When I examined the Boston sports fan in 1990, the Bruins were contenders, the Celtics were chic, the Sox were cursed, and that football team - what was its name again? Let's just say times have changed.
(Globe Staff Photos by Jim Davis and David L. Ryan; Globe Photo by Laurie Swope)
NEW ENGLANDERS LOVE TO CONGRATULATE THEMSELVES. We have the world's best hospitals and institutions of higher learning, the finest fried clams and foliage. We even have the best of the worst when it comes to drivers, political corruption, and weather. This is why we are so sure we are home to the best sports fans in America.
Truth be told, we are the best and worst. We are the most passionate and the most provincial. As fast as we anoint athletic gods, we label them bums. And if you are a professional athlete, Boston is the best place to be a hero and the worst place to let a ground ball pass between your legs. Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, Carl Yastrzemski, and Adam Vinatieri can eat free here for life, but Grady Little will be He Who Must Not Be Named whenever New Englanders gather to celebrate triumph or grouse about ignominious defeat.
It was more than 16 years ago, on tax day, 1990, when I first attempted to itemize the four major fan groups of New England in these pages. What distinguishes a Celtics fan from a Bruins fan, a Sox fan from a Pats fan? Can one be a disciple of both winter teams? Which fans are the most devoted, spend the most money, watch the most games on television, and buy the most jerseys? Who are the lifers and who are the bandwagon jumpers? Based on information gleaned from fans, barkeeps, parking lot owners, team officials, and media members, I outlined rough profiles of the four fan bases. The effort was totally unscientific, rife with stereotypes, and utterly inconclusive.
And this is how it ended, with a quote from Steve Sheppard, 53, a freelance writer and folk singer who was raised in Brockton and - then and now - lives on Nantucket: "If there's one proven thing, it's that the Red Sox are never going to win the World Series. Never, ever, ever. The sooner you realize that, the happier you are."
I'll get back to Sheppard later.
But if there is one certainty this time, it's a seismic shift in fan allegiance. In 1990, Boston was a Red Sox town with lingering loyalty to the great Celtics and (to a lesser degree) the blue-collar Bruins. The Patriots were irrelevant. Today, the Patriots have vaulted over the Celtics and Bruins, and some argue that we are becoming a football town on a par with Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Think of our four teams as The Beatles: The Red Sox and Patriots are John and Paul; the Celtics are George; and the Bruins are Ringo, happy to just share the stage and meet the spillover groupies. Says WBZ-TV sportscaster Bob Lobel, "Obviously, the Red Sox and Patriots are carrying the town, and the other two teams are stepchildren."
Still, Boston remains a baseball town. Other teams have their salad days, but the Red Sox are forever (and I'm not saying this because Daddy Globe is owned by the
But no string of Lombardi trophies can trump the century-long saga of New England's American League baseball franchise. The Red Sox are never out of season, Fenway Park might as well be on the Freedom Trail, and baseball is the sport that endures while our other three games float in and out of fashion.
Argue all you want, Patriot fans, but remember that the crowd chanted "Yankees Suck" at the Pats' City Hall championship rally in 2002. Two years later, a Red Sox World Series victory brought 2 million people downtown, spawned more books than the Kennedy presidency, and inspired some to visit local graveyards to bring the news to those who waited a literal lifetime in vain. The Patriots have fans. The Red Sox have a Nation. The Sox are a regional ball club with a global following. It's not anybody's fault, and it drives the Kraft family crazy, but it's simply impossible to replicate the passion of Red Sox fans.
Something else has changed, too, since 1990. Female fans have come on board like never before (and don't think the teams haven't noticed; hence, the pink Sox caps). Credit the rise of women's athletic programs. By 1990, a generation of young women had grown up with Title IX equality; today, they are the sports-minded mothers of a new generation of athletes and fans.
The good news is that the Sox and Patriots are not just great teams but also cultural touchstones. The bad news is that the once-important Celtics and Bruins have been erased from our consciousness. The disparity is startling, especially for those of us who remember when the Bruins (1970s) and Celtics (1980s) ruled here.
