them a chance for October redemption. The Red Wings lost in the first round of the playoffs. If these two teams were all there was, you could still say it was a good year, but the Pistons continued to languish and the Lions challenged the Eagles for the honor of biggest NFL disappointment. That moves Detroit to the negative side of the ledger, and though Michigan football continued to show it’s on the way back, it will take at least a Big Ten title for the Wolverines to cover up disappointments elsewhere. In the Michigan State minority of the fan base, the same goes for basketball—they were good, but not vintage Tom Izzo.
I’m going to sneak across the U.S.-Canada border here and across the river from Detroit and into Toronto. Our one Canadian entry on this list has MLB, NHL and NBA teams and also hosts the Buffalo Bills for one regular season game per year. There was not a single good year to be found. If nothing else, maybe the Blue Jays’ big offseason splash mean better days on the diamond are ahead.
Milwaukee: The market where I live (though only root for in college sports with Wisconsin) had a year with more good than bad. The Packers won 11 games and were in the Super Bowl conversation all year. The Brewers, after a mostly disappointing year, put on a late charge at the playoffs that came up just short. Wisconsin football made the Rose Bowl and the basketball team for UW made the Sweet 16. On the Marquette side of the ledger, the Golden Eagles also made the Sweet 16. The disappointments would be this—the Rose Bowl bid has a huge asterisk, since Wisconsin only got play for the Big Ten title because of probations to Ohio State and Penn State. The Brewers have seen Ryan Braun show up in the midst of PED allegations, the most recent ones which make it pretty tough to believe him. And the Packers ended up as the biggest victims of the whole replacement refs fiasco, with the pseudo-loss in Seattle costing them a first-round bye. Obviously that’s not their fault—just the opposite—but it leaves a little bit of a dark cloud. This is another market with more good than bad, but probably not enough to be the regional champ.
St. Louis: Baseball rules the roost here. Do you give the Cardinals props for an epic rally to beat Washington in the playoffs and get to within one win of the World Series? Or do you remember that they blew a home game to clinch the NL pennant and then lost two more in San Francisco? On the hockey side, do you remember that the Blues had a very good year, Ken Hitchcock got Coach of the Year and they won a playoff series? Or do you remember their foldup against Los Angeles in the second round? In football, do you see a Rams team that made some tremendous strides, or one that still finished sub-.500? As readers have probably detected, I’m a cup-half full observer here, so I see a decent year. But it’s similar to Milwaukee—with the Cardinals being like the Packers. Good, but not quite up there with those dastardly SouthSiders in the Windy City.
Kansas City: The Royals were a disappointment. The Chiefs were, quite literally a tragedy, after the awful events with Jovan Belcher and his murder-suicide towards the end of the year. Like the city of St. Louis, we assign Missouri college sports here, and the Tigers suffered a big upset loss in the NCAA Tournament, while the football team got kicked around in its first year in the SEC. Nothing to cheer for in Kansas City. Go indulge in some good barbecued ribs instead.
Indianapolis: Both of the city’s pro sports franchises had good years, with the Colts capturing the hearts of America in making the playoffs for Chuck Pagano, while the Pacers made the second round and had the Heat’s back to the wall in the second round. From my days going to college in this state, I know a lot of people split loyalties between Indiana basketball and Notre Dame football, and such creative fandom (or bandwagon jumping as it were) saw a Sweet 16 and BCS National Championship Game run. It’s tough to rank this market against Chicago, because baseball fans split between either of the Windy City teams or the Reds. So how about this—if you package the NBA & NHL teams with the Reds, Notre Dame football and Indiana basketball, you were the best in the Midwest. But I can’t formally acknowledge a split in college loyalties, so the Chicago Southside remains atop the regional list.
THE RUSTBELT RUN
You can argue that Cincinnati belongs in the Midwest, Pittsburgh in the East and Cleveland in the dumpster. But in the spirit of one my favorite all-time vacations in 2003, “The Rustbelt Run” where my brother and a friend went to games at Great American Ballpark, Jacobs Field and PNC Park in succession, mixing in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame and a football game at West Virginia, I’m going to tie Cincy, Cleveland and Pittsburgh together in their little mini-section of the country.
