Did you happen to see the Derek Anderson post-game interview blowup last week? In case you missed it, Anderson was questioned by a reporter about his mental toughness and why he was laughing on the sidelines while he team was getting beat up on the field. Anderson vehemently rejected accusation that he was “having fun on the sidelines,” even though video footage clearly showed him sharing a laugh with a teammate. For some fans, it was akin to inappropriate laughing at a funeral.
If you missed the Derek Anderson story from last week, you had to have seen the LeBron James return to Cleveland, where yet again fans were left puzzled watching James hug and joke around with his former Cavalier teammates (which only became more bizarre as the Heat mounted a 30 point lead on the Cavs). Similar to the Anderson story, fans expected one thing but saw the exact opposite. Rather than shun the self proclaimed “King,” Cavalier players warmed up to him – at times even appearing to be joking with him. Anderson Varejao hugged LeBron moments before tipoff, and Cavs players were caught on camera throughout the game laughing and smiling with James. Needless to say, fans wondered about how the Cavs could have a positive sports performance on the court while laughing and joking around with James.
Both the Derek Anderson and LeBron James stories prompt us to think about one really big question:
Should losing and laughing ever go together?
Fans want to believe that games are fueled by hatred and animosity between players, which largely explains why certain cities have such heated rivalries between one another. Fans want to believe their teams will do anything to win, and that the other team is the enemy. The reality, however, may be far different than fans would ever want to imagine.
Professional athletes are part of the same fraternity and professional players union, and many are actually good friends. In fact, some athletes have even played together or against one another well before the pros, often through high school, college, or premier club teams. Fans often forget about this, instead believing that athletes on opposing teams actually hate one another — which may be why so many fans are bothered by these recent stories.
Athletes face a real sports psychology conundrum when it comes to pleasing fans. Much like “pro” wrestling, athletes sometimes have to fake their disdain toward each other in order to generate fan interest – and revenue for the league. When fans believe that athletes are only competing recreationally amongst buddies, the illusion of hatred evaporates – and so does fan interest and support.
The business model of professional sports depends heavily on fans spending money on games and apparel. When fans believe athletes compete as if they don’t like one another, fan interest level increases – and so does fan spending. On the other hand, when fans believe athletes are more interested in having fun with one another than they are winning, fan support can dwindle in a hurry, dramatically impacting the bottom line (just ask Cleveland about this after last week’s odd interactions between current Cavalier players and LeBron James).
Of course, when teams lose money, leagues are hit as well, and the decrease in fan support (and revenue) eventually trickles down to the players as evidenced by lower salary caps and revenue sharing. All of this goes back to how athletes are perceived by fans. It is for this reason that athletes today may need to be more covert in their friendly relationships with one another, at least during game days.