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Essay: Of Bryce Harper and Baseball Fans

The Washington reaction to Harper’s return makes perfect sense, even though the reason is perfectly ignored.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

This is less about news than it is about personal observation. The Bryce Harper return to Washington story has been pretty big and all over MLB news this week. A common thread among the Harper supporters has been a myriad of strung together words that all sum up to the same thing: “if somebody offered you more money to work elsewhere, you wouldn’t turn it down, either!”. Now, of course that is totally true. But I think it fails to address an important point, one that underlines the motives of those fans left behind.

Professional baseball is professional because it is presented as entertainment, from which all revenues are derived via the engagement between the factors and principals of a sport and the fans of that sport. That is totally unlike your job and mine. I work hard at my job, and I have to be highly skilled and deliver quality execution. I need to master my job, and compete to hold onto it at the highest levels. The only part of those attributes which is unlike the careers of pro athletes is the degree of distillation. Millions of IT people versus thousands of pro ballplayers. But beyond that, there is nothing about my work process that also involves engaging some third party so that both me AND my customers can procure our revenue.

This is an incredibly important distinction, one that drives all sorts of dialog about franchise relocation, league expansion, player movement, public investment on behalf of franchise owners, and that whole ‘civic trust’ thing. Unlike you and me, an important part of the role of any professional athlete is that they are somehow connected to the fans of the sport, who are that third party factor. That engagement - the entertainment level - is what prompts fans to part with money on behalf of the entire sport, and that money pays all bills. Sports leagues AND the participants of any such league require a huge level of engagement from some fan base in order to survive. If the league AND the players fail to engage a fan base, they will fail to reap sufficient money and they will fold. See AAF, 2019.

Thus, teams AND players exist by delivering their content in public as entertainment, and creating a connection with a fan base in order to draw revenue from those fans. Fans invest emotionally well before they invest financially. For their side, fans can be committed 100% emotionally even if they cannot commit 100% financially. (Most fans choose to vest their emotional interest in only one team of any sport, but that doesn’t mean that they give all of their income to that team.) As with any time humans engage emotionally, fans do so with some level of trust that their engagement will not be abused. And fans make that connection not just with the symbolic franchise, but with the personalities of that franchise: owners, broadcasters, known administrators, coaches, and, yes, athletes.

So here we are back to athletes. When any athlete changes teams it might be because they are leaving behind 10% or 20% or 50% less money, but they are also leaving behind 100% of the non-monetary engagement the fans had built with them. That’s why Nationals fans mock the money factor behind Harper’s decision (“100% of my emotional commitment is greater than 20% of your money”). It’s why sports fans anywhere are upset at the loss of some player or team to some other place. If the player retired or the franchise closed doors, it’s not such a big deal. But taking the production elsewhere so that the ‘not us’ tribe can benefit and the ‘not us’ tribe can enjoy that engagement reveals that the player/franchise did not value that previous dependency as much as the fans did (or still do), and it suggests that there is little reason to justify any faith that said player/franchise will value any future dependency, either (which opens the door to derision).

This is the suckiest part of being a fan. At the end of the day the sporting enterprise values us almost exclusively for our money, while we care about the sporting enterprise because of the personal level of engagement derived out of the entertainment value. Owners chase the money, and players chase the money, and nobody chases the emotional connection that comes from engaging the enterprise as highly as do we the fans.

So forgive the Nationals fans for feeling burned. Ignore the pre-series posturing by Harper in his thank yous to the Nationals fan base, for the same reason you can ignore all those Harper Instagrams about how much he adores Philadelphia and the Phillies fans. Bryce Harper is a competitor, a great competitor, and competition is where his heart lies. Right there with his bat flip towards the Nationals dugout. Harper has earned the right to pursue all the compensation he can gain from his highly unique skills and even more unique situation and opportunity. But Nationals fans have earned the right to feel abused based on their years of attention, commitment, support and adoration. It ain’t much, and only Nats fan cares. That’s why it is the suckiest to be a fan.