(A parenthetical word now about the New England Revolution: Sorry, but the local professional soccer franchise has failed to earn a seat at our table. The Revs are owned by the Krafts, play their home games at Gillette Stadium, and last year advanced to the championship game of the MLS. But even among the soccer crowd, they fail to inspire the passion that is generated during World Cup competition. Two generations of New England children have grown up playing soccer, and it still has not translated into an adult fan base for the professional game.)
So let us reexamine our four teams and their separate and unequal fan groups, in alphabetical order - which also happens to represent the size of their respective constituencies - bottom to top.
WHAT WE SAID IN 1990
This group is loud and loyal. It's said that the Bruins have only 11,000 fans in all of New England - but each fan attends every game.
Not much has changed. With the exception of the Orr era, the B's are followed by people who love hockey. And there aren't many crossover fans. A Bruins fan grew up going to the rink at 6 a.m. and skating for an hour while mom or dad drank hot chocolate off to the side. He played street hockey in the summer and roller- blade hockey when it exploded in the 1990s. Bruins fans go to high school and college hockey games. They are Hockey Krishnas, a secret society of rugged New Englanders who never get cold.
Let's say the typical Bruins fan lives in Beverly, makes less than $100,000, and sends his kids to public schools. He owns a team jersey with the name of a great ex-Bruin (McKenzie or O'Reilly, perhaps) stitched across the back. He drinks beer and invested in a plasma TV with HD so he can watch the road games in his paneled basement. He has never eaten sushi. He went to a lot of Boston College and Boston University hockey games during the NHL lockout, and he wishes there was more hitting in today's professional game. His wife has big hair and loves to go to the Garden. His sons and daughters play hockey, and no sacrifice is too great in the quest for ice time. Rather than park at the Garden, he finds a spot by Government Center to save 15 bucks. He doesn't listen to as much talk radio these days, because those guys hardly ever talk about the Bruins.
Think we are making this stuff up? Check with the Bruins's own data bank. The team hired Scarborough Research to identify their fan base. According to Scarborough, 39 percent of Bruins season ticket holders go to Dunkin' Donuts at least four times a week. Eighty-five percent are between 18 and 54, and the highest percentage come from the North Shore.
"Take the Tobin Bridge away, and there's no more Bruins fans," says John Iannacci of Lunenburg, a salesman in the apple-growing industry who grew up watching all four teams.
"The people who go to the games have to be into the team, because there's nothing trendy about it," says Gerry Callahan, who co-hosts a sports talk show on WEEI radio. "It's not like you want to go to work the next day and say, `Guess where I was? I was at a Bruins game.' They'll look at you and say, `Did you pay for the tickets?' My theory is that there's no such thing as a Bruins fan who is not a hockey fan. There's a lot of Red Sox fans who are not baseball fans and Patriots fans who are not football fans. Not so with the Bruins fans."
If one thing has changed since 1990, it's that more of the hockey people are female, no doubt the result of ice hockey becoming one of the fastest growing women's sports. Hockey was rarely an option for girls in 1990, but today, rinks are full of girls eyeing a high school hockey career, a college scholarship, and even an Olympic medal.
Don't look for a lot of minority fans. The Bruins crowd is whiter than the ice in front of the Zamboni.
The Bruins haven't won a Stanley Cup in 34 years, haven't made the playoffs in three of their last six seasons, and were an absolute disaster last year. But they still managed to draw 16,212 fans per home game, the fourth-highest average since they moved into the new Garden in 1995. "I'm beginning to think the Bruins just re-grow their fans," says Lobel. "I think it goes back to the nature of the sport itself. Hockey is more hard-core and visceral and attracts those kinds of fans. The Bruins tap into something that's somewhere in our culture."
The Bruins base also tips better than fans of the Celtics. This has not changed since I last touched this subject 16 years ago. Bruins fans make less but spend more. "I think it's unanimous with workers here that Celtic fans are not as polite, certainly not as generous as Bruins fans," says Bob Runco, a concession worker at the new Garden for 11 years. "A Bruins fan comes in and says, `Can I have a hot dog, please? And a soda.' If it comes to $5.25, he gives you six bucks and says `keep the change.' He doesn't have the quarter on him. Celtic fans will say, `I have the quarter.' They always have the quarter."
