Our correspondent Jordi Scrubbings is back with his latest take on the Raysiverse…

Like Neil Armstrong when he set foot on the Moon and looked at the Earth, there is a tendency to see things different the farther you are away. You see habits you never noticed in friends, family, and as long as you still have the means of observation, the society you came from. From afar here in Afghanistan, my view on the US and the Tampa Bay area has been interesting.

As we enter the home stretch of election season and of baseball season, the US seems like a truly divided culture. The people over there (over there from my perspective, that is) have seemingly dug in and picked their side. Those who object are wrong, and there is no middle ground.

Maybe it has always been like this, but American politics has become very much like sports. Maybe we have always thought in regards to winners and losers. Just like in sports, everyone is divided.

A few weeks ago, I engaged in a brief twitter conversation with Tampa Bay Times writer Michael Kruse in regards to fandom in Florida. Kruse’s claim was that Floridians are not good citizens and that their lack of citizenry is one of the reasons people don’t go out to support the Rays. Kruse bases this idea on the premise that while many people come to Florida to live, they don’t come to join communities and become active Floridians in their local community whether through sports or anything else. The Floridians who move here from all over the country or even world bring with them their own ideologies and interests and keep those ideologies during their time here, staying divided and never modifying their interests for their current environment.

On one hand, why should they? In these days of overarching, easily accessible media, where I am typing about a team in Tampa Bay from 8,000 miles away and people can follow their former hometeam from a new home just as they would from their old home, it’s easy to not have to care about what happens locally. The internet makes it easy to stay in touch with the people you left behind as if you are still next door.

I’m an example of this right now. I stay in touch with friends and family while living on an Afghanistan base I don’t often leave from. When our Internet connection is up, I email, Facebook, Tweet, and blog as if I was still in town. More importantly for Kruse’s theory, I also stay up on my Tampa Bay and Rays news. I brought my affiliations and fandoms with me and I keep rooting for the hometeam even though they are nowhere close to my current “home”.

But like a snowbird who only comes to Florida for the winter, I am not someone who matters in the grand scale of Afghanistan. Here there is a big effort to bring villages, tribes, and people into the fold of an overarching national government. Many of these villages are populated by tribes who have no relationship with their immediate neighbors, no less a government center hundreds of miles away. Many times the chiefs and leaders of these tribes see no benefit in joining the national government or even a more local overarching district or provincial government. These tribes are sometimes even against the national government and give support to the Taliban and other anti-government organizations.

Sound familiar? In a way, the idea of affiliation and winning over hearts and minds is the same in sports as it in government. People have to buy what you are selling. If they don’t, they don’t show up, in the seats or at the ballot.

With this concept in mind, something amazing happened in Afghanistan this year during the Summer Olympics. Afghans from across Afghanistan and all over the world united over a victory. A victory that won Afghan competitor Rohollah Nikpai his second bronze medal in tae kwon do as well as won Afghanistan it’s second ever medal.

According to reports, for one day, Rohollah Nikpai unified Afghanistan.

Although it would be foolish to think one bronze medal could turn around a country that has known little but division and strife for the last 30 years, Nikpai’s win does show that sports provides some possibility for social unification. US hockey’s win over the USSR in 1980 may be our best example. Our national morale was low in the late 70s and perhaps the win aided our national turnaround in the 1980s. Beating the Russians got people talking about America and chanting “U.S.A” and meaning it. It gave them something to be proud of.

There is no doubt most people like to be on the winning side. They like winners. People rally around winners. Winners tend to boost public confidence. And most people do want to fit in, but unfortunately our current state of Florida is so divided it is socially acceptable not to root for the Rays.

So what if the Rays win it all this year and the year after and the year after? Would they slowly build an overarching culture of support? What is the point in which neighbors and local peers start to pressure newcomers to leaving behind their past affiliations and cheering for the local squad? How many wins would it take to create a Central Florida-wide rabid fan base? How many wins until “the bandwagon fans” show up in mass for every game? How long until the Rays become part of our culture?

My worry is that we as Americans might be so numb to winning and athletic victories that no story, no cast of characters, or no heroes can win over a city anymore. Especially one as diverse as the Tampa Bay area. We might rally around our national athletes in the Olympics, or a small town might rally around their local high school football team, but cities might be currently spoken for to an extent.

Another important point in the case of Rohullah Nikpai is that the media helped point people in the direction of rooting. Due to the normally dire situation in Afghanistan, the media painted an overwhelming picture of support. There were no dissenting views on Nikpai’s run for a medal. They didn’t interview a farmer without access to the news or worse yet, a Taliban person who might have been anti-Nikpai. The media was pro-Nikpai. Having the media shape support in the direction your want is imperative.