Cleveland: Indians…Browns…Cavaliers…I think that sums it up. Oh, and you want to give them the Columbus Blue Jackets for hockey? It just got worse. Even the enjoyment of Ohio State football and the undefeated season was mitigated by probation costing them a shot at the Big Ten and national titles. Cleveland remains a cursed city—although Terry Francona, who has some experience reversing jinxed environments is now managing the Indians.
Cincinnati: A nice year for the Queen City, as the Reds and Bengals each made the playoffs and the college Bearcats were good in both sports. Similar to Baltimore in the East Coast, they don’t have as much opportunity for disappointment—unless we assign them Columbus in the NHL, in which case they get more than their share. A market like this realistically needs a championship to compete for regional or national honors, but if you were a Cincy sports fan there was a lot to enjoy in 2012.
Pittsburgh: Normally Pittsburgh can ride the Steelers to at least be the best sports town in the Rustbelt and combine with the Penguins to pick a fight with the big boys on the East Coast. Not this time. The Steelers fade and miss the playoffs. The Penguins blow a first-round series to Philadelphia. The Pirates collapse in September and continue to search for their first winning season since 1992. And if you’re looking to Pitt for a college respite, forget it. The basketball program did some rebuilding, and while the football team made a bowl game, it was a mediocre year where even the one high point—a near-upset at Notre Dame, is remembered more for a shanked field goal that should have won it.
I’m going to mix in my acknowledgement of the suffering of the people of Buffalo here, as the Bills and Sabres had bad years. At least Syracuse basketball gave them something to cheer, although even the Orange had to suspend Fab Melo and it probably cost them at least a Final Four berth.
We’ve covered one part of the East Coast. Now let’s take I-95 south of Washington D.C. and pick up the southeast part of the United States.
Miami: We’re starting here, because it’s the one pure four-sport city in this part of the country. Miami cheered on an NBA champion with the Heat—or at least we assume their fans paid enough attention to cheer them on. The Florida Panthers won their division in the NHL, before losing to New Jersey in a riveting seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs. But the negatives were very bad—the Marlins were an absolute train wreck, challenging the Phillies as an on-field disappointment and the Red Sox as an ongoing soap opera. The Dolphins blew a Top 10 draft pick on Ryan Tannehill and then again finished out of the playoffs. On the college front, Miami football would have won its division, but self-imposed probation kept them out of the ACC Championship Game—and as a footnote, the division wasn’t that good to begin with. And the basketball team teased with its talent, but never delivered with its performance..
But a championship covers a lot of ills and LeBron and his teammates gave this city a lot. And if you want peek ahead, the current Miami college basketball team seems to have put it all together. Could the Heat & Hurricanes give the city of Miami a big basketball parlay in March & June?
Atlanta: They’ve lost their NHL team to Winnipeg although I question how many people care, and given the performance of the hockey franchise, it doesn’t matter much. Elsewhere, it was a classic close-but-no-cigar year for Atlanta. The Braves make the playoffs and lose the wild-card game to the Cardinals thanks in part to an atrocious infield fly call that killed a late rally. The Falcons make the NFC Championship Game and are driving for the Super Bowl, but are stopped on downs in the red zone. The Hawks have talent and homecourt advantage, but lose to the Celtics because they blow a home game when Rajon Rondo is suspended. And the Georgia football team might have won the national title if not for some horrid clock management at the end of the SEC Championship Game with Alabama.
Atlanta had more broad-based success than Miami did, and by that standard, I would put them atop the Southeast part of the conversation. But you can make a pretty good argument that the Heat’s NBA title should put Miami over the top. It’s all a question of personal preference here, and while I rate a championship as a prerequisite for national honors, I’m less picky on the regional front. Atlanta is the King of the South for me.
Before we close out the Southeast, let’s acknowledge these other markets…
Tampa Bay: They’ve got one of the best scorers in the NHL in Steven Stamkos, the Cy Young winner in David Price and a great talent in Evan Longoria. But the Rays were below expectations in missing the playoffs, the Lightning fell off drastically and the Buccaneers were more noteworthy in attacking opposing quarterbacks on kneel-down plays than actually winning football games. On the NBA front, you can credibly place the Orlando Magic in combination with this market, and that was a season-long Dwight Howard drama followed by a quick playoff exit and subsequent blowing up of the roster. All I can really offer the good people of Tampa Bay is big years from Florida football and basketball, although here they lost both the Sugar Bowl and an NCAA regional final to Louisville.