WHAT WE SAID IN 1990
Celtics fans were the first ones on your block to have answering machines, microwave ovens, VCRs, and CD players. They read the stock tables be- fore anything else. They are the winners in life. They want to be associated with winners.
Twelve men in search of a fan club - say hello to the 2005-2006 Boston Celtics. The most decorated franchise in our midst, the Celtics lost their way after the golden 1980s and limped into this century trying to cultivate a new generation of fans. While a once-great league deteriorated into a lazy game of young, skilled millionaires who put style over substance, the Celtics were plagued by bad hearts, bad luck, and bad management. It's been 20 years since the last banner was raised. Today, fans wait impatiently while general manager Danny Ainge shuttles players in and out of town, making it impossible for folks to grow attached to their team.
The Celtics no longer have a legitimate drawing card. There was always a Cousy, Russell, Havlicek, Cowens, or Bird. No more. Paul Pierce is a bona fide star and one of the greatest scorers in franchise history, but he doesn't put fannies in seats. Nobody pays to watch Pierce put his head down, drive to the basket, and get fouled.
And let's not forget that the old Garden is gone. Its replacement offers air conditioning and all the right creature comforts, but it can't replace the intimacy and pool-hall atmosphere. The Bruins and Celtics both lost some edge when the barn came down.
Challenged to attract fans in this climate, the new (and local) Celtic owners have opted to emphasize something they politely refer to as "game presentation." Translation: bombardment of the senses, including ear-splitting rock and hip-hop music, T-shirts shot into the crowd with toy cannons, carnival acts during timeouts, and grotesque overuse of the Jumbotron scoreboard. Next season, the Celtics will eschew tradition and become the final NBA team to feature a cheerleading squad/dance team for home games. The premise is that the game itself is no longer enough to attract and hold fans. Given the slippage of the appeal of the NBA and the Celtics, this might be an accurate appraisal. It doesn't matter if the Celtics win: Young fans go home happy if they've seen themselves on the big board.
Callahan, for one, is not bothered by this. "I went to a Celtics game last year and took eight 8-year olds, and I was amazed. I went to every game in the '80s, and it was a corporate look-at-me crowd. Now it's just the opposite, and it's a good thing. I think it's especially a good thing for the people who get shut out by the Red Sox and the Patriots."
Bob Rogers, former Sox broadcaster and sports talk-show host, says, "All the small kids in my neighborhood, they really seem to care about the Celtics."
Like the Bruins, the Celts collect data on their season ticket holders. The team's executive vice president, Rich Gotham, says those holders most likely are men 36 to 55 years old with families that have incomes over $100,000 and two or three cars in a garage. Most live in the western suburbs. Celtic fans "lead active lifestyles and are more likely to have interests such as running, jogging, tennis, and golf," Gotham says. "They are more likely to invest in the stock market and real estate. They also travel and donate to charities at a higher rate than the average Massachusetts consumer. They are less likely to hunt, sew, fish, or camp out."
To be sure, season ticket holders are a privileged subspecies. But to the extent it represents the genus fanaticus, Celtics execs can assume they won't lose much gate by scheduling a home game during the first day of hunting season or the Daytona 500.
"There's been a generational shift," says Lobel. "When they changed buildings, everything changed for the Celtics. The new Garden experience is more about the building than the teams right now, and the only thing that's going to change that is four or five years of winning."
Lou Mazzola, 28, a research lab technician from Natick, says: "I'm definitely still a Celtic fan. Not as many people like them now, but I feel a lot more loyal to that team. I like my team. I fell in love with them in 1986. It's an uphill battle now."
From behind his beer tap, Runco says: "Celtic fans are here to eat and eat and eat. They're big on grilled chicken sandwiches and kosher hot dogs. The salad stand has a line from the beginning to the end of the game. The Celtics games also draw a lot better looking women. I don't know what it is, but the girls seem to be attracted to basketball." The Celtics also seem to draw more black fans than any other Boston franchise. Maybe it's the hip-hop entertainment or the obvious fact that three-quarters of the players in the NBA are African-American.