Of course, most media has to take an unpartial view. But that’s where public relations and other offices come in. They are there to counter bad messages with good – see where the source of dissention is and try to sway it. I wonder if there is anyone in the Rays front office who analyzes what the media says about the Rays, especially in regards to national media. In my estimation, most national media posits positive comments on the players, management, and front office, but typically negative comments about everything else. Just as a college team saturates media outlets with Heisman campaign propaganda, maybe the Rays or even a highly dedicated group of Rays supporters need to send the national media members pictures of sell-outs, stories of fans enjoying the games, and things that might move reporters out of their negative mindset.

No matter how much a team wins or who wins, however, there will always be a segment of the population too new or too engrained in their ways to be swayed. Using the Nikpai example again, although I was rooting for him in Tae Kwon Do events, if Afghanistan was playing against the US in basketball or swimming or something Americans care about, I, as a new “resident” would have probably kept my US affiliations and rooted against Afghanistan.

Winning is just part of the social engineering solution to win hearts and minds and make fans. It takes a combined effort of victories, marketing, advertizing, good media relations, and social peer pressure to turn people into fans. Some may never convert, but hopefully in a generation or two, the seeds will be planted for positive change, and new habits, either in government or in sports fandom, will take hold.

Imagine if one day, people put aside the bickering and their foreign affiliations. Imagine if one day, people of Central Florida all supported one team. Imagine if they were unified in their support of the Rays. It’s easy if you try.

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5 Comments

  1. don says:

    You will hear Americans talk bad about sports teams or paid professional athletes, but you will Never Hear them speak bad about their Olympic peformers, If they come in last so be it but they are from America...so your Afigan Olympic Athlete trumping up National spirit and Unifinging AFigan not so good...
    Much like Afaganistan tribes who don't like each other and fight, thats hard to do in America,so we take sides with our Athletic teams/heros to change teams (tribes) is anti-American, or anti- Ohioan or antian Floridian..you just don't do very easily....
    The Rays will get plenty of support the day Marketing efforts are successfully directed at this goal...and the Selling of the Rays becomes goal #1....until then they get what they deserve!

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  2. rayalan says:

    Well written and spot on. Politics may in the end up binge the downfall of this socoety. Its all about me and my, not what is best for the country as a whole.

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  3. Dave L says:

    American professional team sports is the only businesses in the nation in which the consumer is blamed for the supposed 'failure' of the product.

    Its not anyones duty to watch local team sports, they do it because they either enjoy the experience or they dont. They arent bad citizens no more than they are bad citizens for not drinking Coke or not going to the beach.

    If some marketing genius analyzed the Rays Q rating nationwide it would be miniscule compared to the franchises that have been around for decades and are embedded in the culture and the psyche of their region.

    And if you put in all the data about fan base, success of the franchise, historical data, corporate support and competition from other activities etc. etc, you would find that we are just where we should be attendance wise.

    You could increase the Rays marketing budget by 500% and it aint going to bump the needle on a Rays-A's series Mon-Tues-Wed June 2015.

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  4. Don says:

    Here lets make it easy..if you owned a company that Made excellent bikes, or an excellent car or the best hamburgers in town but didn't sell any...where would look for help in selling your product.....exactly!
    Baseball or sports in general are NO different...

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  5. Beazy says:

    Great article. Although it's hard to wonder why the Tampa Bay area of 4-1/2 million, doesn't consistently support the Rays, that has been the best team in the span of the last 5 years (?). Like the article says, I to would partially blame the local media. They seem to only exploit as much about the Rays as the feel like they have to, but I think if the same team played in Boston or Cleveland or etc., the media would be in heaven. Being, I feel like, the biggest Rays fan in Ocala, I feel like the only fan, there and in Citrus co. as well. But, on the other hand, it's like the conversation I had with this dude the other month. He only overly supported Florida Gators sports, and I was saying besides the Dolphins and Bucs, it wasn't like how I grew up in Pittsburgh, where everyone was a fan, because there families were fans, and the generation before that, and so on, so we grew up fans, but here, before 1993, the Atlanta Braves were the only baseball team in the southeast, and before the 80's, there was no NBA or NHL, and most people in other parts of Fla. didn't get the Bucs or Dolphins games. But, I think the children of today will grow to be fans of the Jags, Magic, Rays, Lightning, etc., and there kids's kids, and so on, which should translate into more a community of supportive local fans. Unfortunately for now, the Rays are the cool team that plays in a tent surrounded by water in a community of mostly retirees and (others), but 10-20-30 years from now, when most of us few year old fans that are 30, are 70 years old, we'll think back on our Rays, like most historic teams fans that think back on the years of there old stadiums, when hall of famers were in there prime, and when you used to be able to go to the game for only $10, as the kids that you see today at games grow-up, and take there kids to the new Trop in Tampa, as the article of today will change in time...

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