Charlotte: Welcome to Tobacco Road’s version of Cleveland. Cam Newton’s Panthers were a major disappointment, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs in hockey. And after historic ineptitude in basketball, the Bobcats didn’t even get the #1 pick in the NBA draft. And if you’re a Duke fan, let’s tack a loss to Lehigh into the mix. The most we have here is North Carolina basketball’s run to the regional final, although even that’s bittersweet, because without an injury to Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels might have won it all.
Nashville/Memphis: They had some nice years in the NHL & NBA, with the Predators knocking out the Red Wings and the Grizzlies getting some love as an NBA darkhorse before losing to the Clippers. If Tennessee football gets its act together, this market could be fun.
We move across the Gulf of Mexico to a region built around Dallas and Phoenix, and also including Houston and New Orleans. I know I’m pushing my luck bracketing Phoenix and New Orleans together, but at least concede that it makes more geographic sense than a lot of alignments we see in the real world…
Dallas: Big D stands for disappointment. In 2011, the Mavs won a championship, the Rangers nearly did and the Cowboys at least teased with the thought that they might. In 2012, the Mavericks fell hard and out in the first round, while the Rangers and Cowboys both came up small in big moments. The Stars never got going in hockey. We can carve up college loyalties a lot of ways, but the big one is Texas and they’re struggling with mediocrity in both football and basketball right now.
Phoenix: Give some kudos the Coyotes, who rode the brilliant goaltending of Mike Smith to the conference finals. But isn’t it a problem when you’re a pure four-sport town and your only success comes from the one franchise that was in danger of relocating? The Diamondbacks were a disappointment, the Suns said goodbye to Steve Nash and the Cardinals were horrible. The good news? Arizona sports is looking up, winning the College World Series, welcoming Rich Rodriguez to run the football program and seeing a turnaround, and continuing to have a steady contender in college hoops under Sean Miller.
Houston: Things could get better here in 2013, but right now I have hard time seeing past the Texans’ fade from the #1 seed in the AFC and their blowout loss to New England in the playoffs. The Rockets missed the playoffs and the Astros were terrible. Nothing good on the college front. It’s not unreasonable that the Texans could take the next step in 2013, the Rockets could make the playoffs and then make a free agent run at Dwight Howard and Astros fans can enjoy seeing American League teams come through town during the rebuilding. But that’s for next year’s report.
New Orleans: Bountygate killed the Saints’ season, the Hornets were gutted with the trade of Chris Paul and LSU missed out on a major bowl game, while blowing a home game to Alabama and a bowl game to Clemson because of questionable (to be kind) game management decisions. Oh, and the city’s hosting of the Super Bowl will be remembered for a power outage. Folks, I think we found the 2012 Suffering Sports City winner.
If this were an NFL division, the team that won it would do so with a 7-9 record, kind of like the 2010 Seattle Seahawks. I’m leaning Phoenix because of the nice NHL run and the college success from Arizona, although some might argue that because Phoenix is much closer to Arizona State, even that’s giving too much credit.
THE PACIFIC COAST
At long last, we’re coming down the stretch. You already know who wins this region, since San Francisco tops the national market report. Let’s see if there were any other nuggets of success…
Los Angeles: Normally this would get split into a Dodgers & Angels half of town, but it makes no difference, since both teams were high-priced disappointments. Hollywood got to ride the Kings all the way to the Stanley Cup. And remember, the Lakers’ current soap opera doesn’t officially get billed until this report next season—although even so, a second-round loss to Oklahoma City doesn’t go over well with this demanding fan base. USC football was a big disappointment, while UCLA fans can be a little happier, although a Pac-12 Championship Game loss and bowl game disgrace left a sour taste in the mouth. You know, you can’t say a year that has a major championship is a bad year, but from USC football, to the Dodgers/Angels, to the Lakers, there’s just a lot of underachievement. I think the only fans that can really be happy are the minority who can take the Clippers in basketball, UCLA in football and pair them up with the Kings.