Iannacci has the final observation: "When the building first opened, Celtic fans were in three-piece suits, right out of work. All white. Now it's more mixed. I think the brie-and-cheese crowd hit the road when the losses started to outnumber the wins."
WHAT WE SAID IN 1990
Few New Englanders admit to being Patriots fans. Greater Boston's football fans are out there, but finding them is like trying to find people who admit they voted for Richard Nixon in 1972. We like tradition, and football has none. Not here.
The Patriot fan is easiest to pick out of a lineup. He's between 30 and 50, has a beer gut, drives a Ford Explorer with tiny Patriot flags on the rear-view mirrors, and has a poster of the Coors twins in his den. He has a mustache and loves spareribs and sports bars. He listens to WEEI at least four hours a day and calls the Whiner Line once a week. He played football in high school, but the story he tells is that a knee injury cut short his potential career. He doesn't read a daily paper but never misses Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, or the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. He watches college football on Saturdays and thinks he knows who the Patriots should draft. He's a man's man, but he's also a good husband and dad. Just don't get between him and a replay of that questionable pass interference call.
"By any measure, it's a football town," says WEEI's Callahan. "How can it not be? There's more interest in out-of-town football than there is in out-of-town baseball. The passion for the Red Sox does not make it a baseball town. Look at the TV ratings. A couple of seasons ago, the Patriots played an exhibition game that beat a Sox game which had Pedro Martinez pitching against the Yankees. They have phenomenal TV ratings. And I don't think the guy with the schnapps bottle down his pants and the hat on backwards is the only one following the Patriots now."
One difference, of course, between football and baseball is that the Patriots play only eight home games per regular season. Every game is an event. The fan circles the date on his calendar and makes a 12-hour commitment. You leave four hours before the game to avoid the traffic on Route 1. You bring half of what's in your kitchen, and you camp out in the parking lot with your friends. The game takes three hours, then there is another two to three hours in the parking lot afterward waiting for the traffic to clear. Nobody complains - not even when the temperature is in the single digits.
Dan Paglia, 49, a manager at Russo's produce store in Watertown, says: "I go back to the days when they were playing at Boston University. I loved them so much, when the games were blacked out on local TV, I'd make my wife, Kathy, drive with me to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and we'd watch the game in a bowling alley. The Patriots were just a joke at the time. If you were a Patriot fan, you were ridiculed. It was like being a Republican at the Democratic Convention. You didn't see too many people wearing those old red Patriot jerseys. Now you can walk anywhere in the country and give it right back to them. Now it's the greatest thing on earth."
Christine Kenney, 35, who lives in Quincy and works for the Department of Youth Services, says: "I'm a football gal. I've always loved the Patriots, even when they were losing. I like the games, I like the atmosphere. They're fun. There's more of a crowd now, and they are more engaged. I know it's a Red Sox town, but I still like my Sunday afternoons watching football."
Approximately 60,000 seats at Gillette stadium are occupied by season ticket holders, and the waiting list to join them is 50,000-names long. Unlike their counterparts at other franchises, Patriots officials declined to share data about their fans. But people like Paul Comerford, of Marshfield, have made a few observations. "Everything changed with the coming of Bill Parcells," says Comerford, a bank vice president who has been attending Patriots games since 1976 and now splits one season ticket with a friend. "Early on, there were some eras that were tough for people to swallow.
Parcells brought instant credibility to the franchise, and the fan base now is much more upscale. Gillette Stadium is the place to be. The expectations now are that they are going to win. I see many more women at the games, and most of them are wearing Tom Brady jerseys."
Hefty ticket prices and the distance from Boston make a trip to Gillette difficult, but I bet you'll still see more African-American fans in Foxborough than at Fenway or any Bruins game.
"The thing the Patriots have going for them is that America is a football country," Callahan says. "Everywhere. There's only eight games, so fans expect to make a major financial commitment when they go to a Patriots game. Baseball is not as much of a special occasion. Football is like your wife's birthday. You expect to spend some dough."
And then there's the stadium. While Fenway has improved dramatically and the new Garden offers amenities that hadn't been invented when the original was built in 1928, Gillette Stadium bears no resemblance to Schaeffer Stadium/Sullivan Stadium/Foxboro Stadium - the hideous home of the Patriots from 1971 to 2001. For 30 years, Foxboro Stadium was hands down the worst in the NFL. Today the Patriots play in a sparkling gem that's regarded as the league's best. And their fans are the happiest in New England.