Oakland: The A’s joined the Orioles as the big surprises, and won the AL West. The Raiders continue to be a huge drag here, but keep in mind we’ll give allowances here for the assumption that Stanford fans are on this side of the Golden Gate as well, along with San Jose hockey, which at least got into the postseason. Still, on balance a negative year unless you can claim Stanford’s Rose Bowl win as your own.
San Diego: Does seeing Norv Turner and A.J. Smith finally fired allow San Diego to claim a pseudo-championship year? I wouldn’t blame them. But in reality, the Chargers continued to regress, the Padres continued to be uninspiring and if you looked to Los Angeles for some college sports help, you saw a lot of disappointment.
An unresolved issue here is whether I allow San Diego to claim the Kings as their hockey team, in the same way we let Tampa Bay pick up Orlando for the NBA. On the one hand, I don’t allow Milwaukee to do that with the Blackhawks, because I don’t see how you hate a fan base in the NFL, baseball and even a little bit in the NBA and then suddenly stand shoulder-to-shoulder in hockey. On the other hand, other than Padres-Dodgers, there’s no rivalry between San Diego and Los Angeles. This case seems in the middle between the Milwaukee and Tampa Bay precedents and I’m torn on how to handle it. Legal advice will have to be sought.
Seattle: Thanks to Russell Wilson and a great defense, the Seahawks were able to keep life in the city. The long-term here is interesting—the Seahawks aren’t going away, the Mariners just locked up Felix Hernandez to big money and the city looks like they’re going to get the Sacramento Kings to relocate. The cloud that came with the departure of the Sonics and Kevin Durant to Oklahoma City might be slowly lifting.
I’ll include Denver here, since the Rocky Mountain metropolis is stuck out in no-man’s land. Bad years from the Rockies in baseball and the Avalanche in hockey were sandwiched between a little bit of heartbreak early, when the Nuggets lost a Game 7 to the Lakers and a whole lot of heartbreak late, with a crushing double-overtime loss in the playoffs by the Broncos. I have to give negative grades here, especially given how bad the Colorado football team has become.
This brings us to the end of the major markets and the notable minor ones. Apologies to places like Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, Portland and Salt Lake City, but you only have one major pro sports franchise and it wouldn’t be a market evaluation as much as a team evaluation.
THE FULL DISCLOSURE SECTION
Most of us don’t have rooting preferences that move exclusively by city, as I discuss in my Fan-O-Meter article which lays out the rules for how can select your package of favorite teams. My interests are generally Boston pro sports with Wisconsin college sports. The one exception to this is the Washington Redskins. The long explanation why is here.
My highlight of 2012 was unquestionably RG3 and the Redskins’ run to win the NFC East, with the lowlight being the pathetic drama that was the Red Sox. The Celtics’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals was gratifying and while the Bruins’ playoff loss was disappointing, I’m more inclined to see the positives of a #2 seed and Northeast Division title rather than an overtime Game 7 loss in a league where unpredictable postseasons are the order of the day. Wisconsin gave more good than bad—even with the asterisk on the Rose Bowl trip, no one can deny the way they dropped 70 points on Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game. And the basketball team’s Sweet 16 run was fun, with the highlight being an outdoor party with a big screen TV pulled into a yard to watch the second-round win over Vanderbilt on a nice March night. My teams gave me more to cheer than lament in 2012.
For our final summation, we’re start with basic breakdown into good and bad years…
GOOD YEAR: San Francisco, New York Aristocracy, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago South Side, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles
BREAK-EVEN: Detroit, Chicago North Side, Nashville/Memphis, Oakland, Seattle
BAD YEAR: Philadelphia, New York Populist Rebels, Minneapolis, Toronto, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Charlotte, Dallas, Phoenix, New Orleans, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, San Diego, Denver
And of course the champion is San Francisco, with New Orleans seeing the power go out on their sports year, both figuratively and literally. Congratulations to all San Francisco sports fans—but this is a championship you can’t celebrate for too long, as the continual motion of the sports calendar points us to March Madness, the NBA playoffs and the NHL postseason.