WHAT WE SAID IN 1990
This is without doubt the largest and most powerful fan bloc in New England.
The Red Sox hold New England hearts in a vise. Even the owners of the franchise, now here four years, are a little embarrassed by the unconditional love. Fans come early, stay late, and - if they cannot score tickets - worship Fenway from afar. On May 28, the Sox marked Fenway's 250th consecutive sellout, and no increase in ticket price is too steep. Tours of the empty ballpark ($12. Nothing is free, Bunky) sell out regularly, and a seat atop the Green Monster has become a coup on a par with front row at Springsteen or the Stones. On the day of the 2006 home opener, the state lottery introduced the Red Sox scratch card. It doesn't get any bigger than that.
Until 2002, the Sox commissioned Marketing Information Technologies, of Little Rock, Arkansas, to regularly analyze and profile attendees. Among the 2002 findings: 61 percent of the fans surveyed were male, 95 percent were white, 64 percent came from Massachusetts, and a whopping 78 percent of those identified as heads of households were college graduates.
The Sox don't need these surveys anymore. At this hour, the Red Sox fan is Everyman. And Everywoman. Even non-sports fans consider themselves Red Sox fans. "The new owners have done a great job reaching out to a fan base which has made the fans even more dedicated," says Iannacci.
"This is Red Sox Nation," says Celeste Vezina, 52, treasurer of Maloney Properties in Wellesley, whose father brought her to see Ted Williams play when she was a kid. "It's just more popular than the other sports, especially with the women I work with. I can always ask, `What about the Red Sox?' Everyone has an opinion about them, much more now than before 2004."
"If you're trendy, you transcend the traditional fan base," says Callahan. "And the Red Sox are trendy. You have people who want to be seen at the park. Kids. Women - who aren't necessarily into that sport, but they adopt the team. It's like American Idol. Why do you watch? Because everyone else does."
It's also expensive. Fenway Park features the highest ticket prices in baseball, and demand has allowed the Sox to price themselves out of the range of the common fan. Those $16 field box seats and $6 bleacher seats from 1990 are now going for $95 and $23 respectively, and if you want to sit, the Monster experience will run you at least $90. The cushiest club seats fetch an imposing $275. And that's before you order sesame-seed tuna, pan-seared with roasted tomato and ginger sauce.
You won't see a lot of African-American or Hispanic fans at Fenway. It remains to be seen whether the Dominican crowd that flocked to each Martinez start is sticking around or whether Fenway will be a sea of white faces. But while the ticket holders may be rich and white, the fan base is far more inclusive - and hungry for any and all information about the Red Sox. The Spanish Beisbol Network has broadcast every Sox game since 2001, and countless words spill onto the pages of fan sites, blogs, and books - including more than 25 since the 2004 World Series. Last year, the Sox invited Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to throw out the first pitch. Now that's inclusion.
From Havana to Haverhill, from St. Petersburg to St. Peter's Square, you will see Red Sox caps in the crowd. And if you go to a Sox game in Tampa, Baltimore, or Oakland, you will find yourself surrounded by thousands of like-minded road trippers whose cheers can drown out the home team's fans to a demoralizing degree. About the only place that truly feels like a road game is Yankee Stadium.
"It's totally unique," says Lobel. "It's got to be pure love. You watch people in the spring training workouts in Florida, and they come out in the hot sun to watch people play catch. We're still a baseball town. And they never die off. They just keep growing."
So back to Steve Sheppard, the Brockton-raised folk singer who declared in 1990 that the Sox would "never, ever, ever" win the World Series. "Red Sox fans have gotten their reward," he says now. "If you're born in New England, you're really born into it. Being a Red Sox fan is some kind of odd birthright, and you are a Red Sox fan for life. No matter how far you travel or how distant you may be from the team, if you pass by a TV set and see the Sox are playing, you are going to pause to see what the count is and what the score is."
A much safer prediction.
Dan Shaughnessy has been a Globe sportswriter for 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com.